5 questions (and answers) about plastic bag laws

Dec 26, 2011 by James Koshiba | Story Popularity: 7

Plastic bags are getting fresh attention as the new year approaches. Last Thursday, the Hawaii County Council passed a bill banning plastic checkout bags, as reported by the Hawaii Trubune Herald. Civil Beat reports that the Honolulu City Council will likely consider a plastic bag ban in February or March of 2012. With the legislative session around the corner, we can expect new bills, like last year's proposed statewide bag fee, to be revived at the State Capitol.

I was curious about some of the questions about a bag ban or fee, so I took a stab at answering them. This is by no means a comprehensive treatment of bag bill proposals. For that, a good starting place is the testimony for and against last year's bag fee bill SB1363. Here's brief answers to a handful of questions:

Will a bag fee or ban hurt businesses and consumers?

This is an important question at a time when so many of us are struggling. Encouraging the use of reusable bags over paper bags can lead to cost savings that accrue to the retailer, because they don't have to purchase, store, and provide carryout bags to customers. On the other hand, it could costs stores more, if they have to supply more paper bags as a substitute to plastic (paper bags cost more).

A study for Los Angeles County looked at economic impacts, and estimated the overall impact on stores including the effect of some people taking paper instead of plastic and some bringing their own reusable bags. Based on the experience of other places that imposed a ban or fee, combined with info on LA consumers, it found "The net economic impact of the proposed ordinance to grocery, supermarket, and other large retail outlets is expected to be negligible. It is also possible that retailers may experience reduced transportation and warehousing costs as a result of expected changes in consumer behavior."

The impact on small businesses in less clear, and most bag fees and bans include an exemption for businesses under a certain size. The same LA County study also concluded that there would likely be no regressive impact (not more burdensome on lower-income folks) as long as bringing your own reusable bag was allowed as an alternative.

Will a fee or ban on plastic just push people toward paper?

The only study I could find on this was one produced by a pro-plastics industry group, which found that in San Francisco, customers at some retail stores were using more paper as a result of a plastic bag restriction. This is indeed a possible outcome (the self-interested nature of the source notwithstanding). Most studies on the "Paper or Plastic" question conclude that paper bags are the greater environmental evil, since paper requires more inputs (water and energy), takes up more space in landfills, and produces more greenhouse gas emissions than plastic bags. Paper bags don't pose as much of a litter problem, because they don't blow away as easily. Still, the same LA County study found that, accounting for the fact that some consumers will take paper and some will bring reusables, the net effect is positive. There's also a policy solution: Include both paper and plastic bags in bans or fees, as Carpinteria, CA did recently.

Could restrictions on plastic bags actually lead to MORE plastic use?

If checkout plastic bags are reused as trash can liners, then the alternative is to buy packaged trash can liners or bags, which are usually thicker and contain more plastic. So, in theory, yes, a plastic bag ban or fee could lead to the perverse consequence of more plastic consumption. However, I could find few reliable studies on this, beyond anedotal reports from 1 or 2 retailers reported by the media in Ireland (which passed its fee in 2002), and studies sponsored by the plastics industry itself. The two non-industry estimates of post-ban or -fee bag use estimate that an overall decline in plastics use will result, even after accounting for people buying more trash can liners. A study by the Scottish Government found that the net plastics savings would be 4x as large as the increase in new bin liners. The LA study estimated 17 new bags per capita would be bought, and even accounting for thicker bags, the net effect would be a large decrease in plastics use.

Will a ban or fee actually be effective?

The primary goal of a bag ban or fee is to reduce litter, and in Hawaii, stream and ocean litter in particular. The body of evidence indicates that we can expect a fee or ban would accomplish this goal. In Ireland, a steep bag fee resulted in a 90%+ reduction in takeout plastic bag use, and Washington DC saw an 80% reduction after it's bag policy went into effect. The bag fee in China, although not well enforced, still produced a 50% drop in bag use among consumers.

Who is for and against bag policies?

As mentioned, a good place to start understanding both the pros and cons and politics behind different proposals is with public testimony on past proposals. These public records tell only part of the story. Proponents of bag fees or bans face powerful industry counter-efforts. The American Chemistry Council, a trade group representing plastics manufacturers, defeated legislation for a statewide ban on single-use bags in California, and spent $1.4 million in Seattle in 2008 to defeat a referendum that would have imposed a 20-cent fee on disposable grocery bags. We might expect similar efforts in Hawaii.

Again, this isn't a comprehensive treatment of the issues surrounding a bag ban or fee. As with all public policy, there are likely to be unintended consequences that come along with the desired, positive impacts. The best we can do is understand them, take steps to mitigate them (like apply policies to both paper and plastic, and invest in consumer education), and weigh them along with estimates of the positive benefits.

You can learn more about policy solutions to single-use plastics at the Forces for Good Symposium by the Sierra Club, January 7, 2012.


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