Banning plastic bags could unintentionally boost sales of other bags

When cities or counties institute plastic bag bans or fees, the idea is to reduce the amount of plastic headed to landfill.

But new analysis from a University of Georgia researcher finds that these policies, while created with good intentions, can lead to more plastic shopping bags being purchased in the communities where they are in place. The study was published earlier this year in the journal Environmental and Resource Economics.

Indeed, while plastic grocery bags are considered a single-use item, they often find a second use as liners for small trash cans. When these shopping bags are taxed or taken away, people look for alternatives, which means they buy small plastic trash bags.

“We know there is a demand for the use of plastic bags, and we know that if these policies come into effect, some bags will disappear or become more expensive to obtain,” said Yu-Kai Huang, postdoctoral researcher at UGA Warnell School. forests and natural resources. “So we wanted to see the effectiveness of this policy in reducing overall bag usage.”

Previous studies have looked at the effect of bag bans on plastic consumption, but not the combined effects of fees or a bag ban. An environmental economist, Huang used a new way of calculating the effect of either policy while taking into account variables such as residents’ income levels and an area’s population density, both of which influence the amount of waste generated in a community.

Is the plastic bag ban globally effective?

Keeping in mind the second life that plastic grocery bags take in many homes, Huang and Professor Richard Woodward of Texas A&M University measured sales of plastic trash bags in counties where bans or fees are in place, and compared them to other counties without such policies. The counties selected were far enough apart to accommodate shoppers who might cross into a neighboring county to avoid the policy.

The study found that California communities with bag policies saw sales of 4-gallon trash bags increase by 55% to 75%, and sales of 8-gallon trash bags increase by 87% to 110%. . These results echo previous studies that also showed an increase in sales of small plastic trash bags.

But while sales of small trash bags jumped after the policies were implemented, sales of larger 13-gallon trash bags — the size often found in kitchen trash cans — remained relatively unchanged. This further underscored the double life of plastic grocery bags, Huang said.

“Take-out grocery bags were replaced with similarly sized trash bags before the regulations were implemented,” he wrote in the newspaper. “After the regulations came into force, consumer demand for plastic bags shifted from regulated plastic bags to unregulated bags.”

The unintended increase in trash bag sales could also be measured by weight. By purchasing 4-gallon trash bags, plastic consumption increased from 30 to 135 pounds per store per month. Sales of 8-gallon trash bags created an additional 37 to 224 pounds of plastic per store per month.

But, Huang noted, bag bans or fees could dent plastic waste in high-volume stores. The study found that if a store produced at least 326 plastic take-out bags per day, or about 9,769 per month, the policy would end up sending less plastic to landfill.

It’s important that policymakers understand the unintended consequences of plastic bag bans or fees before implementing them, Huang said. And, if residents reuse the bags for trash cans, it can affect overall usage as well.

“There’s no clear answer to that,” he said. “Whether the free take-out grocery bags provided are reused is key to determining the overall effectiveness of grocery bag policies.”

Source of the story:

Material provided by University of Georgia. Original written by Kristen Morales. Note: Content may be edited for style and length.

Bryce K. Locke