Hey, California! Want to Conserve Water? Then Don't Ban Plastic Bags.

What happens when green populism meets environmental necessity


Enemy of the state
Credit: T Gibbison / Foter / CC BY-NC-SA

California is attempting once again to ban plastic grocery bags statewide. SB 270 would require all grocery stores, liquor stores and pharmacies to offer reusable bags or recycled paper bags instead. It's been well-established that bag bans will barely make any dent at all in the state's waste make-up or fix litter problems. Even a company that produces reusable bags and hates plastic bags thinks a bag ban is a bad idea, because it's "an emotional response which fails to strike at the heart of the issue; instead of a market-based solution, a ban shifts production to paper bags and compostable bags, both of which have heavy environmental consequences."

California is also in the middle of a drought so severe that Gov. Jerry Brown is trying to discourage people from flushing the toilet. Californians are urged to cut water consumption by 20 percent and rural communities are in potential danger of running out.

We have a contradiction in environmental goals. If Californians do switch to reusable bags, in order to use them safely, the bags will need to be washed regularly, increasing residents' water consumption. Here's the full list of tips from the state's Department of Public Health (pdf) when turning to reusable grocery bags:

At home:

  • Reusable grocery bags should be machine or hand-washed frequently! Dry the bags in a clothes dryer or allow them to air dry.
  • After putting groceries away, clean the areas where the bags were placed while
  • unbagging your groceries, especially the kitchen counter and the kitchen table where food items may later be prepared or served.
  • If food residues from any food products have leaked into the bag, make sure to wash and dry the bag thoroughly before reuse.
  • If reusable grocery bags have been used to transport non-food items, such as detergents, household cleaners, and other chemicals, wash and dry the bags before using them to transport food items. Alternatively, you may wish to use bags of one color for food items and bags of a different color for non-food items.
  • Store grocery bags away from sources of contamination, such as pets, children,and chemicals. Storing reusable grocery bags in the trunk of cars is not recommended. During the warmer months, the increased temperatures can promote the growth of bacteria that may be present on the bags. 

At the store:

  • Place reusable bags on the bottom shelf of the grocery cart (below the cart basket where food products are placed).
  • When selecting packages of meat, poultry, or fish, consider putting the packages in clear plastic bags (often available in the meat and produce sections) to prevent leaking juices from contaminating other food items and the reusable grocery bags.
  • Fresh produce should be placed in clear plastic bags to help protect the items from contamination.
  • At checkout, do not place reusable grocery bags on the conveyor belt. Hand the bags to the checker/bagger or, if self-bagging, carry the bags to the bagging area at the end of the checkout counter.
  • Meat, poultry, and fish should be placed in separate reusable bags from fresh produce and ready-to-eat foods.
  • Non-food items should be placed in separate reusable bags from food products

There's quite a bit of cleaning and water consumption suggested by the state itself (and note the recommendation of single-use plastic bags!). But does it add up to much? A researcher at California State University, Chico, assessed the energy consumption, waste production and water use involved over the lifetime of various types of bags (pdf). The results vary, but for certain types of reusable plastic bags, their manufacture and use over the course of a year will consume four times as much water as the same number of single-use plastic bags.  The trade-off is that the reuse of the bag reduces waste and energy consumption in other areas.

Paper bags, by the way, are an awful alternative for anybody wanting to conserve water. The manufacture of single-use paper bags uses 17 times the amount of water as single-use plastic bags. The bags they're offering in grocery stores in Los Angeles, for example, may not have been made in California, so they may not be adding to the state's drought woes. Still, though, nobody who is actually in favor of conservation should support paper bags over single-use plastic bags.

The larger point, other than plastic bag bans being poorly considered manifestations of green populism, is that priorities matter in environmental regulation. The state of California's water supply is much more important than its consumption of plastic bags. Going for a state-wide ban on plastic bags runs counter to the state's need to conserve water.