In Monday’s San Antonio Express-News I had an op-ed arguing against the plastic bag bans that are becoming commonplace around the country. (You can read the op-ed here: Banning plastic bags a bad, maybe deadly, idea.) It couldn’t have come at a more opportune time, as Dallas just decided to enact an ordinance placing certain restrictions on the use of plastic bags. 

Now, you might imagine that this would rankle a few folks who are of the mindset that government should force people to make eco-conscious decisions, and you’d be right. I received quite a few e-mails arguing against my piece, and the newspaper’s website also had more than a few opposing comments.

To my surprise, however, perhaps the most controversial item in my article was the overwhelming evidence about how dangerous reusable bags are. Reusable grocery bags, which are posited as the solution to grocery shopping in a world free of disposable grocery bags, are a serious threat to public health. As I said in the article:

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.”

The paper, which was authored by Jonathan Klick of the University of Pennsylvania and Joshua D. Wright of George Mason University, found not just an increase in hospitalization and death due to foodborne illness, but a statistically significant increase in foodborne illness. The paper proves that the ban led to an increase in deaths due to the bag ban. You can see the paper here.

A reasonable question that arises is whether or not washing these reusable bags makes a difference in the risk that they pose, and the answer is definitively “yes.”

In fact, an earlier study by researchers at the University of Arizona and Loma Linda University found that hand or machine washing of reusable bags reduces the bacteria that can cause these illnesses by 99.9 percent! Why, then, is there such an increase?

People don’t wash the bags. Only 3 percent of shoppers using reusable bags surveyed by the authors reported that they regularly washed their reusable bags. Half the bags were used more than one day per week. And, last but not least, 75 percent of the shoppers did not separate meat from vegetables, which can cause these bacteria to spread.

It seems so obvious, and proponents of a plastic bag ban would surely say that it’s so obvious that the behavior of washing reusable bags regularly will easily be adopted by consumers. For their good health, we can only hope that is the case. But the lack of washing of reusable bags is not surprising, and makes complete sense when you think about it.

Forcing someone to adopt a behavior that they did not choose in the first place is a sure way to ensure that they don’t do something well. Consumers are used to disposable bags, and they know disposable bags to be safe ways to transfer foods from the store to their home.

When you then force those same consumers to use reusable bags by banning disposable options, they are likely to try and make their use as convenient as were the disposable bags they were used to. It’s only natural. Unfortunately, not washing these bags, and especially storing the unwashed bags in a hot car or similar, will ensure that they become breeding grounds for dangerous bacteria.

This is a textbook example for lawmakers that forcing people to do things that is against their best interest and preferences (such as forcing them to take extra time washing reusable grocery bags) is a recipe for disaster.

Such social engineering laws, whereby laws aim to change behaviors of individuals through the heavy hand of government, are especially bad public policy and ensure that disastrous unintended consequences will result.