Friday, January 25th, 2013

Plastic Bag Bans Can Have Very Serious Side Effects

My thinking about plastic bag bans (when I’m feeling kind) is that those behind them are well meant, just poorly informed and misguided. However, as the fad

— and it is a fad — puts more bans into effect, my kindness is on hold and in storage.

Plastic bag bans are a false solution that distracts us from a real and serious problem: litter. The bans are consuming invaluable time that could be spent on a real solution, one that already exists and is well known.

Though plastic bags are a tiny percentage of total litter, they are highly visible. Since people can see them, it’s easy to see why bags can be a focal point of the littering conversation. And when people are told bags harm and even kill fish, birds and other animals, discussion is trumped by emotion. Rational thinking and discourse cease.

But what should we think if the plastic bag bans are harmful to human beings, and even fatal? In a recent article on the PlasticsToday website, Clare Goldsberry describes a study of San Francisco emergency room admission records related to bacterial intestinal infection, especially E. Coli, following the 2007 San Francisco County ban on plastic bags in large grocery and drug stores. The study found that emergency room visits spiked after the bag ban went into effect. Admissions increased by one fourth compared with other counties, and there was a similar increase in deaths.

The study results are published by the Social Science Research Network as a paper titled “Grocery Bag Bans and Foodborne Illnesses” by Joshua D. Wright of the George Mason University School of Law and Jonathan Klick of the University of Pennsylvania Law School.

In the article, evidence is presented that plastic bag bans, or more specifically reusable bags that become contaminated, are bad for your health. Klick and Wright examined emergency room admissions records related to bacterial intestinal infections, especially those related to E. coli, in the wake of San Francisco’s 2007 countywide ban on plastic bags in large grocery stores and drug stores. That ban was extended to all retail establishments in early 2012.

They found that after the San Francisco plastic bag ban went into effect, relative to other counties, emergency room admissions increased by at least one-fourth and deaths related to intestinal infections showed a comparable increase.

The alternative to plastic shopping bags promoted by virtually all the governments banning them is reusable bags. But recent studies show that reusable bags harbor harmful bacteria, the most dangerous of which is E.

Coli. If those bags are not cleaned frequently — and they probably should be disinfected —bacteria will contaminate food in the bags.

Consider this statement from the introduction to the paper: “Using standard estimates of the statistical value of life, we show that the health costs associated with the San Francisco ban swamp any budgetary savings from reduced litter. This assessment is unlikely to be reversed even if fairly liberal estimates of the other environmental benefits are included.”

The bag bans seem to make many people sick, and some of them die. If that’s the result of the bag-ban method of reducing litter, it needs a serious rethink. Putting aside for a moment that the immediate cause of litter is people littering, a better solution solution to the litter problem is recycling plastic bags.

The best solution to the litter problem is to recycle everything that can be recycled, including plastics. It may seem a lofty goal, but it’s not. It’s achievable, though it will take time and effort. But in the meantime, what say we stop passing bag bans that increase our already exorbitant medical costs, make people seriously sick, and even cause some of them — some of us — to die?


4 Responses to “Plastic Bag Bans Can Have Very Serious Side Effects”

  1. Rob:
    Re the Wright paper, what is a “statistical value of life” ?
    Is it a sort of estimated individual GDP times the actuarially generated life expectancy in years? Or? All the best.–Merle

  2. I haven’t seen any comments yet, I am at a loss for words, too. The whole ban the bag thing, don’t we have bigger issues to address that will be a better use of police resources, how else could this ban be enforced, arrests, citations, court dockets, legal fees,k and in the unlikely event of jail time, it all seems beyond ridiculous. This is the convenience item of the century and now it’s gone, single use, rarely used twice item, turn it back into oil, very convenient and efficient recapture of energy. Trex decking used 400 million pounds in making product, but recycling it back into oil is essential for the economy, barrels of oil at around $11 per barrel, not $97! Reduced landfills and job creation, all from a waste stream that will not go away anytime soon, here is a method to deal with it successfully!

  3. It is hard to understand the bag ban phenomenon if you are (A) rational and (B) know the facts, but emotion is the driving force on these things. Environmental groups stir up people who would like to do something about litter, and those people feel they are solving the problem. Elected officials who create the bans also know little to nothing about the sources of litter, life cycle analysis, recycling or any of the real issues involved, but they would like to capture the votes of those wanting the ban. It’s easy to stampede the herd.

  4. Merle-
    The author did not provide a description of how the statistical value of life was calculated. I’ll see if I can track it down.
    - Rob