(Image used with permission from www.knockknock.biz)
(This essay of mine appeared in the Wall Street Journal on March 8, 2014 and is reprinted with permission.)
Limiting the number of plastic bags that can litter the landscape or clog the oceans is a worthy goal, but laws that begin with good intentions often have unintended consequences. Consider what’s unfolding in Los Angeles. On Jan. 1, the city became the largest in the nation to outlaw the use of free plastic bags in retail grocery stores. Customers who arrive at the market bagless are charged 10 cents for each plastic bag to hold their purchases.
But apparently going after grocery-store bags wasn’t enough: A California State Senate bill (SB 270) is now attempting to outlaw free single-use plastic bags in convenience stores, pharmacies and liquor stores statewide. While the bill needs to clear both state houses and get Gov. Jerry Brown’s approval, it would impose the same dime-a-bag fee on customers throughout the state beginning July 1, 2015. Larger stores would also be required to set up recycling bins for those bags made of polyethylene and other materials that begin with the prefix “poly.” One wonders: Why would customers recycle bags when they need them for shopping?
Though reducing plastic-bag use might be good for the environment, encouraging the re-use of plastic bags for food-toting may not be so healthy for humans. After San Francisco introduced its ban on non-compostable plastic bags in large grocery stores in 2007, researchers discovered a curious spike in E. coli infections, which can be fatal, and a 46% increase in deaths from food-borne illnesses, according to a study published in November 2012 by the University of Pennsylvania and George Mason University. “We show that the health costs associated with the San Francisco ban swamp any budgetary savings from reduced litter,” the study’s authors observed.
Affirming this yuck factor, a 2011 study from the University of Arizona and Loma Linda University found bacteria in 99% of reusable polypropylene bags tested; 8% of them were carrying E. coli. The study, though it mainly focused on plastic bags, also looked at two cotton reusable bags—and both contained bacteria.
Bag-ban boosters counter that consumers just need to wash their bags and use separate bags for fish and meat. If only my washing machine had a “reusable bag vinegar rinse cycle.” A paltry 3% of shoppers surveyed in that same 2011 study said they washed their reusable bags. Has anybody calculated the environmental impact of drought-ravaged Californians laundering grocery bags?
I prepared for the Los Angeles bag ban by hoarding paper and plastic bags from the grocery store. I now have an alarming inventory that spills out from two closets, a corner in my kitchen and the trunk of my car. Sometimes I remember to actually bring the bags with me into the store. More often than not, they suffer the same fate as my coupons and are left uselessly behind.
The first time I shopped after the law took effect, I was already at checkout when I remembered that the plastic grocery bags I had brought were still in the car. I could imagine, in the heat of the car, harmful bacteria having a field day spawning themselves silly inside the plastic. With a pained look, the cashier said she would have to charge me 60 cents for my bags. Since the tab for my groceries was close to $100, I couldn’t help but laugh. I had already saved nearly $16 by using the store’s “key buy” discounts. Sixty cents didn’t seem like a big splurge for keeping my groceries bacteria-free.
Understandably, many shoppers resent having to pay for bags on principle, even at a dime a pop. After all, if they shopped at Costco, COST 0.00% Lowe’s or got Chinese take-out, they would still get their bags gratis—at least for another year.
I will miss those flimsy plastic bags when my stash runs out. They make excellent liners for small garbage cans and are ideal for picking up after the dog. A spokesperson for the environmental-rights organization Heal the Bay, based in Santa Monica, suggests that dog owners get “creative” and use the plastic liners that come in cereal boxes instead. “Creative” is one word for it. I can think of others. And when the plastic bags I’ve saved are gone, I will have no choice but to purchase replacements, which are made from heavier plastic and probably require more petroleum to produce.
A 2013 environmental impact report sponsored by the Los Angeles Bureau of Sanitation—weighing in at a hefty 529 recyclable pages—noted that nearly two billion single-use plastic bags are used annually in the city. The dime-a-bag fee in L.A. is meant as a “deterrent.” But shopping bags abhor a vacuum, and enterprising organizations and entrepreneurs are rushing to fill any gaps.
Last week I received new, reusable totes emblazoned with the names of a local realtor and my synagogue. All were made in China from recycled materials that have a peculiar feel to them. I couldn’t help noting that earlier this year a study published by Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences found that emissions from Chinese factories is increasing air pollution in the Western United States—including Los Angeles.
No doubt my collection of totes from other enterprising businesses and organizations will grow, and I’m getting better about remembering to bring them along to the grocery store. I hope they don’t end up giving me E. coli.