A Bag Full of Consequences


May 11, 2018 1:58PM

Too often, governments confuse a desirable outcome with effective policy. Just because an elected official believes something “ought to be” or “should be done” does not mean it’s good policy to enact. The reason is that the economy, society, the world in general for that matter, is too complex for any government to plan. Steve Jobs once said, “there are downsides to everything; there are unintended consequences to everything.”

We can see this problem clearly with the next progressive city craze to reach Tennessee, the plastic bag ban. Currently, Nashville is considering a ban on plastic bags commonly found in retail and grocery stores. Simultaneously, Memphis is considering a 7-cent tax per bag. These bans hurt businesses by forcing them to provide paper or “hard plastic” alternatives that are more expensive, thus raising costs. But don’t fret Memphis storeowners, at least in your city’s proposal; you get 2 cents of the tax to help defer costs. In other words, let’s just pass the cost onto consumers. Odds are the same thing will happen in Nashville as well as retailers raise prices to cover the added expense. This seems counterintuitive when state and local lawmakers have criticized and looked to lower Tennessee’s relatively high sales tax on groceries in recent years.

What about the environmental benefits of such a proposal? Don’t those improvements outweigh any economic costs? Seeking to improve and protect the environment is a noble cause, but even this simple policy idea has complex unintended environmental consequences. Studies are beginning to show that these bans do reduce pollution that ends up in the water supply. However, this is only one aspect of the lifecycle of that product. Simply looking at the environmental impacts on the water supply ignore the vast amounts of additional water, energy and fossil fuels needed to produce plastic bag alternatives, even cloth reusable bags, and the resulting additional greenhouse gas emissions. Without considering all these factors, banning plastic bags is like cutting off your nose to spite your face. The far more effective solution would be for elected officials to stop trying to save society from all its problems and allow the free market to develop alternative products that are more environmentally friendly throughout the entire product lifecycle and cheap enough to utilize. We are already seeing this with play out with compostable plastic bags, which once perfected, could serve as a truly effective alternative. As always, once given time the free market will find a better solution than the government. Hopefully, policymakers will keep that in mind.