Weekend WSJ Article Describes "Liberal Dystopia" of CA's Plastic Bag Ban

Posted by Chandler Slavin on Jan 30, 2017 12:03:37 PM

Allysia Finley writes in "In California, 'Paper or Plastic?' Is Against the Law,"

There's no such thing as a free bag-- at least not anymore in California. Voters in November approved, 53% to 47%, a law outright banning single-use, carryout plastic bags. Grocery and convenience stores can offer paper or reusable bags, but the law requires them to charge at least 10 cents a pop. While pot is now legal in the Golden State, plastic bags are contraband. Welcome to the liberal dystopia.

California's bag ban is a classic marriage of economic protectionism and governmental paternalism, dressed up in environmental virtue. As with so many progressive policies, the ban is likely to have unintended consequences.

While non WSJ subscribers are unable to read the article, thus I can't include a link to continue reading here, I do include the notable points written in my own words below. In short, her article demonstrates that CA's plastic bag ban is not based on science, governmental insight, or economics; it's based on stupidity. I strongly encourage you to consult Finley's WSJ article as she does a wonderful job playfully narrating a somewhat tired and dry topic.


  • In 2006, the state Legislature passed a law that required grocery stores to run recycling programs to collect plastic bags. To obtain grocers' support for the law, the Legislature prohibited cities or counties from imposing fees on plastic bags.
  • San Fran responded by banning plastics bags. The justifications for banning plastic bags were assertions that the ban would reduce global warming and America's reliance on oil. Yet only about 3% of oil is used to produce all plastic packaging; and, plastic bags specifically are made from natural gas, which America has an abundance of. Reusable bags, contrarily, are made from oil and manufactured in Asia; and, produce more greenhouse-gas emissions over their life cycle.
  • In regards to the environmental costs of substituting plastic bags with paper: A 2011 study by the UK's Environmental Agency found that a paper bag, compared with a plastic, was 3.3 times worse re: GHG emissions. In addition, paper bags result in more water and air pollution than plastic bags.
  • In regards to the justification to ban plastic bans in an attempt to curb litter: Plastic bags make up about 1% of litter in most cities (2013 Survey, Environmental Resources Planning). Moreover, plastic bags make up less than 1% of objects caught in storm drainers (2009 Survey, Keep America Beautiful).
  • Replacing plastic bags with reusable bags present a significant public-health risk. A 2012 study by two university academics found that emergency-room admissions in San Fran from food-borne illnesses surged after the city imposed its ban. Many people were reusing their bags without washing them first. And considering the scarcity of water in CA, washing reusable bags wasteful.
  • Looking at the economic impacts of banning plastic bags, a 2012 study by the National Center for Policy Analysis found that LA County's ban shifted commerce to incorporated cities where plastic bags remained free and legal. In addition, employment dropped by an average of 10.4% at grocery stores in the county's unincorporated areas. Meanwhile, the 2006 mandated law of at-store recycling for plastic bags resulted in expensive operations as few customers returned their bags. That is why the CA Grocers Association joined groups to lobby for the law banning for bags statewide.
  • Democrats declared that the law would help create jobs in CA. Yet, most plastic bag manufacturers of plastic bags are located in other states with lower energy costs.

Finley closes,

The bottom line is that if you're planning a visit to California, be sure to pack some extra bags. They've become a rare commodity.

For more articles on the science of plastic that contradicts the prevailing notion that plastic is bad while paper is good, check out my summary of Trucost's report for Packaging Digest.

 Learn about Dordan's sustainable thermoformed packaging.