A Middle Ground In The Bag Wars

Michael Lewyn's picture

The San Jose City Council is considering a proposal to ban plastic bags and most paper bags in supermarkets, out of concerns about the greenhouse gases used to manufacture them and about the waste from discarded bags.  But this policy might create as many environmental problems as it solves. 

In a city without disposable bags, shoppers who seek to buy large amounts of groceries will have to drag around an army of nondisposable containers.  For drivers, this is not a big deal.  Susie SUV can always find  space for dozens of nondisposable bags in her truck.  And because Susie's bags can stay in her truck forever, she will always be able to make impulse purchases without difficulty.

But pedestrian shoppers will have more trouble dragging around an armada of bags – both because a pedestrian cannot carry as many bags as an SUV, and because a pedestrian may not always know in advance when he/she wants to go shopping. 

So in a "no disposables" city, shopping (especially for a family) becames a hassle for pedestrians.  If a pedestrian wishes to shop, he/she must limit purchases to the amount of groceries that will fit into the bags he/she can carry to the grocery store, and must remember to bring those bags to the store. Thus, an anti-disposables law widens the "convenience gap" between drivers and pedestrians.  (And given the amount of hurdles that car-dependent North America creates for pedestrians, do we really need one more?)

It follows that such laws give consumers yet another incentive to drive rather than walk to the grocery store- or even to drive if there is an outside chance she may wish to go shopping.   Thus, a complete ban on bags encourages driving, which in turn increases greenhouse emissions and a wide variety of other environmental ills.

Does this mean that municipalities must choose between pollution from cars and pollution from bags?  Not necessarily.  Toronto has created a middle ground in the bag wars, imposing a 5-cent tax on disposable bags- enough to allow nondrivers who really need bags to use them, yet at the same time enough to deter frivolous bag use. 

I have lived in Toronto for three weeks, and find that I still have a few plastic bags (which I recycle by using them as garbage bags) but use far fewer bags than I once did.  I place small purchases in the tote bag that I use for school books, but have the option of purchasing plastic bags when I really need them.  And I still get by without a car. 

Michael Lewyn is an assistant professor at Touro Law Center in Long Island.



Pedestrian Reusable Bag

These are very good for pedestrians;


I have a couple, and use the little clip to attach them to a belt loop when I'm not using them to carry something home from a store. The local co-op grocery sells them.

Many small bags possible

I too have little bags that stuff into their own bags; two are from Japan.

This problem of the pedestrian and bags has been solved by all other countries. The concern that banning the horrible plastic bags might somehow encourage driving could only come from an American.

Good topic...

Although I don't agree with the logic that the ban will encourage driving.

Yes, a pedestrian grocery shopper shouldn't be "dragging around an armada of bags" because they're naturally limited to what they can carry. If they don't want to haul the loot back on foot, and have the option of driving, what difference would the type of bag make? The reusable bags are actually better for pedestrians because most are thicker than the flimsy disposable bags and allow you to carry more weight without fearing the bottom falling out. This problem could be solved equally by having more small, convenient neighborhood markets than the one gigantic, regional Costco. More trips (because it's convenient) of less volume would equal less need for a car.

I agree about the taxing being a good middle ground and don't know why it hasn't been taken up more often. Dublin, Ireland has been taxing plastic bags for years and I've heard, but not confirmed, that they use the revenue to clean up garbage (like plastic bags) from the harbor. People learn to carry larger bags :)

Interesting thought but maybe a bit of a reach

I agree with sglittle. I just don't buy the argument that pedestrians will stop buying things on impulse simply because bag are not provided, I would argue that pedestrians are already curbing their impulse shopping by walking in the first place. And the portion of demand created by impulse shopping pedestrians is so small that it is negligible.

Why shouldn't the bag restriction equally impact sales to forgetful drivers. And, why is the alternative to walking presumed to be an SUV? I am not saying it won't happen. I just think it will be the rare exception.

If you want to pin the bag ban to a potential shopping revenue decline try tourist shopping: People unfamiliar with the rules are much likely to reduce purchase if they 1) are not supplied bags to carry their purchases 2) do not bring bags because they do not know about the rule.

Provocative topic!

Michael Lewyn's picture

Good question

SG Little asked: "If they don't want to haul the loot back on foot, and have the option of driving, what difference would the type of bag make?"

Good question. The difference between disposable and nondisposable bags is that if they are stuck with the latter, they have to bring the bags to the store as well as back from the store, and thus have to know exactly how many bags they will need at a maximum.

And if a nondriving customer is buying too much to carry, the customer will have to take cabs both ways instead of just one way.

Of course, you could just assume away the problem by assuming a world of small neighborhood markets where people get small amounts of groceries every day (like my Toronto neighborhood, the Annex). But that world isn't the world of most North Americans, especially those who are married and/or have children - and even here in Toronto, I am still experimenting with the right balance of neighborhood and non-neighborhood shopping.

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