The Los Alamos County Council is considering banning plastic grocery bags. More than 200 municipalities in the United States, including two in New Mexico – Santa Fe and Silver City – have banned the distribution of lightweight plastic shopping bags.
Proponents of bag bans, specifically the Sierra Club, claim they will reduce litter and protect the marine environment, diminish our consumption of resources and emissions of greenhouse gases, reduce waste, and save taxpayers’ money.
Unfortunately, the supposed environmental benefits of banning plastic bags evaporate upon closer examination. For starters, authoritative studies show that plastic bags constitute less than 1 percent of visible litter in U.S. cities. Litter is never a good thing, but the right way to reduce it is to through education – not to simply ban plastic bags.
Members of some pressure groups claim that plastic bags kill large numbers of marine animals. Even for bags distributed in coastal cities, that claim is simply false.
As David Santillo, a senior biologist with Greenpeace, told The Times of London: “It’s very unlikely that many animals are killed by plastic bags. The evidence shows just the opposite…On a global basis, plastic bags aren’t an issue.”
As data from the Reason Foundation report “How Green is that Plastic Bag Ban,” plastic bags are an environmentally-friendly technology. They are so much stronger and lighter than other forms of shopping bags that they can actually reduce the amount of waste that ends up in landfills.
According to the report about 80 percent of all grocery bags in the U.S. are made from lightweight plastic. These bags constitute only 0.4 percent by weight of all waste sent to landfills.
Paper bags, which account for most of the remaining 20 percent of grocery bags used, generate the same amount of waste (0.4 percent of the total) because each bag is far heavier.
New Mexico’s plastic bag bans have likely increased the amount of waste produced as people switch to paper, which would actually increase the costs of municipal solid waste disposal.
Some alternative bags appear to be superior to lightweight plastic on some environmental measures, such as use of energy and emissions of greenhouse gases. But that is true only if those bags are reused a sufficient number of times (ranging from six to 30 or more, depending on the type of bag). In practice, households do not typically reuse their bags enough to achieve those gains.
At actual reuse rates, according to the Reason report, lightweight plastic bags result in about half the energy consumption and greenhouse gas emissions of alternative bags, whether those alternatives are paper or reusable.
Likewise, at actual reuse rates, all alternative bags are associated with greater water use. This is especially important in calculating the environmental impact of plastic bag bans in high desert communities in New Mexico.
Interestingly, when it comes to water, if washed appropriately, use of at least 10 times as much water as lightweight plastic bags. Such washing is strongly advised: Studies show that about half of unwashed bags contain potentially dangerous germs; meanwhile, failure to clean reusable bags regularly has resulted in several instances of serious illness.
So, banning lightweight plastic bags likely increases energy use, water use and emissions of greenhouse gases, but does not substantially reduce waste or litter, or the cost of associated municipal waste and litter collection.
Rather than further growing the “nanny state,” Los Alamos County Commission should respect individual freedom and the ability of average people to best use their resources. In my case, I use plastic bags as trash can liners and to pick up dog waste, both of which would be eliminated by an arbitrary and misguided ban.
About the Rio Grande Foundation
The Rio Grande Foundation is an independent, non-partisan, tax-exempt research and educational organization dedicated to promoting prosperity for New Mexico based on principles of limited government, economic freedom and individual responsibility.