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Michigan’s Plastic Bag Ban Ban

— January 2, 2017

How many times have you heard political conservatives say that the best government is small government? That the closer a government is to the governed, the more responsive and responsible it will be, and the likelier it is to both serve the needs and protect the rights of people like you and me? Local ordinances have far more impact on our daily lives, and individual citizens’ voices are likelier to be heard in a town hall than a state hall, let alone Congress. Unfortunately, those same conservatives have just passed a law in Michigan to pre-emptively forbid any potential plastic bag ban from being passed by municipalities in the state. Apparently, local regulation is only good if it’s the sort of regulations that they like.

Designed to be used once and then discarded, plastic bags clog the landscape, blow into the great lakes and ocean, and become tattered shreds, a sight that South Africans have cynically referred to as their “national flower.” After California became the first state in the country to enact a plastic bag ban, other states and localities started giving the idea serious consideration themselves. In Michigan, both Washtenaw and Muskegon counties considered prohibiting grocery stores from freely providing the bags, and Washtenaw went so far as to adopt a law calling for a ten-cent fee for both paper and plastic bags at supermarkets that would have taken effect in 2017.

A per-bag tax like Washtenaw County’s served to reduce bag litter elsewhere. Scotland’s five-pence (roughly 6 cent) tax on the bags led to a 40% reduction in plastic bag waste: the least found on UK shores in a decade, according to the Marine Conservation Society. In California, a plastic bag ban in San Jose reduced litter “approximately 89 percent in the storm drain system, 60 percent in the creeks and rivers, and 59 percent in City streets and neighborhoods,” according to the City of San Jose. Clearly, if we want fewer blossoms of South Africa’s national flower, a plastic bag ban (or at least a tax) is the way to go.

Although the bags are “free” at stores, we all know that they’re not really free, and that the cost is rolled into the price we pay for groceries at the register. A bag surcharge that allows the store to recoup the cost of the bags would be a more transparent fee. While Washtenaw council members raised concerns about the fee being onerous for the poor, a bag fee that isn’t included in the price of food would allow anyone the choice about whether to purchase a bag, or save money by reusing or declining a bag.

A less effective argument for a plastic bag ban speaks to the environmental cost of making the bags in the first place. Just as with any mass-produced throwaway commodity, there really isn’t a friendly grocery bag at all. Producing and recycling plastic requires industrial machinery, fuel, water, and petroleum-based feedstock, and only a small number of the bags are ever recycled. (More are reused, perhaps as trash can liners or doggy poop bags, before being landfilled.) Currently, low oil prices mean a similarly low price for recycled plastic, perhaps making the process less economically viable.

How Plastic Bags Get Recycled, by Earth911TV

However, paper bags have many of the same costs, and canvas bags, while sturdy, are made from cotton that must be grown, woven, sewn, and transported. A UK study found that a canvas bag must be used 393 times to justify its environmental cost (however that is counted), whereas a flimsy plastic bag would only need to be used 3 times. The thicker, “made from bottles!” reusable plastic bags sold at some grocery checkouts would only need to be used 33 times by the same measure, but that material is hard to recycle when the bag inevitably gives out. Frankly, arguing about which grocery bag is more environmentally responsible, while sitting amongst the profligate consumerism and waste of industrial culture, is a bit like rearranging deck chairs on the Titanic. Our best best is probably to root for the quick evolution of plastic-eating bacteria, because we’re not going to clean up after ourselves.

So, in the end, why would Michigan’s legislature vote for a plastic bag ban ban, largely along party lines, and send it to the Republican governor to sign, if they mouth words about favoring small, local, responsive government? The refrain heard from on high is that having a patchwork of local laws that vary by municipality is “bad for business.” (If this is so, why the conservative concentration on “states’ rights,” as that would be bad for any business that wants to engage in interstate commerce?) Perhaps one clue may be found in a release from the Michigan Campaign Finance Network, which reads:

“The same day a Senate panel began considering whether to block local efforts to curb the use of plastic bags, the Senate Republican Campaign Committee reported receiving a $20,000 contribution from the political action committee of one of Michigan’s largest [grocery] retailers.” Since it was a deadline for contributions, the Michigan Retailers Association and the Associated Food & Petroleum Dealers sent in their checks that day, too.

You don’t say.


Michigan has banned banning plastic bags
10-cent bag tax at Washtenaw County grocery stores approved
Michigan Senate OKs ban on local regulation of plastic bags
Number of plastic bags found on UK shores almost halved after just 5p tax
Could plastic-eating bacteria be the solution to the world’s garbage problem?
Plastic Bag Recycling Rate – A Non-Issue
California’s Plastic Bag Ban: Myths And Facts
Timely donation during Michigan plastic bag bill passage raises eyebrows
Senate Bill 0853 (2016)

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