The Reason Foundation, a public policy research company, recently published a study evaluating the effects of California's proposed plastic bag ban. However, upon a closer reading it is clear that this report misrepresents the facts, utilizes out-dated evidence, and misses key components of the state and local legislation.
The study argues that plastic bag bans have practically no impact on the amount of litter generated. They utilize the 2007, 2008 and 2009 San Francisco Litter Audits to make the claim that litter from retail bags has increased. This is a misrepresentation of the facts presented in these audits. As you can see in Table ES-5, taken directly from the audit, there was actually an 18% decrease from 2007 to 2009 in retail plastic bag litter.
Other cities had even more positive results. The city of San Jose experienced 59-60% fewer bags in their streets and creeks, and 89% fewer bags in storm drain systems. In Los Angeles County, the bag ordinance reduced overall single-use bag distribution by 95%, including a 30% reduction of paper bags.
Despite the claim that the ban would make little to no difference in municipal waste management costs, these bags are not accepted at curb side recyling programs and often clog machines, leading to costly repairs for waste management facilities. San Jose reported a cost of $1 million in recycling machinery related repairs and losses before it banned bags. Cities without bans however are still facing these costly problems. Sacramento reports that it shuts down its recycling facility six times a day to deal with plastic bags.
In terms of environmental impacts, the study places a large emphasis on the fact that there is no "Great Pacific Garbage Patch", and highlights the fact that large plastics are not swarming in visible mass. This claim inadverdently points out a counterargument to their claims. Precisely, many plastic bags can not be seen in the ocean, because they photodegrade into smaller more problematic pieces. These microplastics absorb persistent organic pollutants including long lasting toxic chemicals like DDT, PAHs, and PCBs (flame retardants), which harm marine life and bioaccumulate up the food chain.
For potential environmental impacts, the study relies heavily on older, out of date, and/or non-geographically accurate LCAs, such as the Boustead LCA, which assumes lower paper bag recycling rates, lower methane capture rates in landfills, and reduced carrying capacity of paper bags in CA than is currently recorded. But as concluded by the 2011 Keep California Beautiful study, in as few as 8 uses, a 40% recycled content LLDPE reusable bag would have lower impact on water, nonrenewable energy, solid waste, and greenhouse gas emissions than an HDPE single-use bag.
Another example of inaccurate evidence is the citing of the 2010 Oregon Norovirus case study to highlight the adverse health impacts of reusable bags. However, the author of the study himself, Bill Keene, disproves this correlation as he clearly stated that "this story has nothing to do with disposable bags, reusable bags, or anything similar".
Cost to Consumers
This study claims that the economic impacts of the bag ban will have a disproportionate effect on lower income households, and shift the wealth to grocers. However the legislation clearly stipulates exemptions from charges for WIC participants and low income households. Moreover, anyone can avoid paying for a bag by bringing in their own bag, or going without.
In terms of grocers' cost, a Davis food co-op reports the cost of their paper bags to range between 10.5 and 11.7 cents to buy. So the ten cent charge is just enough, or sometimes even too little, to compensate for providing these bags in some stores. Ten cents is the average cost for paper bags. Further, there is no "free" bag as the study suggests, because consumers already pay for the cost of plastic bags through increased grocery prices.
The study highlights the fact that plastic bags are reusable and recyclable. However less than 5% of plastic bags are actually recycled and as mentioned above often create problems to the waste industry. Further, plastic produce bags, which are not banned under SB 270, can be re-used in similar ways to plastic grocery bags, such as garbage liners and pet waste collection.
A large argument the study makes is that plastic bags are more environmentally friendly due to the use of natural gas in their production. Despite the word "natural", there is nothing eco-friendly about the process of hydraulic fracturing which is required to extract this natural gas.
The Koch Connection
The Reason Foundation, advertised as an objective political think-tank, has a long history of special interest groups in their funding.
David H. Koch of the Koch brothers is on the Foundation's board of trustees. The Koch brothers are key funders of right wing infrastructure and notoriously fund anti-environmental and pro-corporate projects. They are also connected to the American Legislative Exchange Council's (ALEC) who provides a gateway for corporations to influence officials on legislation. According to sourcewatch.org, from 1998 to 2012 the Koch Family Foundations gave Reason Foundation/Reason Public Policy Institute a combined $1.3 million dollars.
Don't be tricked by misleading studies. Plastic bag bans have been hugely successful in California, with the support of consumers, grocers, local governments, waste management, and reusable bag companies.