Conservatives Shouldn’t Trash Plastic Bag Ban



In New York, plastic bags must have a lifespan of at least 125 uses for carrying up to 22 pounds a distance of 175 feet to be considered “reusable” and in compliance with state regulations.


graphic for leo bernabei's column of a street sign and red text that says "five guys boroughs and fries new york city politics"If you’re ever driving along an interstate, chances are there are piles of trash on either side of the road — bottles, car tires, hubcaps, couches and, almost ubiquitously, plastic bags.

There aren’t many items on this list that we can exactly outlaw. Cars wouldn’t run too well without tires and hubcaps, and personally, I do enjoy having a couch. However, there is no reason that plastic bags should be a commodity of the future.

Following the lead of a handful of other states, New York decided to do just that on March 1, as single-use plastic bags (with limited exceptions) are now banned from Montauk to Buffalo. Consumers will still be able to use paper bags (with a per-bag fee of five cents in New York City) or opt to use their own reusable bags.

For such a benign and easily implemented policy, there’s no reason to be outraged over taking a small step to help the environment. Many notable conservatives, however, have gone to bat for the plastic bag industry, arguing that New York’s new ban on such bags is environmentally damaging and a “feel good” solution to saving animals. As one National Review writer put it, this ban is “an indication that our Empire State government continues to consider it its sworn to duty to harass and annoy its own citizens.” Not only are these contentions wrong, but they are so absurd that they evoke a sense of complaining for the sake of complaining — an “owning the libs” type of journalism.

There is, for one, no real environmental concern about outlawing these bags. This argument stems from studies that show that reusable bags make a bigger carbon footprint in their manufacturing. However, this argument doesn’t take into account that these bags are reused over time. Different studies show that polypropylene bags (the green reusables you see in many grocery stores) need to be used between 11 and 37 times to offset the cost of manufacturing them compared to a single-use plastic bag. 

Read another perspective: Moneymaker on the progressive side of the issue

This won’t be an issue for New Yorkers, as the new law stipulates that plastic bags must have a lifespan of at least 125 uses for carrying up to 22 pounds a distance of 175 feet to be considered “reusable” and in compliance with state regulations. To the naysayers who argue that people won’t reuse these bags because they get dirty and are unlikely to be cleaned, I say, let’s see if that’s the case now that consumers don’t have a free alternative.

This argument also doesn’t take into consideration the fact that plastic bags take thousands of years to break down, and even then, they absorb toxins that animals mistake for food. Other statistics are equally disturbing, considering that an estimated 100,000 marine animals are killed annually by plastic bags, and in 2014, an estimated 15 to 51 trillion microplastic particles were floating in the world’s oceans, weighing between 93,000 and 236,000 tons. And because plastic bags are very lightweight and blow easily in the wind, we may never be sure of the true amount released into the open environment.

While this bag ban isn’t a panacea to our environmental woes, it is a tenable start. Packaging makes up only 5% of the food industry’s carbon footprint, but that shouldn’t be the only method of calculating a potential gain from banning these single-use plastic bags. We should be balancing any potential costs with the gains from cleaner oceans, parks, roads, streets and sidewalks.