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Plastic Bag Bans Could Be Backfiring, Study Finds

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By Jorge Casuso

April 28, 2022 -- Santa Monica's decade-old ban on single-use plastic carryout bags -- which helped trigger a nationwide trend -- may be backfiring, according to a report issued by two major universities earlier this year.

Cities like Santa Monica that have banned the flimsy carryout bags have seen an increase in the sale of bigger, heavier plastic trash bags, concluded the report by Texas A&M University and the University of Georgia (UGA).

"When cities or counties institute plastic bag bans or fees, the idea is to reduce the amount of plastic headed to the landfill," said a summary of the report published on January 27.

"But a new analysis finds these policies, while created with good intentions, may cause more plastic bags to be purchased in the communities where they are in place."

That's because in places where carry-out grocery bags are allowed, customers use them as trash bags, according to the report. In places where they are banned, customers buy bigger and heavier plastic bags for their trash.

"We know there is a demand for using plastic bags, and we know, if these policies go into effect, some bags will disappear or will become more costly to get," said Yu-Kai Huang, a postdoctoral researcher at the UGA Warnell School of Forestry and Natural Resources.

"So, we wanted to see the effectiveness of this policy in reducing bag usage overall," said Huang, who co-authored the report.

The study "Spillover Effects of Grocery Bag Legislation" published in the official journal of the European Association of Environmental and Resource Economists "looked at the impact on sales of alternative plastic bag products," according to the study's Abstract.

It also studied two types of carryout grocery bag (CGB) regulations -- bag bans and bag fees -- and found "that both types of CGB regulations are associated with significantly higher plastic trash bag sales."

"We estimate that CGB regulations lead to an average increase in purchased plastics of 127 pounds per store per month, ranging from 30 to 135 (37–224) pounds for 4-gallon (8-gallon) trash bags," according to the Abstract.

"These results confirm previous findings on bag bans and provide new evidence on bag fees," the Abstract states. "Our results highlight unintentional spillover effects of narrowly targeted policies on other unregulated waste."

Santa Monica was among the first California -- and U.S. -- cities to ban light-weight plastic shopping bags under an ordinance passed in January 2011 ("Santa Monica City Council Approves Bag Ban," January 26, 2011).

The City joined San Francisco, San Jose, Berkeley, Long Beach, Palo Alto and the County of Los Angeles after three years of delays and threats of lawsuits from plastic industry interests.

The ban applies to plastic bags that are less than 2.25 millimeters thick, such as those typically given out by grocers and pharmacies, which are intended for one-time use.

In November 2016, California voters approved Proposition 67, which implemented the ban in the state's 482 cities and 58 counties. The ban applied to all grocery stores, retail stores with a pharmacy, convenience stores, food marts and liquor stores.

The statewide law allowed city and county governments that adopted bans before January 1, 2015, like Santa Monica and LA County, to continue to operate under their own ordinances.

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