A while back, the town of Brunswick, Maine, which I visit monthly, enacted a ban on plastic bags in most retailers. The town next door, Topsham, enacted a five cent fee for the purchase of any “non-reusable” bag. I personally do not find this to be a huge hardship. I started making my own bags years ago from a pole street scraps. I was getting strange looks from retailers, For 15 years before plastic bag bands were even a conversation. But in fact, I do use both plastic and paper bags for other things.

While my survey was informal, I asked many people what they did with the plastic and paper bags they got at the grocery store. Some common answers were using them as a small trashcan liner, using them as a bag to transport anything where you didn’t want that back, such as taking things to Goodwill, and disposing of kitty litter was also a popular answer, as well as picking up dog poop. Paper bags had similar transportation uses, but also for storing recyclable materials since they could simply be thrown out in the recycling bin. My cousin favored brown paper for starting fires in her wood stove. Although I have no idea how uncommon THAT was. The upshot, is that these are not single use bags.

The bans in Brunswick and Topsham passed largely without any disagreement on the part of the politicians involved. They did not pass without protest. In Brunswick a number of small businesses made a very legitimate point that the ban placed a burden on them in terms of the amount of space it took to store paper versus plastic bags, the expense of paper versus plastic, and their right to do business as they chose. None of the larger of businesses in town, such as Hannaford’s, protested the ban. Why?

Because any limitation on human behavior set up by politicians is going to benefit big business in some way. Even when that limitation includes the big business. That is because any limitation puts a much bigger strain on a small business versus a large business. Big businesses by definition have more leeway in a regulatory system. They can afford lawyers, and they have a larger pool of resources. They are happy to have the competition from smaller businesses limited. A big business is not likely to go out of business because of legal limitations. A small business however is very likely to do so. But let’s look a little more closely at the benefit that Hannaford – just for example – would get from a plastic bag ban.

If people do not have access to plastic grocery bags, they must then buy all of the things for which they were using what was previously a free resource. The primary source for these plastic bags, is a grocery store. How much money does the grocery store save by not having to provide them? Then there are all the other uses that those bags then go to. If people don’t have those plastic bags anymore, what will they use to put in wastebaskets, scoop the kitty litter, and pick up dog poop? Of course they’re going to have to buy some plastic bags from the grocery store. And who benefits from that?

One should also ask who is hurt by such a ban? Generally that would be us, the consumers. In particular consumers who have little money to spend. Suddenly a product that was free, now cost some money. So it’s not that there is now less plastic in the environment. It’s just that now we have to pay to put that plastic into the environment.

How smart is that?

There’s some more specific analysis about the amount of one type of plastic versus the other, as well as the environmental impact of using those plastic grocery bags versus fabric grocery bags. Because yes there is environmental impact with using fabric bags. I made mine from fabric that would have otherwise been thrown out. But the vast majority of people are actually going to just buy pre-made ones, and like all production that has its own costs. Then there is the fact that the United States and Western Europe contribute no more than 2% to the plastic garbage that’s floating around in the ocean.

What I am left with is that these bans- or taxes – do not serve the stated purpose of helping the environment. Quite the opposite. So what purpose do they serve?

One might look first at who they are helping. Certainly large grocery store chains. But they also help politicians. Human behavior is very complex. Laws designed to change that behavior can never take those complexities into account. Unless of course the problem is overly simplified and all nuance removed. Once people are upset about something, the urge to DO SOMETHING can become overwhelming. This is the urge to which politicians respond. The politicians ONE JOB, is to pass or repeal laws. And the only way they can do that – and thus get reelected by the small number of people who actually vote – especially in local elections, is to pass a law.

Passage of such laws, has another benefit. It allows people who generally agree that a particular thing is bad or good, to behave in a tribal fashion. To agree publicly that it is good to use your fabric bags, is social signaling. It says that one is part of a tribe, a group, where we can all agree and get along. We are built to be tribal. It is part of our DNA, and we evolved to interact with groups of approximately 150 people. Our survival depended on it. And the urge to DO SOMETHING , feels like a survival issue as well.

But it only feels that way. The truth is that plastic bag bans do nothing at all whatsoever to help the environment. They help big businesses and hurt small businesses, they do not in fact reduce waste, and they put a greater burden on the consumer, especially the poor. The worst thing about them, is that they allow people, and politicians, to believe that they have done something effective, when all they have done is waste everyone’s time. And once something is ensconced in law, It becomes very very difficult to change.

Actually doing something, involves individual actions. Actions that might include personally picking up litter along the sides of the road, sending one’s own money to the organization that is starting to clean up the plastic in the ocean, or educating oneself beyond what public pundits and politicians, let alone our communities of choice have to say on any given issue. But that takes time and energy, and it’s so much easier to just let politicians pass a law. Then everyone can just feel better about themselves, and forget about the problem for a while.

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