As if grocery shopping weren’t enough of a hassle, it’s about to become even more inconvenient in New York — for no good reason.
State lawmakers may soon cave to the anti-plastic craze by passing a statewide plastic bag ban. In its zeal to jump on the anti-plastic bandwagon, the Legislature would force consumers to use alternatives that use up more resources and have been shown to endanger public health.
What will New Yorkers gain after being forced to relinquish one of the most useful inventions of modern times? Alternatives include potentially disease-ridden reusable bags or those hard-to-carry, commuter-unfriendly paper bags that fall apart in the rain and use more energy in the production process than their plastic counterparts.
First, consider the public health profile of reusable cloth bags.
A study conducted by researchers at the University of Arizona and California’s Loma Linda University in 2010 measured bacteria in a sample of reusable bags, finding many containing dangerous ones, such as coliform (found in half the bags) and E. coli (found in 12 percent of bags).
Pathogens can develop from leaky meat packages as well as unwashed produce. And consumers reported that they rarely wash the bags, according to the study.
The consequences of such contamination can be serious. After San Francisco banned plastic bags in 2007, the number of emergency room visits for bacterial related diseases increased, according to a study conducted five years later by legal scholars at George Mason University and the University of Pennsylvania.
“ER visits spiked when the ban went into effect,” the study explained. “Relative to other counties, ER admissions increases by at least one fourth, and deaths exhibit a similar increase.”
While correlation doesn’t prove causation, the jump in ER admissions in San Francisco was high enough to at least merit further examination by legislators and public health authorities in New York before they force reusable bags on residents.
Reusable bags, moreover, require far more energy and other resources to make, and they may produce more landfill waste. A 2011 study by the UK government’s Environment Agency found that cotton bags would have to be used 131 times before they yield environmental benefits.
As for paper bags, they do work in many cases and break down easier if they become litter. But these have their trade-offs, as well.
One study reports that plastic bags require 71 percent less energy to produce. Plastic bag production also uses less than 6 percent of the water needed to make paper bags. In addition, paper bags generate nearly five times the amount of solid waste.
Still, many people are rightly concerned about plastics becoming part of the ocean pollution problem. But the answer to that real problem is much simpler: Ensure that products are disposed of properly so they never enter waterways.
Although there is always room for improvement, the US does a pretty good job at keeping plastics out of the ocean. A 2017 study published in the journal Environmental Sciences & Technology reported that up to 95 percent of plastic waste enters oceans from just 10 rivers worldwide.
Eight of the rivers are in Asia, and two are in Africa. None is in the US. A 2015 study in Science magazine estimated that the US contributes less than 1 percent of the plastic litter in the world’s oceans.
The plastic bag crusade is part of a wider anti-plastics trend sweeping the green left. But like the equally misguided anti-straw campaigners, the plastic-bag scolds base their claims more on ideological commitment than on good science. They also give no consideration to the needs of people, not least the physically disabled, who are often dependent on both products.
Let’s hope the New York Legislature doesn’t bend to unscientific hysteria, because the resulting policies are bad for people and the environment.