Every now and then, I experience something that is just so ridiculous, I need to write about it.

I was recently in California and when was shocked to learn that the convenience stores didn’t offer free plastic bags to carry items out. Thanks to California’s Proposition 67, disposable plastic bags are no longer offered in grocery stores, convenience stores, and pharmacies. Instead, the cashiers offer a 10¢ reusable plastic bag that is allegedly safer for the environment.

I hate when this happens to me, because it is almost always after I have already accumulated more items than I could possibly carry on my own. Yeah, I should have known, I guess. But it is still frustrating to have to pay for a bag.

But that got me wondering. Does the plastic bag ban actually work? Did this actually cut down on waste?

Environmental groups say ‘yes.’ Data from California’s 2017 Coastal Clean-Up Day shows that there were 70% fewer grocery bags cleaned up than in 2010.

That, however, doesn’t necessarily mean that the plastic bag ban caused this. The ban was passed in 2016. That data hardly suggests that this entire reduction can be attributed to one year. It represents a seven-year trend.

But I will put that aside until there is real data proving causation.

I am more interested in figuring out how shoppers responded. For me, disposable bags really aren’t disposable. We use them to pick up dog poop in the yard and these bags line the garbage pails in our bathrooms.

I know I am not alone. Tons of people find ways to reuse plastic shopping bags.

So I wanted to look at what effect California’s bag ban has had on this aspect. Obviously, people who were re-using these grocery bags would need to buy other bags to serve those needs. So, we should expect to see an increase in purchases of other plastic bags after California’s ban went into effect.

Sure enough, that is exactly what tends to happen.

A study out of Australia examined the effects of grocery bag bans and found that after implementation, there was a sharp increase in garbage bag sales. Based on the cases examined, the researchers concluded that for when California eliminates 40 million pounds of disposable grocery bags, that will be offset by the additional purchases of 12 million pounds of garbage bags. Not surprisingly, the largest increase comes from small garbage bags. The data shows that when disposable grocery bags are banned, small garbage bag purchases spike 120%. Medium-sized garbage bag purchases increased 64%.

Small 2-4 gallon trash bags are much sturdier than the disposable grocery bags. Since they are thicker, they are less likely to rip and it is far easier to tie them off when they are full. But that also makes these bags more hurtful to the environment. From a consumer standpoint, though, using garbage bags is preferable to reusing grocery bags. The one benefit that the grocery bags had, however, was that they were free. There is no reason to purchase bags when you naturally accumulate them over the course of your shopping.

But raising the price to 10¢ means that it is no longer economical to reuse grocery bags. It is easy to find small garbage bags on sale for less than 10¢. All of a sudden, it makes sense to pay out of pocket to buy the trash bags that are designed to be used as waste bin liners. Why would I possibly pay 10¢ to bring home a bag that will end up being used to pick up dog poop when I can hop on Amazon and buy 810 poop pick-up bags for $16.99? That comes out to 2.09¢/bag.

Now, I get it, I am probably the only person who cares about saving pennies to clean up dog excrement. But the data shows that consumers actually make these cost analyses.

Garbage bags are much thicker than disposable grocery bags. So even if just a fraction of consumers opt to buy these heavier bags, that can end up causing a really significant offset that never seems to be explained when these bag bans are proposed…

These unintended consequences always seem to follow when states implement their environmental agendas. Remember when Starbucks announced that they were changing their lids to decrease the reliance on straws? The problem was that the new lids actually weighed more than the old lids and straws combined. So in an attempt to reduce waste, they have actually increased plastic waste, by weight.

It just goes to show that even something as simple as banning plastic bags ends up being much more complicated than environmentalists claim…

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Max McGuire

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