California was first with a statewide ban on single-use plastic bags at large retailers. While seven other states have their own specific regulations as do more than 200 large and small municipalities, the basic goal is the same. The ban is supposed to lessen the impact of plastics on waterways and wildlife. It also might diminish landfill and recycling demand.
These are the statewide decisions:
We can also add these “notable” cities (but there are many more places):
However, as always, the impact is more complicated. Especially with COVID-19, we have some problems.
Plastic Bag Bans
It appears that many of us rarely wash the re-usable bags that we use instead of plastic. Because they wind up resting on many surfaces and carry countless items, those fabric bags can become virus carriers.
In a 2011 study, researchers from the University of Arizona took a close look at our reusable bags. After observing that they reside in our car trunks, on supermarket conveyor devices, and in our grocery carts, they checked the bags for pathogens. After finding bacteria in all of them, researchers suggested that we disinfect and wash our bags every time we use them.
Plastic bag bans have also created the incentive for us to shift the plastic we buy. Before California’s statewide ban on plastic bags, an economist compared places in the state that did and did not have them. Tallying how people toted their groceries for six months, she saw that people were using many fewer single-use plastic bags. Instead though, they were buying more plastic garbage bags.
You can see the pop in garbage bag sales:
And even those cotton tote bags are misleading us. The water and air pollution, the emissions and the eco-damage created by a cotton bag far exceeds the environmental cost of making a plastic bag. One study concluded we need to use a cotton bag 20,000 times more than a plastic grocery bag to impact the environment less.
Our Bottom Line: Externalities
Defined as the impact on an uninvolved third party, an externality can be positive or negative. With plastic bag bans, we can say that waterways and wildlife, landfills and recycling programs experience positive externalities. But on the negative side, we have the environmental cost of producing reusable bags, the spillover from the shift in consumption, and the danger during the pandemic.
As Kermit would say, it’s not easy being green:
My sources and more: WSJ, and Forbes each had articles on plastic bag bans and coronavirus. Meanwhile, the most detail on state plastic ban laws is at the NCSL website. Then, for even more, this Planet Money newsletter, this paper, this news article, and this U.K. study had the downside details.