Banning The Bag, & Bagging The Ban

The politics of controlling the plastic in our lives

by Rosalea Barker

It’s hard to know where to start when writing about plastic bag bans in the US. Surely there’ll be some easily found government statistics about the reduction of single use plastic bags (SUPBs) in landfills in those jurisdictions that have banned them. Nup. Any research about consumer attitudes towards the bans? Precious little.

Instead, piling up like the bags my local supermarket and convenience store used to give out before Alameda County’s ban took effect in January 2013, are the news stories about pushback against similar legislation. Some states have gone so far as to ban the bans themselves unless they are done statewide. As this editorial about an Arizona ban points out, it’s pretty rich for the state’s governing Republican Party to be touting the supremacy of state government, when one of its party platforms involves resisting the supremacy of the federal government:

It’s right there in the national GOP platform: “We pledge to restore the proper balance between the federal government and the governments closest to, and most reflective of, the American people.” (Substitute “state” for “federal,” and you can see how out of line the Legislature is.)

Meanwhile, in Texas, the Republican Governor, Greg Abbott, took a swipe at California and its patchwork of plastic bag bans while responding to questions about the state legislature having banned local jurisdictions from banning fracking:

Prior to the start of the legislative session, Abbott had decried attempts by municipalities across Texas to impose fracking bans, lumping it in with bans on plastic bags and restrictions on tree-cutting on public rights of way, and complaining that “Texas is being California-ized.”

Four plastic bag manufacturers are suing Dallas over its introduction of a 5c charge for SUPBs because, they say, it violates a Texas state law already on the books. According to this piece (ID wall) on a plastics industry website:

The lawsuit also says the ordinance “raises more revenue than is reasonably necessary to subsidize the city’s efforts to ensure compliance with the ordinance” and that such a move has to be approved by voters. Also, while labeled a “fee,” it is in fact a tax, which Texas law says also has to have the approval of the voters, according to the lawsuit.

California’s statewide plastic bag ban has been put on hold until a referendum in November 2016, much to the delight of folks like David Williams, the president of the Taxpayers Protection Alliance, in this opinion piece in the Washington Examiner:

When voters go to the polls, they will have an opportunity to save 2,000 local manufacturing jobs that could dry up simply because government deems an industry distasteful. They will also have a chance to tell legislators that government shouldn’t be picking winners and losers in business, denying consumers the ability to choose the products that best meet their needs.

In the same column, Williams also raises the argument that California’s proposed charge of 10c for a paper bag will burden the working single mother whose already-stretched food budget will take a hit as she shoulders the state’s newest fee.

In 2013 the Equinox Center looked into the potential environmental and economic impacts that a plastic bag ban would have in San Diego and produced a (PDF) report that is downloadable from its website here. They were able to look at the effect of SUPB bans that were already in place in some other California jurisdictions. As a baseline, they used the following data about observed bag-use at grocery retailers in LA County before there was a bag ban. SUPBs were used 82 percent of the time, paper 2 percent, reusable 25 percent, and 17 percent of customers used no bag.

After the county banned SUPBs and instituted a fee for brown bags (at a level decided by the retailer, but usually 10 cents), that bag-use profile looked like this: SUPB 0 percent, paper 2 percent, reusable 58 percent, no bag 40 percent. LA County’s reluctance to pay for paper bags as a substitute can probably be explained by the fact that it has a much lower median income than the other two jurisdictions Equinox looked at, San Jose and Santa Monica, which both came in at around 22 percent for paper bags. (It seems that Mr Williams’s single working mother is perfectly capable of making her own choices about how to spend her dimes.)

I won’t go into the environmental effects that Equinox’s report also covers—it’s well worth downloading for a read.

I live in a low-income neighborhood in Alameda County, and frequently pick up grocery items from my local pharmacy chain store, Walgreen’s. The store is pretty much always busy selling the same kinds of items you get far cheaper from a supermarket, largely because there is no supermarket in the neighbourhood. (The one I mentioned in this 2009 Scoop article about using a GreenBag is long gone, replaced by a cut-rate gym.) Prior to Alameda County’s “PBB+fee” coming into effect in January, 2013, you wouldn’t even be asked at checkout if you wanted a bag. Your items were put into a plastic bag by default. Even just one small item.

Although I wasn’t able to get any statistics from Walgreen’s, the anecdotal evidence of my very own eyes from standing in the long lines at the busiest times of the day, is that by far the vast majority of shoppers decline paying for a paper bag if offered one, and don’t ask for them. Most people carry their few items out by hand or wheel them out to the car, loose, in a shopping cart; a lesser number bring their own bag. Again, the argument that low- and fixed-income customers (like pensioners) are unfairly disadvantaged by a bag fee doesn’t bear out in reality. They simply eschew it. Which is a good thing, for there is truth to the anti-ban argument that the manufacture of paper bags has considerable harmful effects on the environment.

The old financial saw that the best business is the one where you “make once, sell many times” works equally well when turned on its head with regards to shopping bags: “buy once, use many times”. Us po’ folks mightn’t have business degrees, but we’re not stupid.