New York’s City council voted this week to force retailers to charge a fee of at least 5 cents for each plastic bag. “The fee is irritating, which his precisely why it works,” Councilwoman Margaret Chin, the legislation’s main sponsor, told the New York Times. “We don’t want to pay it, so we’ll bring [reusable] bags instead. So the fact that it’s irritating irritates a lot of people.”
It’s bad enough that New York’s council has deliberately set out to annoy and frustrate its constituents. Even worse, this pesky rule is may actually do even more damage to the environment—and it comes with some serious health risks for consumers.
Plastic bag litter is actually much less of a problem than New York’s City Council realizes. One comprehensive study found that plastic bags account for just 0.6 percent of all litter. And New Yorkers already often end up reusing their bags, lining bathroom trash cans or cleaning up after dogs on the street.
The environmental argument against plastic bags isn’t strong, either. Reusable bags are much more carbon-intensive to create, so consumers have to use them a whole lot of times before they become greener than the alternative.
The United Kingdom studied this in depth, factoring in everything from the extraction of raw materials to a reusable bag’s manufacture, distribution and disposal. It concluded that the basic plastic bag is actually 200 times greener than cotton reusable bags.
A consumer would have to use a cotton bag no fewer than 131 times before it becomes greener than flimsy plastic; polypropylene is a bit better, but still requires at least 11 uses before breaking even.
But a recent Clemson study found that consumers forgot their reusable bags about 40 percent of the time. And on average, those reusable polypropylene bags ended up getting only about 3.1 uses before shoppers tossed them.
In addition to the bag ban’s nebulous environmental benefits, there’s also a major ick factor.
A whopping 97 percent of consumers don’t regularly wash their bags, according to a report from the University of Arizona and Loma Linda University. Their researchers swabbed 84 bags for bacteria, and the findings were outright nasty: coliform bacteria in half, E. coli in 12 percent.
When San Francisco banned plastic bags, the number of E. coli infections spiked. Even worse, the number of foodborne-illness deaths rose a whopping 46 percent in the three months after the bag ban began.
Far be it from the green do-gooders on New York’s City Council to consider something as boring as science, though. They’ve got a planet to save!
— Jillian Kay Melchior writes for Heat Street and is a fellow for the Steamboat Institute and Independent Women’s Forum.