Do We Really Need Plastic Bag Bans?


“” width=”300″ height=”300″ />A few years ago while I was on a trip to Washington D.C., I stopped to purchase some bottled water

at a local drug store. As I scanned and bagged my purchases at the automated self check-out, the display screen asked me how many bags I was using. I selected “2” and noticed that 10 cents had been added to my purchase total – a result of the newly implemented D.C. “bag tax.” Granted, 10 cents is not that much to pay, but it is was the principle of the thing. I left the store and walked back to my hotel in DuPont Circle balancing five bottles of water in my arms.

Being that I don't normally carry reusable bags in my luggage when I travel (who does?), I responded in an awkward way by juggling several bottles in my arms. But shoppers and store owners alike respond in other ways to bag taxes and bag bans. In a new NCPA study authored by Baruch Feigenbaum and me,

we found adverse economic effects associated with the Los Angeles County plastic bag ban that took effect in unincorporated areas of the county for most grocery, drug and convenience stores. Incorporated areas did not fall under the plastic bag ban. Most of the bag ban a

reas are in the northern part of the county, but there are several unincorporated areas sprinkled throughout the county as well. So the question is, will shoppers who live in bag ban (unincorporated) areas cross over into incorporated areas to shop if stores are within reasonable proximity? Based on our survey of store managers:

  • Four out of 5 stores that fell within the bag ban area reported a loss in sales after the ban took effect, averaging 5.7 percent.
  • At the same time, 3 out of 5 stores in incorporated areas that were not affected by the ban reported a dramatic increase in sales, averaging 9 percent.
  • Employment at bag ban stores fell 10 percent after the bag ban, despite the fact that the unemployment rate countywide has fallen dramatically over the past two years.
  • Employment in incorporated areas that did not have a bag ban increased slightly by more than 2 percent following the ban in unincorporated areas.

Finally, a rather interesting observation: One out of 5 stores in the bag ban area reported an increase in missing shopping carts and shopping baskets after the bag ban took place.

The environmental benefits of plastic bag bans are dubious. Most of the bans imposed by cities and counties rely on inflated numbers and false claims about how much plastic bags contribute to landfill waste (answer: very very little). Furthermore, the reusable bags that are being touted now have been shown to be worse for the environment in terms of life cycle assessment.

But the potential economic effects and the hardship imposed on stores and shoppers are all but ignored by ban proponents. Bottom line: Shoppers like to have choices, and store owners will respond accordingly when those choices hurt their bottom line.


Comments (8)

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  1. Buster says:

    I reuse plastic shopping bags for a variety of purposes. I have small trash receptacles around the house, which I line with plastic bags. Once full, I tie them closed before throwing them in a bigger garbage bag. If I have a pile of old newspapers or messy food scraps, cans or bottles to throw out, I usually collect them in plastic bags before depositing them in the garbage bag. If a dog rips open my garbage on trash day, there’s a much smaller chance of scattering garbage in my alley that I have to clean up.

    Plastic bags are good for dog walking or picking up doggie poop in the yard before the lawn moving service comes. I often keep a plastic bag in my car for trash. When I travel I usually acquire a plastic bag (while shopping for bottled water) that I use for dirty clothes.

    I don’t believe I’m somehow unique in my repurposing of plastic bags. This suggests bag bans will merely cause many people to replace the free bags from the grocery store with ones they must purchase at the store.

  2. Kyle says:

    Hopefully legislators will take a look at this and consider the economic consequences for small business owners. Doubtful though, environmentalists aren’t the biggest fan of facts. Remember when Gore took public transportation to accept his Nobel Prize, but his luggage still traveled by Limo?

  3. William says:

    This study shows that plastic bag bans are bad news. But the goal of cutting emissions and litter is one that should be pursued.

    Walmart offers a place to recycle plastic bags, and recycling has proven to be a profitable business. If we can encourage consumers to recycle more instead of limiting their options we might accomplish something substantial.

  4. Joe Barnett says:

    Environmental initiatives like this seem to end up consuming more energy and harming the environment more than the practices they seek to replace. Often, environmental initiatives increase consumer expenditures — $1 tote bags versus free plastic; $5-$7 lightbulbs versus 99 cent lightbulbs, etc. Thus the distributional effects of environmental initiatives often make the poor worse off, while those who can afford environmental amenities feel better about themselves. The higher costs to consumers often outweighs any savings in resource consumption.

  5. J. McCain says:

    This is another law that you want to ‘follow the money’ to see why it was passed. The biggest financial backers of the bag bans in California have been the grocery stores and their employee unions. That’s because the store keeps the 10 cents for each paper bag sold, so the store now can charge the customer for an item that used to give away for free. And the employees unions have another source of revenue at the store to request for pay hikes or insurance being paid. Also, there has yet to be a single fine for violating these ordinances in any of L.A. County, so no one is really watching the stores, and in fact, many are now ‘selling’ a thicker plastic bag for 10 cents that is thick enough to be called a reusable bag, so a customer now simply pays 10 cents a bag for what they used to get for free. It will reduce the number of plastic and paper bags used by customers, which is a good thing to reduce litter, but the plastic bag won’t be leaving us, you’ll just have to pay for them now….

  6. Otis says:

    News came out in the last week that the Dallas City Council may consider a plastic bag ban.

  7. Roget says:

    Austin had to manipulate the truth to get it pushed through. Is the NCPA going to participate in the Dallas deliberation?

  8. Gail says:

    I live in unincorporated area and we have two stores. One is a 99 plus that has followed the plastic bag ordinance. I take my own bags there. They are material bags.
    The market here was not following the ordinance until today when I went there. I will have to take many a few more bags when I shop in a super market.
    I do not understand the ordinance but to say they are just sucking the 10 cents from everyone to make more money for the state.
    The company that makes the plastic bags will go out of business and then many people will be unenployed, unless they make a different bag. The bag situation to me is ridiculous.