We’re facing a weak economy and budget deficits as far as the eye can see, yet some legislators find the time to propose a ban on plastic bags. What a distraction!
All of us agree that it’s imperative that our beautiful state remains free from trash and litter. But banning plastic grocery bags statewide – a measure the General Assembly is again working to introduce, although it was voted down just four years ago – is the wrong way to achieve that important goal.
Legislators have based their support for the plan on a host of promised environmental benefits that will never materialize. What’s more, they once again have failed to consider the negative impact – both in terms of health and economics — that the legislation would have on Connecticut’s residents.
Supporters say there are environmental benefits to banning plastic bags. Actually, plastic bags aren’t the environmental liability Connecticut’s lawmakers and self-proclaimed environmentalists would have us believe. Across the Northeast, plastic bags make up just a fraction more than one percent of all litter, according to a 2014 Rhode Island litter survey. In fact, the item most often found in landfills is not plastic, but paper.
Second, despite the ban supporters’ claims to the contrary, plastic grocery bags are rarely “single-use.” Nine in ten Americans repurpose their plastic grocery bags in a variety of ways. As one busy Connecticut mom explains, “We pack lunches in them, throw out the kitty litter and the garbage in them.” For millions of families that’s a huge convenience and a big cost saver.
When a bag’s entire lifecycle is considered, plastic is actually the most eco-friendly checkout option for shoppers. American-made plastic bags are 100 percent recyclable and produced from natural gas, requiring less energy and emitting far fewer greenhouse gases in their production than their “green” alternatives. By contrast, the standard “reusable” bag is a petroleum-based product – which is not recyclable – and eventually winds up entering the waste stream. As for “carbon footprint,” a reusable cotton grocery bag must be reused a whopping 131 times to have “lower global warming potential” than a single plastic bag used once, according to the UK Environmental Agency.
What’s more, supporters of a plastic bag ban should consider the health consequences of the policy they’re pushing. A 2011 University Arizona and Loma Linda University study of reusable bags in California and Arizona found that 51 percent contained coliform bacteria. Although washing the bags largely eliminates bacteria, the study found that 97 percent of reusable bag users reported that they never wash their bags! Perhaps that explains episodes like one reported in the Los Angeles Times, where a reusable grocery bag left in a hotel bathroom caused an outbreak of norovirus-induced illness among a girls’ soccer team.
The legislation’s adverse consequences aren’t limited to health. In fact, the self-styled environmentalists should consider the effect of a ban on thousands of American manufacturing jobs in hundreds of plants across the country, including the employees of Fortune Plastics in Old Saybrook, who will be directly impacted by this bill.
While Connecticut’s people are still struggling to get ahead in a state economy hobbled by high taxes and a poor business environment, any bill that will eliminate jobs – even as it burdens middle class and lower-income families with bag fees and more expensive alternatives – is plain wrong. The fact it would even be considered suggests that too many in Hartford are simply out of touch with the hard day-to-day realities of those they claim to represent.
If legislators are truly concerned about the environmental impact of plastic bags, there are sensible ways to change consumer behavior. Recycling programs and education efforts are just one highly effective alternative; across the country, an estimated one billion plastic bags and wraps are recycled every year, and there are plenty of local success stories.
Bag makers and users are promoting the three R’s – reduce, reuse and recycle – through programs like A Bag’s Life. Plastic bag manufacturers like Fortune Plastics in Old Saybrook are investing millions in their recycling efforts – from take-back programs to community outreach. In 2014, ShopRite customers reused more than 57 million bags.
Plastic bag legislation wasn’t right for Connecticut four years ago. It’s not the right solution today.
Our lawmakers need to stop the intrusive “green” posturing. Rather than eliminating consumer choice, any legislator genuinely concerned about the environment should focus instead on proven, effective recycling and education programs that can make a positive, meaningful impact on the beautiful state that all of us share.
Carol Platt Liebau is president of the Yankee Institute, Connecticut’s free-market think tank. She lives in New Canaan.