On September 30, California became the first state to ban the use of plastic bags in stores, leading to a barrage of misinformation from various media outlets claiming the ban would actually hurt the environment. However, these contrarian claims are undermined by research showing that previous bans and taxes have reduced energy use and litter, while doing no harm to the economy.
MYTH: Plastic Bag Alternatives Are Worse For The Environment
- The Reason Foundation's James Agresti cherry-picked a U.K. Environment Agency study to assert that all reusable bags must be used hundreds of times in order to bring an environmental benefit in a feature at The Wall Street Journal titled "Bans on Plastic Bags Harm The Environment." [The Wall Street Journal, 6/15/12]
- An editorial from the Orange County Register similarly claimed that research suggests "plastic carryout bags are, on balance, less harmful to the environment than paper, cotton or other types of reusable shopping bags." [Orange County Register, 9/30/14]
- National Review Online's Nat Brown misquoted a report on Ireland's plastic bag tax, claiming that sales of non-grocery bags "rose an astonishing 400 percent," entirely offsetting the benefits of the tax. However, that number came from a single store, and newspapers estimated that the actual rise overall was less than a fourth of that. [National Review Online, 10/1/14; OLR Research Report, 12/17/08]
FACT: Bans Significantly Reduce Energy Use And Waste
UK Study: One Type Of Reusable Bag Needs Only 4 Reuses To Be Better Than A Plastic Bag. A 2011 U.K. Environment Agency study looked at how often paper bags and three different types of reusable bags -- low-density polyethylene (LDPE), non-woven polypropylene (PP), and cotton bags -- needed to be reused to have a lower impact on climate change than other types of bags. Conservative media have cherry-picked this study, reporting only that the cotton bag needs to be reused 131 times to be better for the environment than a conventional, lightweight, one-use plastic bag -- labeled as a High-density polyethylene (HDPE) bag. However, the study also found that reusable bags made from LDPE or PP needed to only be reused 4 or 11 times, respectively, to have a lower environmental impact. The study also measured how often these bags would need to be reused in order to have a lower impact than plastic bags, assuming that some or all of the bags were used as trash can ("bin") liners.