Washington is considering banning plastic bags in order to discourage their use and save the environment. If consumers replace their plastic bags with reusable bags, we as a society will reduce our carbon footprint and keep plastic bags from entering our waterways and getting caught in our trees, right?

Unfortunately, it’s not that simple. Making one reusable bag requires about the same amount of energy it takes to produce 28 plastic bags. If every reusable bag were actually being used over and over again, of course, that wouldn’t be a big deal. Unfortunately, that’s not the case. 

A new poll from Opinion Research Corporation (ORC) found that only 38 percent of shoppers nationwide take their reusable shopping bags out with them all or most of the time. A poll in San Francisco, where plastic bags are banned, found that 58 percent of shoppers forget to take reusable totes to the grocery store. 

As a result, unused “reusable” bags can have a much larger carbon footprint than the disposable (but recyclable) bags they replaced – and that’s before taking into account the fact that 93 percent of people reuse plastic bags to clean up after their dogs, line garbage cans, and perform other mundane tasks. 

Of course, some experts suggest wrapping meat in disposable plastic bags before putting them into reusable bags so as to reduce the risk of introducing bacteria like E. coli and coliform into the bags.

“Wait, what was that about bacteria?” you might be asking. A recent University of Arizona study discovered that 12 percent of reusable bags were found to harbor E. coli bacteria and almost half were found to have coliform bacteria. The researchers found that “when meat juices were added to bags and stored in the trunks of cars for two hours the number of bacteria increased 10-fold indicating the potential for bacterial growth in the bags.” 

ORC found that 67 percent of Americans have washed their reusable bags either once or not at all over the last year. Washing these bags will eliminate the problem, but then you’re once again adding more to the environmental footprint, negating their supposed benefit. 

Then again, bacteria might not even be the biggest of your concerns. There’s all that lead these bags contain that you might want to consider.

The Tampa Tribune recently conducted a study that showed a number of retailers were selling bags that contained more than 100 parts per million of lead – Winn-Dixie had a bag tested at 117 ppm while Publix had one bag clock in at 194 ppm. The Tribune’s results weren’t isolated. The Rochesterians Against the Misuse of Pesticides found that Wegmans was selling a bag that had lead at 799 ppm.

So, in an effort to cut down on environmental concerns (and, not coincidentally, raise a little extra cash for fiscally challenged localities), lawmakers in Washington risk forcing their constituents to carry their food in breeding grounds of bacteria that have excess levels of lead and are not actually better for the environment. These are what we like to call “unintended consequences.” 

Unintended consequences are an inevitable result of government meddling in the marketplace. Let’s let consumers decide how they want to carry their groceries home.