Debbie Routt: Plastic bag ban has unintended consequences | SteamboatToday.com

Debbie Routt: Plastic bag ban has unintended consequences

City Council’s decision to ban single-use plastic bags may be short-sighted.

The January 2019 Journal of Environmental Economics and Management study by University of Sydney economist Rebecca Taylor determined the deleterious consequences of such bans: trash bag sales jump exponentially after single-use plastic bag bans.

• The elimination of 40 million pounds of plastic bags is offset by a 12 million pound increase in trash bag purchases — small, medium and tall trash bag sales increased by 120%, 64% and 6%, respectively.

• 12–22% of plastic bags were reused as trash bags pre-regulation and bag bans shift consumers towards fewer, but heavier, bags. With a substantial proportion of carryout bags already reused in a way that avoided the manufacture and purchase of another plastic bag, policy evaluations that ignore leakage effects overstate the regulation’s welfare gains.

If all shoppers using plastic bags last year had used paper instead, they would have increased the amount of solid waste by over 100 million tons and used seven times more landfill space. Plastic bags require less energy to collect and recycle than paper ones.

A 2011 study by the British Environment Agency determined a cotton tote bag must be used 131 times before it is better for the environment than using a plastic grocery bag. But such bags could serve as a co-marketing effort by the chamber of commerce and lodging establishments to seasonal visitors to engage them in stewardship of our local environment.

Experts say a better approach to a plastic bag ban is to charge shoppers a small fee for the single-use bag. Taylor determined that charging a small fee for bags is just as effective as a ban when it comes to encouraging use of reusable bags. A fee offers consumers flexibility for those who reuse such plastic bags for garbage disposal or pet waste collection.

Bag fees have not typically required re-marketing educational initiatives. This is crucial in a resort town. Programs and materials can be created to educate residents and visitors about the benefits of the secondary uses of single-use plastic bags e.g., reusing them for garbage is good for your wallet and the environment.   

Citizens and city officials should make data-driven, unemotional decisions. Plastic bags are a fraction of America’s overall trash, yet they’ve become a visible sign of waste: easy to attack, but possibly with unintended consequences.

Debbie Routt

Steamboat Springs


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