This commentary originally appeared in the San Antonio Express News on March 28, 2014.

San Antonio and Dallas may soon consider enacting bans on plastic bags similar to the one Austin enacted a year ago. Such a law is a serious affront to the freedom of consumers and business owners and should not be seriously considered by any governing body in Texas.

San Francisco became the first city in America to ban plastic bags at grocery stores in 2007. Los Angeles, Seattle and Portland followed suit, as did other “progressive” municipalities.

The movement to force compliance with the eco-friendly agenda was in full swing.

To listen to proponents of these bans, you’d think that they save not only the planet but also tax dollars. But are these claims true?

Unfortunately for regulators, the answer is “no.”

A recent study from the National Center for Policy Analysis finds that plastic bag bans may not save taxpayers anything.

In San Francisco, the cost of a residential trash can rose from $19.08 in 2005 before its plastic bag ban to $34.08 in 2013, a 78.6 percent increase out of step with San Francisco’s 5 percent population growth and 19.5 percent inflation during that period.

Some plastic bag bans exempt paper bags if they use recycled content, but that is hardly environmentally friendly. According to the American Progressive Bag Alliance, or APBA, a plastic trade organization, plastic bags take up 85 percent less space in landfills than paper bags.

Many localities struggle with having enough landfill capacity, and Texas law makes securing new landfill permits difficult. Prohibiting plastic bags means landfills fill faster, and taxpayers must foot the cost of increasing capacity. Increasing landfill capacity and waste are hardly “eco-friendly” results.

Clearly, the idea that plastic bag bans save money and the environment is a fantasy.

But did you know they might also kill you?

In 2012, the Institute for Law and Economics published a paper titled “Grocery Bag Bans and Foodborne Illness” that finds striking correlations between San Francisco’s plastic bag ban and increased deaths and emergency room visits related to foodborne bacteria.

The reusable grocery bags encouraged by regulators can harbor harmful bacteria such as E. coli, which spread quickly when they are, well, reused. Of course, washing reusable bags itself requires energy and water.

The paper notes that after the ban, deaths in San Francisco due to bacteria such as E. coli increased by almost 50 percent. ER visits increased by a similar amount. The paper concludes, “conservative estimates of the costs and benefits of the San Francisco plastic bag ban suggest the health risks they impose are not likely offset by environmental benefits.”

Not only are these meddlesome laws dangerous, they also threaten liberty.

Small business owners are unable to operate as profitably or effectively when government swoops in to micromanage their affairs through petty regulations. Faced with additional costs, they must hike their prices, placing additional burden on consumers in addition to the loss of consumer choice.

Consumers may no longer hear “paper or plastic,” the common checkout phrase allowing them to make a simple decision for themselves. Instead, government chooses for them.

Plastic bag bans force shoppers to pay more. They increase sickness, they don’t work, they fill landfills, and they restrict the basic freedom to choose.

Cities should steer clear of the temptation to regulate grocery bags.


Jess Fields is a senior analyst with the Center for Local Governance at the Texas Public Policy Foundation, a nonprofit, free-market research institute based in Austin.