Plastic Bags: It’s Time to Get Beyond “Ban, Ban, Ban”

Ban styrofoam, ban Bisphenol-A, ban plastic bags, ban phosphate dishwashing detergents, ban coal. What else can we ban? That represents the typical mantra for environmental groups and activists these days. Their only method of effecting change is to use government force to take choice from citizens.

Environmental groups are now forcefully targeting plastic bags. Groups like the Tualatin Riverkeepers, Environment Oregon and the Audubon society have said that these bags end up in the ocean, take too long to break down and are just all-around unhealthy for the environment. Their solution? Lobby government along with self-interested paper companies to eliminate this choice entirely for consumers and retailers.

Unfortunately for activists and the paper companies, the “unhealthy for the environment” claim is more than misguided. It is false. A single paper bag takes over twice the energy to produce than a single plastic bag. This definitely conflicts with environmentalist goals of reducing energy use. Comparing entire life cycles, one paper bag produces almost five times the atmospheric pollutants and 15 times the waterborne pollutants than a single plastic bag. This was the major reason why plastic bags were developed―to improve the environment. Besides, the same environmentalists are working on locking up every acre of forested land, which is directly contrary to their indirect promotion of paper bags. After all, paper comes from forests.

What about these bags ending up in the streets? And the ocean? Environmentalists have misdiagnosed the problem. The problem is not that plastic bags exist but that they are not ending up in the proper place―landfills, trashcans, etc. The problem is littering, yet the only solution proposed is an outright ban.

“But these bags do not break down!” the ban advocates say. Luckily, bags are recyclable at local grocery stores and a variety of other places across the state. In addition, households often reuse and “recycle” these bags by finding a multitude of uses in and around the home. The argument doesn’t make much sense anyhow. Plastic doesn’t just exist in bags. It is in a whole host of products that the world consumes. What’s next? Banning all plastic on earth?

It is unfortunate that supposedly well-intentioned advocacy organizations put all their efforts into outright consumer bans. These organizations could work towards creating public awareness of a perceived problem and organizing a grassroots movement to use alternatives voluntarily. The only way to effect meaningful change is to change culture, which requires voluntarily winning hearts and minds. Unlike making regulatory changes, this genuinely can help the environment, while preserving choice and freedom that we so value in this country. Instead, environmental organizations get involved with special interest lobbyists (paper bag manufacturers) to eliminate consumer choice. But perhaps this is an easier route for the anti-plastic crowd. Perhaps their science and environmental arguments aren’t sound, so the only solution is to “hire” self-interested corporations and self-promoting politicians to force citizens to believe in their quest for irrational environmental policy.

Todd Wynn is Vice President at Cascade Policy Institute, Oregon’s free market public policy research center. He received his bachelor’s degree in Business Economics from California State University Long Beach and his masters in International and Developmental Economics from University of San Francisco.