There's a crisis in Los Angeles. Is it the city's projected $250 million budget deficit? The city's $10 billion shortfall in pension obligations? Its crumbling infrastructure? A public school dropout rate approaching 50 percent? No, the City of Angels is facing catastrophe in the form of grocery bags.
So great is the menace that the City Council is poised to impose on the good people of Los Angeles the country's strictest grocery bag ban, prohibiting the distribution of both plastic and paper bags.
Proponents give three reasons for the bag ban. They claim it will reduce the amount of waste entering landfills, reduce litter on streets, and "help protect the environment."
But banning free grocery bags will not achieve those lofty goals.
First, banning free plastic grocery bags won't reduce waste. California's Statewide Waste Characterization Study [pdf] shows that "Plastic Grocery and Other Merchandise Bags" consistently make up just 0.3 percent of the waste stream in the state. That's three-tenths of 1 percent. In comparison, organic waste such as food and yard clippings makes up 32 percent while construction debris comprises about 30 percent. The effect of eliminating free grocery bags on the amount of waste generated in the city would be insignificant.
Second, despite misleading claims from environmental groups and the L.A. Bureau of Sanitation, banning free plastic grocery bags won't do much to reduce litter in the public commons. Litter studies from across the country demonstrate that, on average, plastic retail bags make up about 1 percent to 2 percent of all litter.
Even that small amount of litter doesn't decline when bans are enacted. In San Francisco, plastic bags comprised 0.6 percent of litter before the city banned plastic bags and 0.64 percent a year after the ban took effect [pdf, pg. 35]. Since plastic grocery bags make up less than 2 percent of roadside trash, banning them will affect neither the total amount of litter nor the cost of cleaning it up.
Third, banning free plastic grocery bags won't reduce our consumption of foreign (or domestic) oil. L.A.'s Bureau of Sanitation claims [pdf] that "approximately 12 million barrels of oil go into the US supply of plastic bags." But plastic bags made in the U.S. are not derived from oil; they're made from a byproduct of domestic natural gas refinement. Manufacturing plastic grocery bags does not increase our need to import oil, and banning them in Los Angeles or anywhere else will not reduce US oil consumption.
Despite claims that plastics threaten our oceans and sea life, there is no evidence that free plastic grocery bags make up any significant portion of the plastic waste found on beaches or in the ocean. In fact, reports from environmental groups doing beach and ocean clean-ups show that plastic bags make up only about 2 percent of the debris.
Furthermore, reusable bags being touted as a "green" alternative carry their own environmental costs. Unlike locally manufactured plastic bags, reusable woven bags are primarily produced in China and imported to the U.S. on cargo ships which burn millions of gallons of dirty low-grade fuel oil. Because they're made of mixed materials, these reusable bags can't be recycled and will eventually end up in landfills, unlike plastic grocery bags which are fully recyclable.
Bags made of canvas have an even greater impact on the environment due to the natural resources required to grow cotton and manufacture bags. Frequently, reusable bags often carry more than just groceries. In a recent study by the University of Arizona, almost every bag sampled contained large amounts of bacteria including coliform, E. coli, and other opportunistic pathogens. The public is being instructed to wash these bags after each use, which, over time, will require huge amounts of energy and waste precious water.
So if banning free plastic grocery bags won't save the planet, what will it do? For one thing, it will lead to the loss of American jobs. More than 30,000 people in the U.S. are directly employed by the plastic bag manufacturing and recycling industry, and thousands more are indirectly employed.
If passed, the L.A. bag ban could potentially lead to the loss of manufacturing jobs that support more than 1,000 families in the Los Angeles area alone, according to Pete Grande, CEO at Command Packaging, a recycler and producer of environmentally friendly plastic bags.
Where patrons have the option to shop in communities without bag bans, that's exactly what they choose to do. According to Sid Marantz, Program Director for Marantz & Associates, a local provider of grocery store supplies, after Los Angeles County imposed a plastic bag ban in unincorporated areas, shoppers simply went elsewhere and merchants unlucky enough to be located where the ban was imposed have seen a significant decline in business.
The ban on both paper and plastic would also directly lead to a loss of economic activity. With no choice other than to carry stacks of reusable bags or purchase unneeded extra bags, shoppers will have less money for shopping. The 90 percent of the population who now reuse free plastic grocery bags for trash and pet waste will have to buy replacements, depressing their discretionary income.
But the real crisis—the one that rarely gets discussed—is that these types of bans require another public acceptance of total government intrusion into our lives. Is it a legitimate role of government to prohibit one individual from giving a free bag to another individual on the pretext of a supposed societal benefit that does not withstand even friendly scrutiny? Doesn't every human interaction, no matter how small, have some arguable effect on society? And if so, what's to prevent those who seek to dictate how everyone lives from invoking that argument at every turn? The crisis in Los Angeles and around the country is that too few people are asking those questions.
Jay Beeber is a filmmaker and activist living in Los Angeles.