Unintended Consequences of Plastic Bag Bans


I was talking to some of my Laguna “environmentally correct” friends yesterday about the new research from George Mason’s Josh Wright and Penn’s Jonathan Klick on the adverse health tradeoffs of plastic bag bans.

Wright and Klick have performed the simple task of comparing before and after rates for food borne illness in counties that enacted plastic bag bans and adjacent counties that didn’t. The results aren’t even close: counties that enact plastic bag bans see a sharp spike in hospitalizations for food-borne illness, much of it generated from reusable cloth bags that gather bacterial growths from raw food.

From the abstract: San Francisco County was the first major US jurisdiction to enact such a regulation, implementing a ban in 2007. There is evidence, however, that reusable grocery bags, a common substitute for plastic bags, contain potentially harmful bacteria. We examine emergency room admissions related to these bacteria in the wake of the San Francisco ban. We find that ER visits spiked when the ban went into effect. Relative to other counties, ER admissions increase by at least one fourth, and deaths exhibit a similar increase.

I’ll summarize here: Klick and Wright estimate that the San Francisco ban results in a 46 percent increase in deaths from food borne illnesses, or 5.5 more of them each year. They then run through a cost-benefit analysis employing the same estimate of the value of a human life that the Environmental Protection Agency uses when evaluating regulations that are supposed to save lives. They conclude that the anti-plastic-bag policies can’t pass the test — and that’s before counting the higher health-care costs they generate.

Simple, the bag banners say: just get people to start washing their reusable bags. Okay, fine, but if public education is the remedy, why isn’t that same remedy used for the purported evils of plastic bags, which are recyclable? I always recycled mine, and also used them for a variety of secondary uses.

Of course, one of the things you also hear in California is that we need to reduce water use.  Twenty years ago the crusade of the greenies for a time was banning disposable diapers, which take up more than twice the space in landfills as plastic bags. Santa Barbara County, and then the state of California itself, considered a total ban on disposable diapers. They were routed in Santa Barbara County when someone did the calculations of how much additional water would be necessary to wash cloth diapers. The state legislature backed off when it contemplated the army of pitchfork-and soiled-diaper-bearing moms who would come at them if they passed a disposal diaper ban. I guess plastic bag users don’t have as strong a constituency.

It’s always fun watching environmentalists when they learn that tradeoffs are a real bitch. Doesn’t happen often enough, especially when their refusal to consider tradeoffs result in increased deaths of real people.


Jim Mouradick, Laguna Beach

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  1. Anthony van Leeuwen

    Check out my Word Press blog: http://fighttheplasticbagban.com/
    On my blog I have a “Documents” menu item. If you click on that there are a number of papers that I have written that can be downloaded, viewed and read. Be informed!
    Our newest paper titled “The Lies, Myths, Half-Truths, and Exaggerations of Bag Ban Proponents” exposes the false ideas about plastic bags propagated by bag ban proponents. To view this article: http://fighttheplasticbagban.files.wordpress.com/2013/08/theliesmythshalftruthsandexaggerationsofbagbanproponents.pdf
    Another paper titled “Bag Bans: Officials Neglect Homework!” talks about how public officials fail to do their due diligence with respect to the plastic bag ban issue. To view this article: http://fighttheplasticbagban.files.wordpress.com/2013/08/bagbansofficialsneglecthomework.pdf
    Another paper is titled “Plastic Bag Alternatives Much More Costly To Consumers” discusses the different bag options available to shoppers and estimates out of pocket costs and includes the value of one’s time to handle bags and wash reusable bags. To view this article: http://fighttheplasticbagban.files.wordpress.com/2013/04/plasticbagalternativesmuchmorecostlytoconsumers.pdf
    Other papers are “What Will A Plastic Carryout Bag Ban Cost Your Community?” and a follow-on article titled “Statewide Bag Ban Would Cost Residents More Than $1 Billion”. These articles discuss and estimate resident costs of the bag ban.
    These and other articles providing different perspectives of a bag ban are available for reading.

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