(First published on blogcritics.org)
With all the emphasis on the national election, people may have overlooked some of the gross stupidity displayed on the state level. On November 8, California voters shot themselves in the bags — grocery bags to be more specific. And to be more specific about voters, as the accompanying map illustrates, it was the ultra-liberal coastal counties in blue that decided this, not the more conservative interior. You see, fly-over country starts less than 50 miles from the Pacific Ocean, or, in Orange County, at the beach.
With the passage of Proposition 67, California became the first state to ban single-use plastic grocery bags. It also requires most stores to charge shoppers 10 cents for either reusable plastic bags or paper bags. The idea is to manipulate people into using cloth totes to carry home their groceries. Hooray for the environment! Maybe.
The issue is quite complex, involving environmental impact, costs to consumers and business, your health, and, oh, yes, your freedom.
Save the Forests
Environmentalists pushed plastic bags on us, vilifying paper bags, beginning in the late 1970s, bemoaning clear cutting of forests and the impact on the environment. They seemed to overlook the fact that paper bags were made from a renewable resource, trees, which paper companies managed like any other crop, while plastic bags are made from a non-renewable resource, petroleum.
But, given the option of “paper or plastic”, the grocery stores didn’t fight this, as plastic bags cost them about 1 cent each, while paper bags cost about 5 cents. This math is complicated somewhat by the fact that, depending on what was being packed in the bags, a paper bag holds 1.5 to 3 times the amount of groceries. Even so, stores still came out ahead.
Did this help the environment? According to ABC News plastic bags consume 40% less energy to produce than paper bags and generate 80% less solid waste. On the other hand, plastic bags can take 5-10 years to decompose, while paper bags vanish in about a month. But, most paper and plastic bags end up in dumps where they both can last for decades.
Was the environment helped? It’s difficult to say.
Save the Fish
Then, about ten years ago, the same folks who brought us plastic bags to save the environment, began to tell us we needed to get rid of plastic bags to save the environment. We were told that plastic bags get caught in trees, choke fishes in the ocean, clog solid waste management systems and, according to a report prepared by LA County environmental consultants, have an adverse impact on “global resource consumption and litter.”
That same report suggested that the only way to truly protect the environment would be to get users to bring their own reusable bags to the store.
Save the Politicians
California didn’t go all anti-plastic bag cold turkey. More progressive cities like San Francisco and Los Angeles led the way, banning disposable plastic bags several years ago. Then in 2014, California Governor Jerry Brown signed SB 270, banning plastic grocery bags statewide and requiring stores to charge ten cents for paper bags.
In response, companies that produce plastic bags sponsored Proposition 67, effectively putting SB 270 on hold. Then, according to the San Jose Mercury News the plastic bag manufacturers spent $6 million dollars to defeat the proposition.
They seriously underestimated California crazy. Supporters of the bill raised $1.8 million with some of the biggest donors including Julie Packard, Monterey Bay Aquarium Director, giving $100,000, left-wing philanthropist Tom Steyer of San Francisco giving $50,000, and Albertson’s-Safeway contributing $150,000.
Wait. A grocery store chain was in favor of the ban? Yes, this is what happens when government interferes in free markets. Consumers were already paying for grocery bags whether they picked paper or plastic. The cost was incorporated into the price they paid for Pepsi, peanuts and papayas. Now, the grocery stores must, by law, charge 10 cents for each bag which they are paying no more than a nickel for.
Save Your Health
But, with the new law in place, Californians don’t have to pay for grocery bags, they can bring their own cloth sacks. What could go wrong with that? That environment and your health.
According to a study by the UK Environment Agency, cited by The Atlantic, the disposable plastic bags that have just been banned have the smallest per use cost to the environment. To achieve a similar cost, paper bags would have to be reused seven times, the higher quality ten-cent-reusable plastic bags would need to be used 26 times, and those cute cloth totes will need to be used 327 times.
While you’re using that cloth tote 327 times, here’s something to consider. They get full of germs.
USA Today quoted a study by the University of Arizona and Loma Linda University which found that only 3% of shoppers regularly washed their multi-use bags. Most people just throw them away when they get dirty. The same study found that 99% of the bags had bacteria in them, including half with coliform bacteria, and 8% with E. coli, indicating fecal contamination.
Think about it. Where do babies sit in shopping carts? Where do you put your cloth bags?
You could get rid of the bacteria by washing your cloth bags every week. That, of course, uses water, electricity, and petroleum products increasing that 327 required uses for an environmental break-even point to a higher number each time you wash them.
Way to go, California voters.
Save Your Freedom
California has long been a trend setter. What gets hot here often spreads to the rest of the country in a few years. Perhaps you non-Californians should take note and let the free market decide what grocery stores, as well as other businesses, provide.
Giving environmentalists the benefit of the doubt, let’s say they had no idea that Proposition 67 would have negative consequences. If they had freely convinced people that re-usable cloth bags were better, then discovered they weren’t, people could stop using them. If you washed your cloth bags every week, and wanted to still use them you could. Some stores would still offer people a choice of free disposable plastic bags. Maybe, someone would come up with an anti-bacterial bag. People could use their freedom to make choices which were best for them, their families, their communities and their businesses.
But now, it’s a state law, and the law will be hard to change. Politicians won’t want to admit they made a mistake, and grocery stores are making extra money selling bags.
You’ve been warned, non-Californians.