Carson Bruno is a Research Analyst at The Hoover Institution & author of the blog: The Pragmatic Conservative
Originally posted at

“Paper or plastic?”

Or, if you are shopping in California in the near future: “E. Coli cloth or E. Coli compostable?”

More than 60 cities and counties in California – roughly one-seventh and one-third of the Golden State’s municipal districts and population, respectively – have moved swiftly to ban plastic bags in grocery stores. Meanwhile, two statewide bans are maneuvering their way through the Sacramento legislative process. Despite being much ballyhooed legislation for their environmental and, oddly enough, pro-business merits, a closer examination of the statewide single-use bag bans reveals what these laws actually are superfluous, posturing and potentially, dangerous.

In today’s “Spotlight” are AB 158 (Democratic Assemblyman Marc Levine) and SB 405 (Democratic Senator Alex Padilla), which as amended will: a) ban single-use bags starting on January 1, 2015 for large stores and January 1, 2016 for smaller stores; and b) require that reusable bags made available for purchase meet various requirements as certified by the CalRecycle program administered by the state’s Department of Resources Recycling and Recovery.

Much like the various cities and counties who have instituted their own single-use bag bans, Levine and Padilla cite the environmental effects of making and disposing of the roughly 14 billion plastic bags Californians use annually.  The environmental, and more specifically the pollution, argument is not only emotionally charged, but also plays well in the environmentally progressive Golden State.  However, Sen. Padilla has taken the argument one step further by arguing that his legislation is pro-business as it simplifies business compliance – rather than multiple dozens of different ban policies, businesses will only have to comply with one.

There are two problems with this concept: the need isn’t valid, and the changes, if enacted, have unintended yet terrible consequences.

Based on a CalRecycle Statewide Waste Characterization Study, plastic grocery and merchandise bags account for just 0.3% of California’s total waste stream, which is 7% of the total the Senate Environmental Quality Committee suggests.   While proponents point to a 2009 CalRecycle study that shows just 3% of plastic single-use bags are recycled, that study only reviewed recycling in the official sense – i.e., plastic bags at recycling facilities.  This rate completely ignores self-recycling – i.e., the repeated use of plastic bags for reasons other than carrying groceries or merchandise. Just think about how often you re-use plastic bags after returning from your local grocer?

Proponents claim that banning the bags will prevent plastic litter.  Let’s ignore the fact, briefly, that plastic bag waste is actually very small and focus instead on whether a ban actually reduces plastic bag litter.  Litter studies show that plastic bag bans have minimal to no effect at all on the rate of plastic bag litter.  For instance, a year after San Francisco banned single-use bags, plastic bags comprised of 0.64% of the city’s litter, which statistically represents no change from prior to the ban. Finally, evidence of plastic bag ocean debris is highly mixed and inconsistent.  The Senate committee analysis argues that plastics (of which plastic bags is just one element) compose 60% to 80% of marine debris. However, environmental groups claim that plastic bags comprise of just 3%.

The litter and waste argument is just one part of the pollution problem, proponents claim; they also argue that banning plastic bags will reduce our nation’s dependence on foreign oil.  This is easily dispensed by the fact that the average plastic bag used by an American consumer is made from byproduct from domestic natural gas refinement.  As such, a ban wouldn’t reduce America’s dependence on foreign oil, but would eliminate one method of disposing of potentially hazardous natural gas byproduct.

Perhaps recognizing the environmental argument was flimsy, Sen. Padilla resorted to a different rationale to push his legislation: uniformity. Presently in California, businesses must comply with a piecemeal approach to bans. While at face value this problem makes sense, it actually is vastly overstated.  Megan McArdle’s quip while criticizing a national sales tax (whose proponents give the business compliance simplification argument as well) accurately sums up why the argument isn’t effective: “I mean, sure, hey, there’s all these different rates, but that’s what software is for!”

For large companies like Safeway, the additional marginal cost of this compliance would be minuscule.  For small stores, the likelihood of operating in different municipal zones with different rules is slim – if they do, the plastic bag ban is likely to be the least of their concerns regarding different municipal regulations.  And if Sen. Padilla truly were concerned about business compliance costs, wouldn’t a ban on plastic bag bans be both simpler and more pro-business?

The debate over the ban underscores the idea that legislation that stabs at problems that aren’t really a problem tend to succeed only in creating . . . more problems.  Both AB 158 and SB 405 push for the use of reusable bags, either washable cloth or compostable ones.  Let’s set aside the various regulatory requirements the bill places on the production and sale of such bags – which themselves also largely negate Padilla’s pro-business claims – and focus on the major and potentially dangerous problems these reusable bags create.

In the plainest of words, reusable bags can be disgusting and a public health hazard.

Multiple studies including one that examined reusable bags throughout California and Arizona as well as one that focused just on San Francisco have found extremely unsafe levels of E. coli and other dangerous bacteria living in reusable grocery bags.  For instance, in looking at San Francisco where the ban has been in effect, co-authors Jonathan Klick and Joshua Wright found that reusable bags resulted in a 46% rise in food-borne-illness deaths within San Francisco following the ban’s implementation.

To prevent this dangerous predicament, reusable bag producers recommend that users wash their bags after every use.  But that’s highly unrealistic: the San Francisco study showed that shoppers aren’t in the habit of doing that. And, again, it leads to unintended consequences: additional water consumption and introducing more laundry detergent pollutants to the local ecosystem. In short, the policy fix creates a daunting problem while fixing a non-problem.

Assuming plastic bag consumption does create a valid and noticeable policy problem – a negative social externality – Sacramento does have a more effective and more efficient tool at their disposal: a Pigouvian tax.  Democratic Senator Lois Wolk’s SB 700, which would institute a 5-cent tax per single-use bag with collected funds used for environmental projects, comes very close to a classic Pigouvian tax.  However, to be more effective and again, assuming an actual negative social externality does exist, the California State Legislature should amend SB 700 so that collected tax receipts are only used to clean-up single-use (particularly plastic) bag waste and litter. In its current form, SB 700 is just another tax to fund a pet project that is tangentially related to the perceived negative social externality.

At the end of the day, AB 158 and SB 405 aim to fix problems that are either overstated or invalid and would themselves create serious policy problems that would then require additional legislation.  Legislation for the sake of legislation never solves a policy problem and always creates more headaches – in this case, Sacramento adding more environmental bills to the compost pile.

Check-out the previous “Sacramento Spotlight”: A Cornucopia of Fracking Legislation

Follow Carson Bruno on Twitter: @CarsonJFBruno

Crossposted on Advancing a Free Society – Eureka