Acton Institute Powerblog

Thank God for single-use plastic bags

Perhaps the only positive thing to come from the COVID-19 global pandemic has been the way it exposed a raft of never-needed regulations imposed by every level of government. Unfortunately, rather than repealing one such ordinance which could contribute to the spread of the coronavirus, the UK’s Conservative government has literally doubled down.

The government-mandated cost of single-use plastic bags at groceries and stores will double, from five pence each to 10, beginning next April. Environment Secretary George Eustice also announced that the Department for Environment, Food, and Rural Affairs will broaden the market intervention by removing an exemption for small businesses. This is not merely bad news for consumers; it is bad for public health.

Studies have found that reusable shopping bags offer little environmental benefit and accelerate public health hazards. Scientists who tested multi-use grocery bags found they were practically crawling with such bacteria as E. coli and salmonella. “Bacteria were found in 99% of reusable bags tested, but none in new or plastic bags,” they discovered. Fully 97% of the people they spoke to never washed their recyclable grocery bags. The vector of contamination is clear: reusable bags that owners never cleaned  – which they dragged through their homes, set on subway floors, or placed on unsanitized restroom surfaces – that make multiple return trips to store checkouts.

Scientists believe the risk of COVID-19 infection from the bags is low … but not zero. Most people are infected by person-to-person contact. But the coronavirus may live for up to three days on plastic surfaces.

The UK chose to expand its plastic bag fee even as other areas deeply committed to the Green political agenda suspended their own. San Francisco, which barred single-use plastic grocery bags in 2007, proceeded to ban reusable bags in March to fight the coronavirus. California Gov. Gavin Newsom lifted the statewide ban on plastic bags from March until June – four years after the state banished single-use bags. Chicago, as usual, combined the worst of both worlds, simultaneously banning reusable grocery bags and charging consumers seven cents apiece.

States that reversed course cited the risk of COVID-19 spread. “Our grocery store workers are on the front lines of #COVID19, working around the clock to keep NH families fed,” wrote New Hampshire Gov. Chris Sununu. “With identified community transmission, it is important that shoppers keep their reusable bags at home given the potential risk to baggers, grocers and customers.”

Those unionized “front line” workers had a simple request of lawmakers. California’s United Food and Commercial Workers Local 5 asked that, whatever San Francisco did, it not charge a fee for disposable plastic bags. City officials responded by rescinding its ban on July 13 and raising the cost of any single-use bag to 25 cents.

The UK has partially acknowledged the threat, temporarily halting its tax on plastic bags used in online grocery delivery. The government also does not charge consumers for “bags which only contain certain items, such as unwrapped food, raw meat and fish where there is a food safety risk.” Apparently, regulators believe that when these items touch other goods, the public health risk vanishes.

But politicians seem reticent to stop the fee’s flow of money to its allies. The UK uses the tax to funnel the payments to left-leaning charities. “[I]t’s expected that you’ll donate all proceeds to good causes, particularly environmental causes,” government regulators lectured grocers. The ethics of government officials directing “donations” from private businesses to private charities are as murky as deliberately increasing the cost of a poor person’s food bill.

However, approximately 20% of the proceeds are not being donated at all. Most of the remainder goes to the government’s favorite cause: itself. Each single-use plastic bag that is sold is subject to the Value Added Tax. In 2017, the government squeezed £17 million (approximately $22.7 million U.S.) in VAT out of patrons at just eight large grocery chains. Grocers, meanwhile, pocketed £4.5 million in “reasonable fees.”

The policy hardly affects one of its major objectives: reducing plastic bags in the ocean and their threat to marine life. “China and 11 other Asian nations are responsible for 77 percent to 83 percent of plastic waste entering the oceans because of their poor disposal practices,” according to a report from Angela Logomasini of the Competitive Enterprise Institute. In fact, researchers estimate that the amount of plastic waste in the oceans will triple by 2030. “Bans on single use plastics are largely symbolic actions that not only reduce consumer choice, they pose public health risks while failing to achieve desired environmental goals,” Logomasini said.

Reason magazine Associate Editor Christian Britschgi has highlighted evidence that the policy backfired. The UK’s “country-wide bag fee is encouraging consumers to switch from single-use bags to thicker, reusable bags that use more plastic,” he wrote.

Replacing a miniscule environmental risk to animals with an unknown risk to human beings is the height of irresponsible policy. “If the coronavirus spreads, then scientists will check supermarket carts and checkouts and reusable bags,” said Allen Moses, who brought the issue to the attention of the New York City Council. “And heads will roll when citizens find out the politicians were warned in advance that their bag legislation put the public at risk.”

Lawmakers in the UK should heed the words of Moses. The rest of us can thank God for the convenience and health benefits offered by single-use plastic bags.

 (Photo credit: Associated Press.)

Rev. Ben Johnson

Rev. Ben Johnson is Executive Editor of the Acton Institute's flagship journal Religion & Liberty and edits its transatlantic website.