Don't ban, tax plastic bags

Workers shovel sand into large plastic bags during beach cleanup operations in the Gulf in June, 2010.
Workers shovel sand into large plastic bags during beach cleanup operations in the Gulf in June, 2010. MCT

At issue | April 14 commentary by Judith Humble, "For planet's sake, Lexington should tax plastic bags"

The environmentalist mantra used to be the three Rs: "reduce, reuse, recycle." When it comes to plastic bags, however, the only R legislators and activists seem interested in doing is "reducing consumer choice." Oh, and maybe an F, for "Forcing consumers to use fabric-like reusable bags."

The irony in forcing customers to purchase reusable fabric bags is that it's debatable whether they are any better for the environment. Reusable bags have a larger carbon footprint, taking much more energy to produce than recyclable plastic bags.

A recent study from the British Environmental Agency shows a reusable polypropylene bag has to be used at least 11 times to make up for the difference of a single plastic bag used one time. If 40 percent of plastic bags are reused in some way — say, as a trash-can liner or to clean up after a dog — that number climbs to 14 reuses. If 100 percent of disposable bags are actually reused, that number climbs to 26 reuses of reusable bags.

For cotton bags, the number of reuses required to make up the carbon footprint is shockingly high: 131 reuses if regular plastic bags are never reused; 173 reuses if just 40 percent of regular bags are reused once; and a jaw-dropping 327 reuses if 100 percent are reused.

It's possible that you'll reuse a bag 327 times before the handles come off or a hole wears through the bottom, but it's not terribly likely.

Though well-intentioned, advocates of banning plastic bags or taxing them to reduce usage need to understand intentions aren't everything. Leaving aside philosophical arguments against the government telling us how we should carry our food home, the facts of life simply disagree with bag-banners.

Research demonstrates that consumers already reuse plastic bags at an impressive rate: 93 percent of those surveyed by the Opinion Research Corporation say they do. This is probably why 67 percent of those polled say they oppose government taxing bag usage. With almost 19 out of 20 respondents saying they reuse plastic bags, isn't it time we reconsidered what we call a reusable bag?

This reusability also helps us understand why plastic bag usage tends to increase in the wake of plastic bag bans and taxes — Ireland, for instance, saw a net increase in purchased plastic bags of 400 percent after instituting a tax. It sounds counterintuitive until you remember that 93 percent figure. Deprived of disposable plastic bags that can serve multiple purposes, consumers purchased replacements.

Increased bag usage isn't the only unintended consequence of bans. Research from The Tampa Tribune and the Center for Consumer Freedom has shown that "reusable" bags often have excessive levels of lead. And the University of Arizona has shown that these reusable bags can contain dangerous bacteria like E. coli and coliform as a result of the failure of consumers to wash them.

If you want to do something for the environment, start a carpool at work or, even better, take public transit for a year. One of the last things you should be worrying about is your plastic bag usage. You probably produce a higher carbon footprint in one cross-country flight than you do in a lifetime of using plastic bags (assuming you use fewer than 30,000 bags in the course of your life's journey).

Plastic bags account for roughly one half of one percent of all garbage. Let's focus on the real problems we're facing instead of scapegoating a useful product and reducing consumer choice in the bargain.

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