New study reveals unintended consequences of plastic bag restrictions

Environmental activists have been lobbying for years to prohibit grocery stores and other retailors from providing single-use plastic bags to customers. Such regulations, they argue, combat the pervasive problem of plastic waste in the natural environment. These efforts have been, by and large, successful. According to the National Conference of State Legislatures, 10 states, plus numerous cities and localities, have already implemented de facto bans on single-use plastic bags, with many others requiring bag fees.

What the environmentalists didn’t expect was a growing number of unintended consequences brought about by these poorly thought out restrictions. A new study by researchers at the University of Georgia raises important questions about the effectiveness of plastic bag bans and fees.

With their findings first published in the journal Environmental and Resource Economics, university researchers investigated the effects of laws restricting carryout grocery bags (CGB) on consumer habits. Specifically, they examined how bag bans and bag fees impacted the sale of “alternative plastic bag products.” They found that CGB regulations of either kind resulted in significantly higher alternative plastic trash bag sales, calling into question whether they actually reduce the amount of plastic waste consumers produce. 

Using retail scanner data, the researchers found that CGB regulations led to an average increase in purchased plastics of “127 pounds per store per month, ranging from 30 to 135 (37-224) pounds for 4-gallon (8-gallon) trash bags.” In addition, sales of four-gallon bags jumped from 55% to 75%, and sales of eight-gallon trash bags jumped from 87% to 110%. The researchers concluded that these policies unintentionally created “spillover effects” on other unregulated waste. 

The study’s findings reveal that not only are plastic bag regulations inconvenient for consumers, but they may also fail to succeed in their primary mission: to reduce plastic waste. 

The purchase of other plastics by consumers is far from the only issue with plastic bag restrictions. Shoppers frequently use paper bags and cloth tote bags as substitutes for plastics, with lawmakers routinely championing them as environmentally superior to single-use plastic bags. Yet producing these alternative products typically requires more energy, and it turns out they cause more harm to the environment than single-use plastic bags. 

A 2011 study by the Northern Ireland Assembly found that on average, paper bags require nearly four times as much energy to manufacture and generate “70% more air and 50 times more water pollutants” than plastic bags. Cotton tote bags need to be reused 131 times in order to emit less greenhouse gases than plastic bags – and many shoppers own several, not just one. Moreover, cotton totes have also been found to harbor harmful bacteria, because consumers rarely think to wash them. 

Restrictions on single-use plastic bags also nickel and dime consumers by either charging them for a bag or removing the products entirely from the market entirely, under the false assumption that they’ll only be used once. On the contrary, many people like plastic bags because they’re a unique product that can be used for almost anything. Uses include everything from school lunches and packing material to trash can liners and pet waste.

Even a small plastic bag tax can pose a danger to consumer freedom. The initial regulation opens the door to future tax increases by government leaders, who may either desire greater tax revenue or want to further tax the product to discourage its use. 

Restricting single-use plastic bags carries countless other unintended consequences, and many examples are only now coming to light. The University of Georgia study is just one of the latest.

Lawmakers should think carefully before implementing new, draconian rules regulating single-use plastic bags. These products are popular with consumers for a reason and are not responsible for the overwhelmingly amount of trash that ends up in our landfills and oceans. Instead, lawmakers should consider lifting existing restrictions on plastic bags and focus their energy on encouraging Americans to adopt best practices like recycling. Actions such as these will go a long way toward protecting consumer freedom and the natural environment. 

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