Let me make a terrible confession. In a kitchen cupboard I keep an enormous trove of what the news media keep telling me are single-use plastic bags. The trove exists because the description is, well, rubbish. A 13-gallon trash bag is for a single use. The little bags I get from the store — or used to get from the store — I nearly always reuse.
Alas, my trove will stop growing. This week, Connecticut joined the cascade of localities that have implemented plastic-bag bans. (Technically, the ban does not go into effect for another two years. In the interim, all bags offered at checkout are taxed instead. But large Connecticut retailers have decided to stop offering plastic bags at all.)
The main reason, as far as I can tell, is that the government thinks I’m an uneducable dunce. If the government believed anything else, it would surely consider educating me in the environmental impact of various means of carrying goods home from the store, rather than telling me what I can and cannot do. I find it a continuing mystery that our quite sensible worry about climate change must always lead to fewer choices for ordinary people.
I lean libertarian, but my argument here isn’t ideological. Certainly I’m not saying the state should never constrain choice; but given that constraint comes in the form of law, and law always carries the risk of violence at the moment of enforcement, we should always be sure we’ve exhausted the alternatives first.
Let’s start with a simple proposition. So-called single-use bags are, well, useful. For example, my wife and I recently and I hosted a barbecue for extended family. There was plenty of extra food, so when the festivities ended, we gave cousins and siblings and in-laws leftovers to take home … in plastic bags from my stash. (What else were we going to put the food in?)
I use the stash for other things. When I pack a suitcase, shoes go into the plastic bags from the store. Yes, I could purchase cloth bags made for the purpose, but if like most it was made of cotton, I would have to use it over a hundred times before its environmental impact was less than that of the plastic bag.
It’s absolutely true that single-use plastic bags are dangerous to the environment — particular to waterways and oceans — and that the cycle of manufacturing and discarding them contributes to climate change. But if we’re going to impose prohibitions rather than educate and nudge, we need hard data on the problem.
Studies on what winds up in domestic rivers and lakes suggest us that the plastic pollution is mostly polystyrene and microbeads. It’s true that plastic pollution is literally smothering life at the bottom of the seas. That pollution, however, comes overwhelmingly from 10 rivers, none of which is located in the Western Hemisphere. (And, by the way, it’s not at all clear that paper bags are an improvement.)
Don’t get me wrong. When used just once, plastic bags can cause problems. But before we talk about a ban, we should have good data on how many people reuse them. Alas, data are hard to come by.
We might try to extrapolate from figures on recycling compliance. A well-known study of recycling of plastic bottles found higher compliance rates among the better educated, those with higher incomes (these tend to run in tandem), and homeowners. Even if the results for homeowners reflect the convenience of curbside pickup, it’s striking that those with degrees seem more likely to follow the rules. If the same holds true for how we reuse bags — and it well might — then the subject would seem tailor-made for a mix of education and incentives.
The Hartford Courant editorialized that a ban was needed because public education “isn’t working” — but in truth public education has hardly been tried. The Courant cited as evidence of failure only the extent to which people ignore a reminder on a state website about the importance of keeping plastic bags out of recycling bins. That’s not exactly a billboard or public service announcement.
Public education is always better than restriction. We should be working to create strong norms, perhaps adding the occasional nudge to help overcome our cognitive biases. True, the incentives would have to be carefully tailored. Recent research suggests that charging for “single-use” bags increases the use of reusables by those of higher incomes but not by those of lower incomes.
If the poor aren’t responding to the incentive, there is likely a salience problem — exactly the sort of challenge a robust public education campaign can combat. Certainly we should try. If we can’t protect the environment without constantly reducing the scope of personal freedom, chances are we haven’t thought hard enough.
Alas, the parade marches on. I read now that San Francisco, which was early to the bad-bag-ban bandwagon (try saying that twice quickly), is now considering a rule against offering plastic bags for produce. Evidently, if the government isn’t making everyday life a little harder, it’s not doing its job.
By the way, I won’t be surrendering my stash of plastic bags. When the supply of these useful reusables runs dry, I will replace them with small trash bags — more plastic, that is, and thicker besides. As it turns out, I’m not alone. Since California’s ban on “single-use” plastic bags, sales of small plastic trash bags are up 120%. Lots of people, evidently, repurpose their plastic bags. It’s the environmentally friendly thing to do.
Oh, and I have one more confession. A closet in our kitchen holds my largish stash of 60-watt incandescent lightbulbs. But that’s another story.
Carter is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist. He is a professor of law at Yale University and was a clerk to U.S. Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall.