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Banning plastic bags is not an effective environmental policy

The Cheyenne, Wyoming city council is considering joining a popular, but ineffective environmental fad. Lawmakers are proposing banning single-use plastic bags.

The proposal would make exceptions for "laundry cleaning bags, restaurant and food establishment bags or plastic containers."

Not only would plastic bags be banned at grocery stores, customers would also have to pay a new "environmental service fee" of 10 cents per paper grocery bag.

The question is whether banning plastic bags makes sense and can help the environment? The answer is likely no. In fact, much of the research shows plastic bags can actually be one of the most environmentally friendly options.

There are numerous reasons for this.

First, plastic bags are reusable. Think about how many times you’ve reused a plastic bag to take a lunch to work, to clean up after your dog, or to fill a trash container in your bathroom. Without those bags available, consumers look for alternatives and end up buying more plastic bags.

"The study found California communities with bag policies saw sales of 4-gallon trash bags increase by 55% to 75%, and sales of 8-gallon trash bags increase 87% to 110%. These results echo earlier studies that also showed increases in sales of smaller plastic trash bags."

Second, the plastic bag alternatives are not much better. The United Kingdom’s Environment Agency released a report in 2011 that highlighted the carbon impact of paper, reusable plastic, and cotton bags is higher than single-use plastic bags. In fact, scientists said you’d need to reuse a cotton bag more than 130 times to have an impact on the environment. Danish researchers had similar findings. Environmental policy expert Todd Myers wrote this for RealClearScience:

"One of the most commonly heard claims is that plastic bags, and other plastic, have created the “Pacific Garbage Patch.” Some claim it is twice the size of Texas. This is simply false. Last year, Oregon State University reported that the actual amount is less than one percent the size of Texas. Oceanography professor Angel White sent out a release last year saying, “There is no doubt that the amount of plastic in the world’s oceans is troubling, but this kind of exaggeration undermines the credibility of scientists.”

Third, there are sanitation concerns. Most people who carry around reusable, cloth bags do not necessarily take care to make sure the bag is clean. Some may keep the bag in their backseat or the trunk of their vehicle. Others might only wash the bag once a month. The concern about sanitation was especially high during the COVID-19 pandemic, when a number of states that had adopted bans decided to hold off because of hygiene concerns. So, while plastic bag bans may make policymakers feel good, the research shows they are a very ineffective way to protect the environment, and can actually do more harm than good.

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