Researchers looking into the effects of many California cities acting to ban plastic bags at grocery stores (well, a ban unless you pay 10 cents for one) has been very effective in changing shopping habits, but has also resulted in an unexpected consequence: people are now buying a bunch of plastic bags.
University of Sydney economist Rebecca Taylor looked into the plastic shopping bag bans that began sweeing California in late 2016, with 139 California cities and counties implementing the policy. They looked into how the bans changed customer habits and there was a bit of a surprise, according to NPR:
Taylor found these bag bans did what they were supposed to: People in the cities with the bans used fewer plastic bags, which led to about 40 million fewer pounds of plastic trash per year. But people who used to reuse their shopping bags for other purposes, like picking up dog poop or lining trash bins, still needed bags. “What I found was that sales of garbage bags actually skyrocketed after plastic grocery bags were banned,” she says. This was particularly the case for small, 4-gallon bags, which saw a 120 percent increase in sales after bans went into effect.
So yes, a perfectly good plan…only to be foiled by dog poop!
And while the purchased bags are better for users than those crummy, flimsy shopping bags they used to hand out at the grocery store, those bags are much worse for the environment.
Trash bags are thick and use more plastic than typical shopping bags. “So about 30 percent of the plastic that was eliminated by the ban comes back in the form of thicker garbage bags,” Taylor says. On top of that, cities that banned plastic bags saw a surge in the use of paper bags, which she estimates resulted in about 80 million pounds of extra paper trash per year.
So yes, a perfectly good plan…only to be foiled by paper bags!
And those paper bags have actually been shown to be worse for the environment than plastic bags. And it actually gets worse when you consider those reusable cotton tote bags:
A 2011 study by the U.K. government found a person would have to reuse a cotton tote bag 131 times before it was better for climate change than using a plastic grocery bag once. The Danish government recently did a study that took into account environmental impacts beyond simply greenhouse gas emissions, including water use, damage to ecosystems and air pollution. These factors make cloth bags even worse. They estimate you would have to use an organic cotton bag 20,000 times more than a plastic grocery bag to make using it better for the environment.
So what the hell are you supposed to do when it comes to bags? Researchers have found that a reusable polyester type of bag might be the best option, provided it is used a few dozen times.
Taylor’s research also showed that a small fee for bags is just as effective as a ban when it comes to encouraging use of reusable bags – with the fee offering flexibility for people who want to reuse plastic bags for garbage disposal or dog walking.