Study: Banning Plastic Grocery Bags Does Not Cut Disposal Costs

Published December 20, 2013

Banning plastic grocery bags does not reduce disposal and recycling costs, a study of several U.S. cities shows.

Consumers choose plastic bags far more often than paper or reusable bags to carry their purchases. Compared to paper and reusable bags, plastic bags are lightweight, strong, flexible, and moisture-resistant. In addition, they are easy to store and reusable for multiple purposes. Many studies have demonstrated previously overlooked health and environmental benefits of plastic grocery bags, such as their ability to prevent spread of foodborne diseases.

Despite these characteristics and their popularity, a growing number of municipalities and some states are enacting laws aimed at reducing the use of plastic (and sometimes paper) grocery bags. The laws range from taxes to outright bans.

Advocates have given a number of justifications for placing restrictions on consumers’ use of carry-out plastic bags. These include concerns about resources used to create the bags, environmental harms when they are disposed of improperly, the visible blight of roadside litter, and the cost of disposing or recycling them.

The National Center for Policy Analysis studied plastic grocery bag bans in several cities to determine whether the bans fulfilled promises to reduce litter collection and waste disposal costs. The data show cities enacting bans and restrictions on plastic grocery bags experience either no reduction or an increase in litter collection and waste disposal costs.

San Francisco
In 2007, San Francisco became the first city in the nation to ban common, thin-film plastic carryout bags at large grocery stores and pharmacies. In 2012 the city amended the original ban to include all retail stores and food establishments, and it added a 10 cent charge on all paper and reusable bags.

Prior to the ban, San Francisco City Supervisor Ross Mirkarimi estimated bag disposal and lost revenue cost the city and the private waste disposal and recycling contractor at least 17 cents per bag, or $8.49 million annually.

Mirkami, however, lumped paper and plastic bags together in his cost estimates, even though the vast majority of collection and disposal costs are due to paper bags. Plastic bags amount to less than 0.5 percent of the waste stream and a similarly miniscule amount of landfill space. Paper bags are six times heavier and take up 10 times more space than plastic bags. Thus, plastic bags should be responsible for no more than $900,000 of San Francisco’s annual collection and disposal costs and $300,000 of the landfill liability.

San Jose
In 2011, San Jose, Calif., approved one of the strictest bag bans in the nation, effective January 2012. San Jose banned plastic bags from both large and small retailers, excepting only restaurants, nonprofits, social organizations, and retailers that use plastic or paper bags for such products as fresh produce, meat, or bulk goods.

Data on the effects of the ban is still relatively incomplete. However, the city council adopted budgets that increased spending from approximately $95.5 million for the 2009-2010 budget year to $110.4 million in 2012-2013 (the ban’s first year), a 15.6 percent rise. The proposed budget for 2013-2014 is $105.3 million, a 4.6 percent decline but still considerably higher than before the ban.

Los Angeles County
A November 2010 Los Angeles County, Calif., ordinance outlawed retail use of thin-film polyethylene bags. Although Los Angeles County faced significant spending cuts during the 2010-2011 and 2011-2012 budget years of more than $175 million and $35 million, respectively, the budget cuts did not extend to solid waste collection or disposal. Spending for dealing with solid waste rose 30.17 percent from budget year 2006-2007 to 2011-2012, and projected spending rose 5.9 percent from 2011-2012 to the adopted budget for 2012-2013.

Brownsville, Texas
On December 15, 2009, Brownsville became the first Texas city to place restrictions on plastic carryout bags. Since January 5, 2011, most retailers have been prohibited from providing free plastic bags (or paper bags below a certain weight and without handles), and may only offer reusable bags. There are exceptions, however, and a retailer can continue to provide plastic bags if they collect a surcharge of $1.00 per transaction from consumers and remit it to the city.

Brownsville’s overall solid waste expenditures rose by 90.72 percent from 2004 to 2012. Brownsville’s garbage collection fees and waste disposal expenses have seen extreme swings, with a general upward trend but no discernible pattern.

Washington, D.C.
In June 2009 the Washington, DC city council passed Bill 18-150, the Anacostia River Clean-Up and Protection Act of 2009. Commonly known as the “Bag Tax,” the law imposed a 5 cent tax on paper and plastic grocery bags, which took effect January 1, 2010. Unrecyclable single-use bags were banned outright, and the law specified what counted as recyclable so as to rule out common single-use plastic bags.

Spending on public space cleaning increased dramatically in 2010 (the first year of the tax), but it declined 33 percent in 2011. There was a more modest decline in costs for solid waste collection and removal and sanitation disposal. However, the data indicate the reductions stem almost entirely from substantial federal and local budget cuts.

H. Sterling Burnett, Ph.D. ([email protected]) is a senior fellow at the National Center for Policy Analysis.

Internet Info:

The full study, “Do Bans on Plastic Grocery Bags Save Cities Money?” is available online at