The Virginia General Assembly was considering fees legislation that would have taxed (or banned) plastic bags in order to discourage their use and save the environment. Fortunately for Virginians, these proposals have been tabled — for now.
While the argument for bag taxes seems simple enough — replacing plastic bags with reusable bags will reduce our carbon footprint and keep plastic bags from entering our waterways and getting caught in our trees, right? — it's not that cut and dried. 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 poll in San Francisco, where plastic bags are banned, found that 58 percent of shoppers forget to take reusable totes to the grocery store. Another study from the California State University Chico Research Foundation observed that only 10 percent of shoppers use reusable bags, while a national survey found that only 14 percent of Americans who have reusable bags use them all the time. As a result, unused "reusable" bags can have a much larger carbon footprint than the disposable (but recyclable) bags they replaced.
Even then, 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, again reducing the environmental boon.
"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. Without regular washings, the reusable bags can effectively become petri dishes for 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."
New data from the Opinion Research Corporation found that 68 percent of Americans have washed their reusable bags only once (at most) in the past year — and many have never washed their bags at all. 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 that 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 in tough fiscal times), lawmakers in Virginia risked 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."
Instead of forcing consumers into abandoning plastic bags, why don't lawmakers encourage a better response: make them easier to recycle. People already reuse these convenient plastic bags — to clean up after their dogs, to line their trash cans, to carry their lunches to work — but the government could do a better job of educating the public about recycling their plastic bags. Most businesses have already set up recycling centers, but the level of knowledge consumers have about them is low.
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 — but educate them about how to best dispose of their bags.