We've come a long way since the inception of the modern-day environmentalist movement. People recycle more, are modeling businesses to incorporate green practices, and are slowly but surely switching over to alternative fuels. The progression of environmental conscientiousness in recent years is quite astounding. An issue with it, however, is that there is a large element of feel-good environmentalism. What good is saving the planet when the only thing your actions are patching up is your ego? I have to ask whether a plastic bag ban or tax falls under that category, especially after reading a recent study from the Reason Foundation on the matter (Morris and Seasholes, 2014).
Let's start with what plastic bags are made of. Many think that plastic bags are solely a petroleum-based product. In reality, the vast majority of plastic bags are made of polyethylene. Polyethylene is derived from natural gas and crude oil. One of the other main issues with plastic bags is that they are not necessarily reused, which means they create more litter. The plastic bag floating in the air or polluting our coastlines are illustrations as reasons for plastic bag bans or taxes.
When we look at what we should do about plastic bags, or any policy question for that matter, we have to keep in mind that we do not live in a perfect world. Any policy alternative is going to have its tradeoffs. Economics is the study of how to best allocate resources. Public policy is the study of finding the best policy in comparison to other policy alternatives. When looking at plastic bags and their alternatives of paper bags and reusable cotton bags, we should not ask if plastic bags have any costs because they do. What we should be asking is whether the overall costs of plastic bags are less relative to paper bags and reusable cotton bags or not.
In the grand scheme of things, how much do plastic bags contribute to the overall percentage of litter? On a global level, less than one percent of crude oil and natural gas are used to produce polyethylene, which says nothing about how much of polyethylene production is used for plastic bags. We should ask ourselves if there would be less consumption of plastic. Many use Ireland as an exemplar for action against plastic bags. However, the state of Connecticut Office of Legislative Research conducted research on the plastic bag tax, and showed a rebound effect. Although the plastic bag ban decreased plastic bag consumption in Ireland by 90 percent, it also substantially increased consumption of bin liners, which require more energy and crude oil to produce.
The chic alternative is using reusable cotton bags. Cotton bags come with some health issues that don't come with plastic bags, such as a 25 percent increase in ER visits related to food borne illnesses, not to mention that nearly half of reusable cotton bags contract coliform and that 12 percent of reusable bags contracted E. Coli (Klick and Wright, 2012; Williams et al., 2011; Gerba et al., 2010). There is also the issue of the number of inputs that go into making a reusable cotton bag. According to the U.K. Environment Agency (2011), the "global warming potential" impact of plastic bags (read as "the amount of resources needed to produce these bags) are a quarter of paper bags and 1/173rd of cotton bags, i.e., it takes 173 uses of the cotton bag to break even. How many people can honestly say that they use their cotton bag 173 times? The study shows that most people use their cotton bags a little over 50 times. And 173 times is merely the break-even point!
None of this goes into the complacency bred by feel-good environmentalism, the 31,000 jobs that would be lost in the United States if we banned plastic bags, the convenience factor of having plastic bags, the costs to consumers and retailers (Morris and Seasholes , p. 53-56), or the fact that a plastic bag ban would do nothing to reduce municipal waste collection costs. There seems to be a certain evasion of personal responsibility here. When talking about guns, the mantra is "Guns don't kill people, people do." It's true in that case, and for plastic bags to be littered, they need to be discarded by human beings. "Plastic bags don't litter, people do."If there were to be an issue with the plastic bags, it would be the attitudes towards consumption and waste disposal of our throw-away society.
In summation, switching over to paper bags or reusable cotton bags is not going to help the environment. If anything, it will slightly increase humanity's footprint. If you want to address the root problem, address our materialism and our propensity to consume. Encourage people to reuse and recycle their plastic bags. Stop subsidies on oil so that we can have a better appreciation for petroleum products at fair market value. If people want to use reusable bags, that's their own prerogative. If people want to use plastic bags, that should be their own business, but enacting a plastic bag ban or tax to boost an environmentally-conscious ego is simply rubbish.