Boulder/Denver grocery bag restrictions would trash our liberties — and for what?

This article originally appeared in the Boulder Daily Camera on July 11, 2012.

The Boulder City Council may soon vote to tax you for using disposable grocery bags — and possibly ban them outright. [Denver elected officials are also considering it.] But the city’s reasons for such restrictions collapse like a soggy paper bag. Better policies include education and innovation that promote bag recycling. Regardless, bag restrictions are immoral for punishing the innocent and violating our right to liberty.

One reason for bag restrictions, says a city webpage, is that retail plastic bags “contribute towards litter.”  But litter audits in Florida, Toronto, and San Francisco found this amount to be less than one percent.

In the five years before San Francisco banned grocery and pharmacy plastic bags, retail plastic bags contributed just 0.60 percent of large litter. A year after the ban, this figure increased to 0.66 percent.

Even if bag restrictions reduced litter, they punish everyone for the misdeeds of the few. By this reasoning, Boulder could ban spray paint because of graffiti vandals. Such injustice is called collective punishment, usually practiced under martial law.

Restricting plastic grocery bag use will increase sales of thicker, more resource-intensive, plastic trash bin liners.  Per capita, “Los Angeles residents reuse approximately 121 plastic carryout bags as trash bags each year,” concludes an analysis prepared for Pasadena, California. The South China Morning Post reported that after Hong Kong started taxing grocery bags, “use of garbage bags has increased by more than 60 percent.”

Bag restrictions will also increase sales of reusable bags, which themselves have drawbacks.  Plastic bags had the lowest “environmental impact” concludes a British Environment Agency study. The impact is “dominated by resource use and production stages.” “End-of-life management” generally has a “minimal influence.”

A shopper must use a cotton bag at least 131 times before it has less global warming potential than high-density polyethylene plastic bags, the study concludes. This number increases when accounting for reuse of plastic bags, and the resources required to wash reusable bags.

Washing bags is important. Reusable bags “are seldom if ever washed” and “almost all” contain bacteria, says a Loma Linda University study. Recently one such bag spread “nasty … norovirus infections” to a soccer team, reports MSNBC.

The City also justifies bag restrictions because individual plastic bags clog recycling facility machinery. But responding with bag restrictions punishes innocent people who properly discard or recycle plastic bags.

The Council’s support of bag restrictions also reveals its low regard for those who elected them. The restrictions imply that even if voters knew the harms of plastic bags in recycling bins, they would not change their behavior.

But why would voters know? Beyond a small notice inside recycling bins, has Western Disposal made any effort to educate customers about plastic bag recycling?  How about a large notice outside the bin? Better yet, Western Disposal can sell huge truck-side advertising to stores that recycle plastic bags: “Plastic bags jam our recycling sorters. Recycle them at King Soopers.”

If anti-littering campaigns by Keep America Beautiful or “Don’t Mess With Texas” can work, a well-executed informational campaign could surely prevent improper plastic bag disposal?

Speaking of Texas, Texas Disposal Systems, Inc. (TDS) offers an innovative solution to this problem: include plastic bags in curbside recycling. [Video below.]  As Austin Statesman editors describe, if customers stuffed individual plastic bags “inside a … durable plastic stuff bag, they would be easier to pull from the recycling stream and more manageable to store and bundle.” Even without such recycling, plastic bag recycling has increased by 50% since 2005, yielding durable plastic and lumber products, reports Moore Recycling Associates.


The city’s webpage also says restricting bag use “would address [city] council priorities like shifting away from a disposable culture.”  While such a cultural change may be desirable, persuasion is the only moral means to justify this end. Instead of persuasion, bag restrictions jam government compulsion into peaceful voluntary exchanges.  This is wrong. Retailers have a right to distribute bags to customers. Customers have a right to discard them so long as they respect people’s property rights.

Also, the restrictions also unjustly restrict the choices of innocent people who neither litter nor misplace plastic bags in recycling bins. And to what end? Plastic bag litter is trivial. Bans did not reduce it in San Francisco. And consumers respond by using bags that have larger environmental impacts.

Western Disposal should try harder to educate customers about plastic bag recycling. With Eco-Cycle, it should explore a curbside plastic bag recycling. Meanwhile, the City Council should constrain its actions to respecting people’s rights, rather than trashing them.

* * *
Thanks to Jay Beeber, author of Plastic Bag Ban Will Put Los Angeles In Landfill at


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