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Are Plastic Bags Bad for the Environment?

by Clark Packard / /

Are Plastic Bags Bad for the Environment?

Writing in the October issue of Reason Magazine, Katherine Mangu-Ward makes the case that the environmental problems believed to be associated with plastic grocery bags are overblown. The lengthy article details the history of the science behind plastic bags and their unenviable position in our misguided political discourse.

Here in Washington, D.C., we have dealt with the plastic bag scolds for well over five years. What began as a fund to clean up the Anacostia River through revenues generated by a 5-cent per bag tax has turned into essentially a political slush fund. As The Washington Post noted in early May, around the fifth anniversary of D.C.’s plastic bag tax, “more of the fund money has been allocated for field trips for schoolchildren and employee salaries [than] to tangible cleanup projects on the river and its watershed.”  The Post story continued, “The largest grant from the fund so far, $1.2 million, will be paid over the next two years to send every D.C. fifth-grader on a two-night field trip at campsites outside the District, some up to 30 miles from the Anacostia River. Ten thousand children will participate in activities designed to provide a ‘meaningful watershed education experience,’ such as canoeing, talking about trash, conducting water-quality experiments and learning to milk a cow.’”

Former Director of the D.C. Department of the Environment told the Post, “Whatever they learn 30 miles away, they can use in their own backyard.” Good grief. How in the world are urban schoolchildren going to use proper dairy farm chore techniques in their backyards? It seems highly unlikely that District residents would still support the bag tax knowing their hard-earned tax dollars are being used to fund activities unrelated to cleaning up the Anacostia River.

D.C. isn’t the only place where politicians have targeted plastic bags. Mangu-Ward notes that San Francisco, Chicago, Austin, and Portland, most prominently, have banned plastic bags outright, while numerous other cities have enacted excise taxes on their use.  NTU has long opposed such schemes. These policies limit consumer freedom, raise the final tally at the grocery store cash register, and threaten jobs as well as the local economy.

But are there demonstrable benefits to using plastic bags? For one, they are more sanitary than reusing other bags. Mangu-Ward cites a 2011 study published in Food Protection Trends that “found coliform bacteria in fully half of the reusable shopping bags tested in a random survey of shoppers in Arizona and California.” 

In addition, plastic bags can be repurposed for many tasks. As the owner of two very large dogs in a bustling metropolitan city, I reuse countless numbers of plastic bags every week.

Ward’s article, coupled with the real life examples like D.C.’s bag tax, ought to serve as a warning to other states and cities that are considering banning or taxing plastic bags.  The results are not pretty.