The Problem With Banning Plastic Bags : The Indicator from Planet Money Plastic bags are no boon to the environment — but banning them might be worse.

The Problem With Banning Plastic Bags

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Greg Rosalsky, how are you?


Oh, I'm good. Are we - we're starting? Oh, my God.

VANEK SMITH: Yeah, we're starting.

ROSALSKY: I'm so good.

VANEK SMITH: (Laughter).

ROSALSKY: I'm so excited to be on THE INDICATOR, I must say.

VANEK SMITH: Thanks, Greg. Well, Greg, you are the author of the wonderful Planet Money newsletter.

ROSALSKY: That is right.

VANEK SMITH: If you don't subscribe, you should -

ROSALSKY: That's it.

VANEK SMITH: You can sign up right there. And, Greg, I was reading your newsletter the other day. And, you know, I have to say, it was - I was surprised. Your newsletter was like a love letter to something that I think we all - even if we use it all the time, we don't feel good about it. It is this.


VANEK SMITH: The plastic bag.

ROSALSKY: That's right.

VANEK SMITH: It was like a love letter to the plastic bag.

ROSALSKY: (Laughter).

VANEK SMITH: And it was all about economics. And I was like, we have to have Greg on the show to explain himself.

ROSALSKY: Yeah, love letter might be a little much. It might be a little over - like, I do love plastic bags, though. I do. I think they're great, minus one thing, which is that they're nonbiodegradable.


ROSALSKY: Yeah. Well, they're nonbiodegradable...


ROSALSKY: ...Which is a bummer. But on all the other metrics, it's actually a little bit better than other bags.



ROSALSKY: I'm Greg Rosalsky.

VANEK SMITH: And today on the show, Greg's love letter to plastic bags.


VANEK SMITH: We make him explain his new romance.

ROSALSKY: (Laughter) OK.

VANEK SMITH: (Laughter).


VANEK SMITH: Greg Rosalsky, you were just telling us about your deep and abiding love for plastic bags. This has been coming up a lot lately, though, because a lot of states have been banning plastic bags. California did. And here in New York, there was just a plastic bag ban that was passed.

ROSALSKY: That's right. Since 2007, I believe, it's over 240 states and local governments have implemented either a ban or some sort of fee.

VANEK SMITH: And I remember seeing that and thinking like, oh, like, I use too many plastic bags. That would be good. It would be good if I just couldn't even have the option to use a plastic bag.

But, in fact, like, when you started looking into the economics of this and the economics of bans particularly, like, you found some pretty interesting stuff. And you started really going into it. So tell us what you found.

ROSALSKY: Right. So I talked to this economist. Her name's Rebecca Taylor. She's at the University of Sydney. She's actually an American.

So Taylor recently published this super interesting study about bag bans in California. Since late 2016, California has had a statewide ban on plastic bags. But she was doing her study before then. And this is - you know, there was a whole wave of cities that imposed the policy themselves.

REBECCA TAYLOR: So I'm using stores in California, both those with and without bans. And I look to see what happens before and after the policies go into effect.

ROSALSKY: Taylor uses two sources of data. The first is on what people buy at these stores, so its sales data.

VANEK SMITH: Like, are they buying, like, eggs or Us Weekly or something?

ROSALSKY: Yeah, eggs or diapers or cereal. But that data didn't capture the kind of bags people use at checkout.

TAYLOR: I actually visited stores with a team of undergraduate researchers, and we collected data on what people were doing in the store.

ROSALSKY: For this observational data, how long were you in there with the undergraduates collecting this data?

TAYLOR: We were there for about six months. We made visits on weekends.

ROSALSKY: (Laughter) So you're spending your weekends, for a while, at grocery stores, counting people's bags?

TAYLOR: Yes, yes.


ROSALSKY: So she crunches this data, and she wants to see what happens after plastic bag bans went into effect.

TAYLOR: What I found was that sales of garbage bags actually skyrocketed after plastic grocery bags were banned.

ROSALSKY: So people had reused their bags to, like, line trash bins.

VANEK SMITH: Oh, I do that.

ROSALSKY: Do you use them to pick up dog poop, because that's another common thing?

VANEK SMITH: I don't have a dog (laughter).

ROSALSKY: I don't either. It'd be weird if you were using that to do that.

VANEK SMITH: (Laughter) Well, maybe I - yeah, that would be weird. No, I don't. But, yeah, that would be another way that I would consider using plastic bags, had I a dog.

ROSALSKY: So all these people who reused their plastic bags - they still needed bags.

TAYLOR: Small garbage bags, which are about the same size as a traditional plastic grocery bag - they went up by 120%. Their sales did. Medium bags went up by 60%.

VANEK SMITH: This seems logical. I can see that.


VANEK SMITH: I probably would end up buying little garbage bags if I couldn't reuse a plastic bag.

ROSALSKY: Right. And even, like, sales of large trash bags went up. And so here's the crucial thing that she told me. Like, garbage bags are actually thicker than shopping bags, so they use more plastic. And that makes this increase even worse.

TAYLOR: I find that about 30% of the plastic that was eliminated by banning carryout bags comes back in the form of thicker garbage bags.

ROSALSKY: But here's the thing. The bans - these bans didn't apply to paper bags.


ROSALSKY: And that led to a huge increase of paper use.

VANEK SMITH: Oh, in fact, I have a paper bag.


VANEK SMITH: So here we go. Here's a paper bag. And, yes...

ROSALSKY: Feel it. It's just not - it's just not as good. Like, you hear the...

VANEK SMITH: What? No, these are much - you can recycle these.

ROSALSKY: OK, Stacey, so, like, please, like, do not hate me for pointing this out.


ROSALSKY: But actually, there are multiple studies. And these are good studies. They're from the British government. They're from the Danish government. They're from other places. They all show that, actually, paper bags are worse for the environment than plastic.



VANEK SMITH: I have so much trouble believing that. I always get paper grocery bags.

ROSALSKY: So let me just start with - there's the one - there's one area where plastic bags are clearly the worst offender...


ROSALSKY: ...And that is that they're not biodegradable. Paper bags have this one really great thing for them, which is - which - they are biodegradable. They will eventually break down.

VANEK SMITH: And is it, like, the chopping down of trees? Like, how are paper bags possibly worse for the environment?

ROSALSKY: So yeah. So paper bags are - you have to use a bunch of water. And, like, all these studies find that you have to use way more energy to create them. So studies are showing that, actually, the carbon footprint - a paper bag is four times worse than a single plastic bag.


ROSALSKY: So bag bans in California had these two big unintended consequences. We have a major uptick of trash bag sales. And then we have a major uptick of paper bag use. That's why Taylor says banning plastic shopping bags ends up increasing greenhouse gas emissions.

VANEK SMITH: So I would say this leaves us with nothing, but there is...


VANEK SMITH: ...A kind of bag that I use all the time. I've got, like, a million of them at home. And, you know, this is public radio, so we cannot have this conversation without bringing up the noble tote bag.

ROSALSKY: Stacey, no. I don't want to have to say this, but I have to because...


ROSALSKY: ...I've been pressed into a corner.

VANEK SMITH: There's no corner.

ROSALSKY: And I have this study here from the U.K. government.

VANEK SMITH: It's a tote bag.

ROSALSKY: (Laughter) There's a study from the U.K. government. They did it back in 2011. And they 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.


ROSALSKY: So that's just climate change, by the way.


ROSALSKY: Then there's the overall environmental impact...

VANEK SMITH: Of a tote bag. What?

ROSALSKY: ...Of a tote bag. So the Danish government looked at this.


ROSALSKY: And they look at things like water use. They look at things like damage to ecosystems. These factors make cloth bags, like, way worse.


ROSALSKY: So they find you would have to use a conventional cotton bag 7,100 times more than a plastic grocery bag...


ROSALSKY: ...To make using it better for the environment.

VANEK SMITH: Well, what about organic tote bags?

ROSALSKY: They're even worse. The Danish government estimates you would have to use it - an organic cotton bag - 20,000 times before it's better for the environment than a plastic shopping bag.

VANEK SMITH: OK, great. But, like, we can't just carry things around in our arms. Like, what are we supposed to do with all this? Like, what's the best solution?

ROSALSKY: The main thing I took away from this research is that the most environmentally friendly thing you can do - and everybody agrees here - you should reuse the same bag over and over again. Now, that bag should probably not be organic cotton. Use one that's, like, polyester or a somewhat durable plastic. So that's kind of what you can do in your personal life.

But then there's kind of the broader policy question. Taylor thinks a fee is smarter than a ban. That's because they're both equally effective when it comes to the goal of encouraging reuse. She has a study about this.

TAYLOR: So about 50% of customers use - begin using reusable bags under both a ban and under a fee.

ROSALSKY: So impose a fee and encourage reuse. Behavioral economists know all about this sort of stuff. You guilt people into it. Or, you know, there's all sorts of tricks we could use to get people to reuse bags.


VANEK SMITH: Greg Rosalsky, thank you so much for coming on the show. And I'm sorry. I'm just in, like, a shame spiral. But one thing I can say is that you should sign up for the Planet Money newsletter. It's excellent. The address for that, Greg, is

ROSALSKY: That's right.

VANEK SMITH: And it's every week.

ROSALSKY: And you should totally sign up.


VANEK SMITH: This episode of THE INDICATOR was produced by Constanza Gallardo, edited by Paddy Hirsch. Our intern is Willa Rubin. And THE INDICATOR is a production of NPR.


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