Gomez is an instructor of economics and program manager of the Institute for Economic Inquiry at the Heider College of Business at Creighton University. Thomas is an associate professor of economics and director of the Institute for Economic Inquiry.
The Omaha City Council’s proposal to ban single-use plastic bags should be thrown out.
Council member Pete Festersen and Council President Ben Gray recently proposed an ordinance banning the use of plastic carryout bags at grocery stores.
Mayor Jean Stothert opposed the original proposal, noting that it would impose unjustifiable costs only on some firms and consumers: the proposed ordinance originally would not include big-box retailers, such as Walmart and Target. Currently, the ordinance is being amended to be more fair, while likely excluding some stores.
You may believe that a more comprehensive ban is the right way to go, but the evidence involving the environmental benefits of plastic bag bans is not as clear-cut.
The negative environmental effects of plastic and the rise of plastic littering should, of course, be of concern.
Plastic takes a long time to break down. We see it floating in our riverways and oceans. We see plastic bags in our storm drains. The aim of Festersen’s and Gray’s proposal is to reduce plastic bag litter resulting from these bags going to the dump. Unfortunately, a citywide ban on single-use retail bags will not have the positive environmental impact we all want.
In fact, it may have negative effects.
“Single-use” retail bags are already being recycled at very high rates: After grocery shopping, many consumers store their bags under the kitchen sink and repurpose them for various uses. City-dwelling dog owners reuse their grocery bags as poop bags.
Parents use the “single-use” bags for soiled diapers. And even if people don’t have dogs or children, they may reuse their grocery bags to carry lunch to work or simply as a small trash bin liner in home offices, bedrooms and bathrooms. Let’s also not forget the power of entrepreneurship in this arena. Environmentally conscious individuals and groups have come up with dozens of creative uses for grocery bags: like sleeping mats for the homeless, coasters or rugs.
A recent study investigating the impact of a plastic bag ban in California suggests that approximately 21% of grocery bags are re-used as garbage bags.
And after a ban on single-use plastic bags in Ireland, the country’s largest food retailer reported an increase in the sales of trash can liners of approximately 77 percent, which negated much of the benefits of the plastic bag ban.
Cities that ban plastic bags see a surge in the use of substitutes like paper bags and cloth or tote bags. Surprisingly, plastic bags are actually, on net, better for the environment than those substitutes.
Paper is superior to plastic in terms of biodegradability, but paper bags do worse than plastic bags in terms of greenhouse gas emissions. If someone is at all worried about climate change, a switch to paper bags should be bothersome. Cloth bags, or tote bags, are even worse for the environment. A Danish study finds that we would have to reuse each tote bag 20,000 times in order to achieve the environmental impact of a plastic bag.
Plastic bags are often touted to be a huge source of litter. Festersen suggests, “It’s really discouraging to see all the plastic bag litter that’s around.”
But litter surveys tell a different story: A study compiling national, statewide and citywide litter surveys shows that plastic retail bags make up less than 1% of litter. Yes, this includes litter found clogging storm drains. And litter, as a more general phenomenon, is on the decline in the United States: Due to a shift in social norms, the litter rate has declined by 61% since 1969.
Given this evidence, the best option is not to ban plastic bags, but to promote the reuse of our plastic grocery bags and to continue the social movement against littering. Finally, removing barriers for entrepreneurs to find profitable ways to clean up our communities will help the environment.
If the City Council is going to address this issue at all, Stothert’s suggestion of a nonbinding resolution would be the second-best option.
An outright ban is a grandstand that will inevitably fall short on its promises.