Plastic bag bans have become a hotly debated issue in several cities. Yet, many legislators, environmentalists and other bag ban promoters, including those in West Hollywood, have turned a blind eye to the fact that bag bans have been proven to be misguided, ineffective policy. Research demonstrates that plastic bag prohibitions do not pay the environmental dividends promised while they do have resounding negative consequences to the local economy and consumers.
The Los Angeles Times reports that plastic bag bans are designed “to reduce landfill waste;” however, of the three most common bag options, plastic grocery bags take up the least amount of space in landfills because they weigh far less than paper or reusable bags. According to recently published research: “[F]or an equivalent amount of groceries, single-use plastic bags produce 15.5 pounds of waste while paper bags produce nearly 75 pounds of waste.” And contrary to popular belief, paper bags do not biodegrade in landfills. According to research from the United Kingdom’s Environmental Agency, reusable cotton bags must be reused at least 131 times before becoming a ‘greener’ option than plastic grocery bags, but such bags are reused only 52 times on average. And when discarded, they also take up a lot more landfill space than a common plastic bag.
“It’s not the landfill, it’s the litter!” ban proponents might argue. Yet, the city of San Francisco, which approved California's first ban on plastic bags in 2007, conducted litter audits pre- and post-ban, found that while “bag litter is a small portion of total [litter]… [b]ag litter has increased after plastic bag ban.” While recyclable materials including plastic bags should never become part of the litter stream, banning plastic bags is clearly not the solution.
Turning from the broken environmental promises to the negative economic impacts of misguided bag ban legislation, eager ban proponents have also turned a deaf ear to the jobs impact. Los Angeles City Council’s move to ban plastic bags earlier this year was vocally opposed by local employees—there are approximately 2,000 Californians who’ve made their careers in the innovative plastic manufacturing and recycling industry. While the City Council acknowledged that their actions put local jobs at risk, the voices of Hollywood stars endorsing the ban simply out-shined this, perhaps less glamorous, constituency.
Since the Los Angeles County ban has taken effect, the National Center for Policy Analysis has determined that the negative economic consequences reached even beyond those directly employed by the bag manufacturing and recycling industry. In fact, as a result of shifting consumer behaviors related to the ban “[s]tores inside the ban area reduced their employment by more than 10 percent.”
Policymakers would do better to look at the facts: Plastic bags are American made and 100% recyclable. According to a recent report, 91 to 93 percent of the U.S. population has access to plastic bag recycling through curbside collection or close proximity to a drop-off facility. Plastic bag recycling rates are on the rise. Rather than ban a product that is actually better for the environment than the alternatives, we can and should work together to keep plastic in the recycling steam without harming our economy or risking the jobs of the more than 30,000 hardworking Americans employed by the innovative plastic bag manufacturing and recycling industry.
Phil Rozenski is the Director of Sustainability and Marketing for Hilex Poly, a leading provider of packaging solutions that are focused on reducing environmental impact, have excellent quality, and provide superior service, as well as owner of the world's largest plastic bag recycling facility.