On May 21st, I sat through a city council meeting in Omaha to testify in opposition to a plastic bag ban. I figured I would publish the testimony I used at the meeting. Enjoy!
Good afternoon, Council. My name is Kevin Gomez. I am an instructor of economics at Creighton University and program manager for the Institute for Economic Inquiry at Creighton University. That said, the views discussed here are mine and not of Creighton University or the Institute.
I come to you regarding Ordinance 41807, which aims to amend the Omaha Municipal Code Chapter 18, by creating an article that prohibits the use and distribution of single use plastic carryout bags at any retail establishment of 10,000 square feet or greater. If you care about people, especially the poor, I urge you to vote against the proposed ordinance.
Bans are ineffective if by “solving” one problem they create new ones that are empirically worse.
When these bans are implemented, studies show several unintended effects. We see a dramatic uptick in the purchase of garbage bag liners. Thus, not really solving the “plastic bag problem.” We see a rise in health risks. We see more hazardous waste. We see an increase in shoplifting. We see nearly the same amount of reusable bags going to the dump as plastic bags, but with a larger carbon footprint.
What is more is that in the attempt to be fair with a comprehensive ban, we end up being unfair in two distinct ways. One is that plastic bags are a negligible portion of the total amount of litter, even when singling out storm drains or waterways. In fact litter surveys continuously show plastic retail bags constituting of less than 1 percent of total litter. Given these data, we can hardly justify a plastic bag ban without giving similar treatment to all fast food packaging, plastic bottles, bottlecaps, and other litter sources.
Secondly, these types of bans disproportionately affect the poor. We expect them to buy reusable bags that need to be washed regularly. We expect them to buy garbage bag liners, instead of reusing the bags they bring home from the store. We expect them to buy lunch boxes, instead of using these bags to transport lunches. We expect them to buy bags to throw out soiled diapers, or other hazardous animal and human waste. People with little to no access to bathrooms, like the homeless, often use plastic bags to dispose of their waste. What happens to them when we ban these plastic bags? In fact, after San Diego banned plastic grocery bags the city saw an unprecedented hepatitis outbreak, because the homeless no longer had access to grocery bags to dispose of their excrement.
If we are at all concerned with greenhouse emissions, the data clearly suggests that plastic bags leave less of a carbon footprint than the obvious alternatives–paper bags and tote bags. Looking at their entire life cycle — production, use, and disposal–plastic bags are better for the environment than the forced alternatives that come from a ban. A slew of studies show we would need to use tote bags an unreasonable number of times for it to justify the environmental claims. A Danish EPA study suggest a tote bag has to be reused 20,000 times to equal the environmental impact of one single-use plastic bag.
Cotton or canvas tote bags not only are more environmentally damaging than plastic bags, they are health risks! Food often leaks or spills while being transported from the grocery stores, and should be cleaned regularly. But, many are not. In fact, a study showed that 97% of reusable bag users never washed or bleached their bags. They collect tons of harmful bacteria, such as E. coli and even salmonella! This is not only an obvious health issue, but a socioeconomic issue. Washing them regularly assumes easy access to a washing machine, which disproportionately affects the poor. Also, washing them regularly basically destroys them. So we must purchase more tote bags, again disproportionately affecting the poor.
Another unintended consequence that should be considered is that after banning single use plastic bags, people are forced to use reusable bags but treat them as single-use bags. An assessment of the plastic ban in Austin, TX showed that the volume of reusable plastic bags at the landfill was nearly equivalent to the amount of all of the single use bags removed from the recycling streams as a result of the ordinance implemented in 2013. So, a ban essentially replaces single-use plastic bags with environmentally costly reusable bags at the dump.
Plastic bags are used to help distinguish goods that have been purchased. By bringing in non-standardized tote bags, it becomes difficult to determine which customers have paid for their goods as goods are now “unbagged.” A study looking at Seattle showed that 21.1 percent of Seattle businesses owners saw an increase in shoplifting after a plastic bag ban.
Importantly, a ban eliminates the possibility of much needed innovation by removing the incentive to find cost-effective and profitable alternatives to plastic bags. Moreover, it creates a slew of other problems toward which entrepreneurs must then direct their attention.
A ban reduces the possibility of stores differentiating themselves by deciding to go “plastic-free.” Voluntary stances like these have more impact on the social norms than coercive bans. In other words, the virtue signalling that comes from being “plastic free” is much more useful than a ban in fostering long-term change.
Personally, a plastic bag ban will not have too much of an effect on me. I will buy more garbage bags and adjust pretty quickly. I’ll do more of my shopping online and get my groceries delivered. But how about the poor? Not only do the poor use and reuse these plastic bags but the poor have little to no voice in these matters as they often do not have the time to even think about or rebut any of these types of proposals.
A ban on plastic bags could at best reduce the amount of plastic in circulation (although that is doubtful given the evidence I have just presented), but I ask, at what cost? It’s likely that this ban will have negative health effects, little to no effect on litter, and increase carbon emissions. It will interfere in the ability for long-lasting social change which encourages innovation. Finally, it will disproportionately affect those without a voice in our community and society–the poor.
I urge you to vote NO on this ordinance. Throw the ban away!
Thank you for allowing me the opportunity to speak on this matter.
Kevin D. Gomez