In Defense of Plastic Bags

by Elliot Temple

I recently had a confusing experience. At the checkout at CVS, I was asked if I wanted to buy any bags. “No,” I said. I didn’t understand why they were trying to sell me bags. It turns out they meant grocery bags. Now they have paper bags for 10¢ instead of plastic bags for free.

They aren’t the only ones. I went to Trader Joe’s and they now charge 10¢ for the same paper bags they used to give away for free. This was starting to look like a weird pattern. Had a ship carrying 5 billion plastic bags from China crashed and caused a shortage?

What stood out the most to me was the wasted time. I saw checkout people asking everyone ahead of me in line how many bags they wanted. They were slowing down the whole line.

At Trader Joe’s, the checkout person actually had to cancel my checkout, after my credit card was already processed, to add a bag fee. She tried to guess how many bags I needed, without asking, in order to save time. But she got it wrong. Everyone behind me had to wait.

After seeing changes at three stores, I investigated. Alameda county now has a plastic bag ban.

So no, there wasn’t a shortage of plastic bags. No, the price didn’t go up. No, stores didn’t change their policy voluntarily. Environmentalist groups lobbied for a ban, and my local government is making the store experience worse for everyone.

Not only does the law ban plastic bags, it also outlaws giving away paper bags for free. The 10¢ charge is a price control to hassle people into bringing their own bags to the store every visit.

Why would anyone want to ban plastic bags? They are light, clean, strong, cheap and useful. Grocery stores chose them for a reason: because plastic bags work great. Anti-plastic-bag arguments do not deny any of these benefits, nor do they seem to care about the inconveniences of banning plastic bags. Instead they say:

It’s certainly better for the environment if we use fewer plastic bags, especially the thin ones favored by grocery stores. They are not biodegradable and less than 5 percent are recycled, the state estimates. […]

Many bags litter streets, clog storm drains or are blown into trees. They foul beaches and get into streams, rivers and the ocean, where animals are harmed by ingesting them.

Any ban, however, should not overly burden consumers or small businesses.

This argument admits that plastic bags do have value, but the speaker wants to give up that value anyway. Supposedly the sacrifice is only small and we get something valuable in return. But do we?

What we supposedly gain is saving our environment. How? Anti-plastic-bag rhetoric says plastic bags are bad because they are used once instead of reused, consume our limited oil supplies, are littered, harm animals, aren’t recycled, and don’t biodegrade. Let’s examine each of these arguments.

Plastic bags benefit consumers and stores whether they are reused or not. It’s better if oil is used for human benefit than if it sits in the ground. So the argument that bags are bad if not reused is misconceived. Further, these claims are false:

Studies have shown that 80-90% of the population reuse plastic grocery bags at least once. As trash bin liners, for picking up after pets, as lunch sacks, holding wet laundry, etc.

American plastic bags are made from natural gas, NOT oil.

It’s important to recognize that the anti-plastic-bag arguments are not based on facts. Respect for facts is one of the values which allows for creating new technologies that work, industrial progress, and a society where people make decisions and resolve disagreements peacefully.

If you’re interested, read more myths and facts. You can learn about litter, “plastic bags are responsible for less than 1% of all litter,” and learn that plastic bags harming marine animals is based on a misquotation, not science.

I think litter is an interesting issue. I wondered, “How can these bags be littered?” No one is going to toss them on the street while they are carrying groceries. So why are grocery stores to blame? If there is a legitimate concern, such as the wind blowing bags out of garbage dumps, then that should be addressed in a reasonable and relevant way, such as a change in how garbage dumps handle bags.

Recycling is a method of manufacturing. Which methods of manufacturing are used should be determined by the free market, not the government. The market takes into account complex information like what materials are available at what price, how that will change in the foreseeable future, and how much the goods to be manufactured are desired by consumers and businesses. This is the best way of making decisions such as what types of manufacturing plants to build, how many and where.

There is a misperception that people should put more of their time and effort into gathering their used plastic bags and taking them to be recycled. If building more recycling factories to manufacture more things from used plastic bags was profitable, people could be paid enough that they would gladly do it voluntarily. If bag recycling cannot create enough value to compensate people for their time and effort, and has to demand unpaid work, then it is a bad manufacturing project.

How is building and running inefficient bag recycling factories supposed to be good for our environment? And why is the government involved in taking sides between different manufacturers?

Should our bags be biodegradable? That means they are more similar to dirt and better at degrading (falling apart). Even some anti-plastic-bag groups don’t favor biodegradable bags.

Another issue with the plastic bag ban is health:

I want to stress the importance of buying WASHABLE bags and recommend that you wash them in hot water very frequently. … I won’t be specific, but I had a family member that worked In grocery and shared horror stories of the filth and unsanitary reusable bags handed to them by customers. One word: maggots.

Unsanitary and disgusting! Note that we’re not just talking about convenience or aesthetics. This has deadly consequences: banning plastic bags in the entire U.S. would kill 1,380 people per year. This link discusses research showing “that the San Francisco ban results in a 46 percent increase in deaths from foodborne illnesses”. Lives are at stake. Literally.

Why are some people willing to continue promoting and expanding policies that kill? Why are they willing to ignore facts about everything from plastic bag reuse to food poisoning?

Because they have been taught that it’s immoral for human beings to transform nature into “unnatural” things like “non-biodegradable plastic bags”—and so they “know” that they are doing the right thing, they don’t need to look at facts.

I believe that it’s moral for human beings to use our minds to create new things like plastic bags, which promote human life, health, comfort, convenience, efficiency, wealth and productivity. Let’s eliminate the irrational and deadly ban on plastic bags.

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