Plastic Bags and Unintended Consequences

Save the trees! Use plastic instead of paper!

Oops, sorry, wrong decade. Hard to believe that was once the cry of environmentalists, isn’t it? But the road to hell is paved with good intentions, and we soon discovered plastic bags have their own environmental baggage.

New York City now goes through more than 5 billion plastic bags each year, which pollute the seas and highways, and endanger fish and wildlife. Usually crammed into landfills at a cost of millions yearly, the plastic bags are virtually indestructible. Now, the City Council is considering a 10-cent-per-bag charge at supermarkets and other grocers to limit the use of plastic and protect the environment.

Who could possibly quibble with that? Funny you should ask.

Let’s start with the law of unintended consequences. For example, we can agree that alcohol abuse leads to accidents, health problems, broken homes and other mayhem. To counter this, the U.S. government decided to enact Prohibition in the 1920s. Did people stop drinking? Ha! This misguided effort strengthened organized crime, which took over the then-illegal trade.

Will the proposed law have similar unexpected consequences? Some key questions must be answered. Such as, how will you lug your groceries home? In canvas bags, which most grocery outlets would sell. When you buy chicken, most stores put it in a separate plastic bag to prevent contamination of other food. But forget to wash your canvas bag, and you’ll be “going green,” all right.

A plastic bag ban has been in effect in San Francisco for seven years. Emergency room admissions for illnesses due to food-borne bacteria have risen 25% since then. Coincidence? I think not. The overwhelming majority of SF shoppers rarely clean their environmentally correct bags. Go figure.

Will the same thing happen in NYC? Logic dictates that one of two things has to happen. People won’t wash the canvas bags regularly, which will make them bacteria traps, or they will, which will increase the use of water, detergent and electricity. Not exactly great for the environment.

Meanwhile, how will you throw out your garbage? Pick up your dog poop? People already reuse their plastic bags for these purposes. If the law passes, New Yorkers will be buying more plastic garbage bags — from the same supermarkets that will be charging them for using plastic shopping bags. Hmm, who’s making out like bandits here?

Something must be done about the proliferation of plastic bags, and the proposal aims to do that. But let’s also keep in mind the law of unintended consequences.

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4 Responses to Plastic Bags and Unintended Consequences

  1. Joe Blow says:

    Your ideas would sound better if you did not start with a completely false claim: “Save the trees! Use plastic instead of paper”

    what enviro ever said that?!! please. they were all “Use your organic hemp bag instead of paper” .. and you talk about this very thing in the article.

    I am annoyed because it sounds just like the global warming deniers saying “Scientists said we were going to FREEZE to death in a new ice age in the 70s so we can’t believe a word any scientist ever says.” and that just really a dumb thing to say.

    OTOH you are correct in that NYers reuse bags all the time. As a single I would never use a purchased 30 gallon bag for garbage.. it would smell by the time I filled it up. rather a small countertop bucket with a grocery bag in it does the trick! and, yes, these bags are also best for dog poop, as the NY Times bags are too narrow…

    • Mike Vogel says:

      Hey Joe:
      Maybe I’m older than you, but years ago the danger of plastics wasn’t widely known (What was Dustin Hoffman’s character in The Graduate told to bet on in the future? “Plastics!”). Other than that, I hear you–and I am definitely not someone who denies climate change!
      All I’m saying is, there are always unintended consequences. Ask the people in San Francisco (who banned plastic bags seven years ago) about them.

  2. John Martelotti says:

    Great post on the plastic bag debate. You make sense! Too bad the politicians wouldn’t know what common sense is even if it bit them on their self-righteous asses.

  3. Mahmoud says:

    First blogger I enjoy reading. Keep up the good work.

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