Entertaining an Argument Against the Plastic Bag Ban

California is considering banning the single-use plastic bag from grocery stores (and adopting a 5-cent charge for paper bags). The legislation, which looks likely to pass, is designed to reduce the amount of plastic litter we have to deal with.

But not everyone's a fan. In a piece in the Los Angeles Times, Peter Grande argues that the plastic bag ban would be a job-killer and would only push more people towards paper bags, which are even worse from an environmental perspective. And, he tells us, "As the president of a plastic bag manufacturer in Los Angeles County, I know all about this issue."

His first point is that the ban would have adverse economic effects:

At my factory alone, 200 people will lose good-paying jobs almost immediately. This comes at a time when our state budget is running a $19-billion deficit and when our state economy has an unemployment rate higher than 12%.

I'm not buying this argument. Two hundred jobs is not a huge number. And there are economic benefits to the legislation, too. Proponents say it could save a chunk of the $25 million that goes towards litter cleanup in the state and the charge on paper bags will certainly generate some revenue. It's totally possible that those benefits outweigh any economic costs.

Moreover, if you look at the website for Grande's company you'll see that Command Packaging makes many different bags. They make restaurant takeout bags and reusable bags and bags for home use. None of those would be affected by the ban. Command Packaging would just have to phase out the super-cheap plastic grocery bag.

His second point is about the environmental impact:

The goal of the bill may be to reduce first-use bags, but the net effect is simply a replacement of plastic bags with paper bags. And that's bad news for anyone who cares about the environment. An Environmental Impact Report by Los Angeles County acknowledges that if plastic bags are banned, 85% of consumers would switch to paper bags instead of reusable bags. We have seen this to be true in places where plastic bags have been eliminated, including San Francisco, Whole Foods and Trader Joe's. And what would this switch to paper bags mean for global warming? According to the figures in the report, 85% of Californians switching to paper bags would be the equivalent greenhouse gas emissions of between 250,000 and 550,000 more cars on the road every year.

Here he may have a point. Paper bags are significantly worse, and if it's true that 85 percent of people switch to paper (I can't find the Environmental Impact Report he's referring to) the net environmental effect of the ban might well be negative.

The problem, of course, is that if plastic bags are banned and a paper bag costs 5 cents, then paper has a strong relative appeal to consumers. But the solution is not, as Grande says, to "bag the ban" and stick with a status quo in which both paper and plastic bags are essentially free. The solution is to ratchet the price for paper bags up towards their true cost, externalities included, or make them part of the ban, so that there's a bigger incentive to remember a reusable bag. Grande doesn't advocate for that, though, because he runs a plastic bag company.

Image: Escalator, a Creative Commons Attribution Share-Alike (2.0) image from bredgur's photostream

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