Now that Wichita’s new mayor and city council voted unanimously to create a task force to consider banning the use of single-use plastic bags, residents should consider the ban’s potential net negative impact. A September 2019 Sentinel story included this statement from a Planet Money newsletter cited in a National Public Radio story:
…cities that banned plastic bags, “resulted in about 80 million pounds of extra paper trash per year.” However, the assumption that paper is better because it is far easier to recycle is wrong. The process to make paper bags requires more water and a higher carbon footprint.
The entire September 2019 Sentinal article follows.
Move underway to ban plastic bags in Wichita
Former city council member Lavonta Williams, Jessica Mounts, the director of the Kansas Alliance for Wetlands and Streams, and two others spoke at the Wichita City Council on Tuesday to encourage a ban on plastic bags in the city. They say plastics bags found most often at grocery stores are a pollution hazard found in and around the Arkansas River.
“You see bags in the river, bags in trees, bags in the storm drains. Plastic bags collected at the waster water treatment plant,” said Wichitan Lori Lawrence.
The group spoke during the public comment section and urged the city council to form a committee to investigate a possible ban on plastic bags in the city of Wichita.
“We are asking city council members to establish a task force to reduce trash in Wichita from single-use plastics and to do that by February of next year. We use so many bags,” said Jane Brynes, a member of the Bike and Pedestrian Advisory Board for the City of Wichita.
The ban on grocery store plastic bags is not new. Two states, California and Hawaii, ban the bags. New York passed a law that will take effect in March 2020 and Washington D.C. requires businesses to charge a 5 cent fee. Globally, plastic bag bans are so common that even the Somali terror group Al-Shabaab has banned the bags out of concern for the environment, although the group has not banned suicide bombings and assassinations.
The push for Wichita to follow the steps California, China, and others is well-meaning, but some research shows the bans produce unintended consequences that are worse for the environment. According to a Planet Money newsletter reprinted in an NPR article, plastic bag bans in California led to a skyrocketing purchase of 4-gallon and 8-gallon trash bags as people supplemented the in-home reuse of grocery store bags by purchasing more expensive and less environmentally friendly garbage bags. In-home reuse of bags for bathroom trash bags or cleaning up after a dog, for example, does not count as recycling or reuse in studies because the bags are considered as one-time uses. Lavonta Williams said that the resuse of the bags does not count.
“Even reuse of the bags does not count as recycling because it still ends up in the landfill,” says Williams.
However, the plastic garbage bags that replace single-use plastic bag are worse for the environment because they are comprised of more durable plastics in the same landfills.
According to the same article, cities that banned plastic bags, “resulted in about 80 million pounds of extra paper trash per year.” However, the assumption that paper is better because it is far easier to recycle is wrong. The process to make paper bags requires more water and a higher carbon footprint.
Production of single-use bags, therefore, may be the best net environmental option, the issue which impacts the Arkansas river is the disposal of the bags. If data regarding sustainability is to be believed, then an outright ban of the bags would not be good or viable for Wichita. But the free market is presenting options that don’t require government intervention.
Jane Byrnes noted that Aldi and Costco do not use plastic bags, but this is an interesting point about the free market. Stores like Aldi and Costco do not use the plastic bags as a cost-cutting measure and say the savings is passed along to customers. The alternative to bans is an increased cost burden for consumers by purchasing bags individually. So instead of communicating to consumers to recycle the bags, which most major retailers and groceries in Wichita accept, or reuse them within their homes, the most vocal proponents are agitating for a ban.
Jessica Mounts said, “Reducing the household plastic bag use in Wichita, stands to be a part of the proactive approach to litter and waste prevention and a tangible way to both improve the ecology of the Arkansas and quality of life for the citizens who live around her,” said Mounts.