Put a Bag Over It

One of my axioms when I lived in Washington was that you have to get up pretty early in the morning to get the drop on Ramesh Ponnuru, and Hayward’s First Corollary of the Ponnuru Principle is that whenever I find myself disagreeing with Ramesh, I better check my math.  Fortunate today we’re in heated agreement about plastic bag bans.  I had meant to flag yesterday the new research from George Mason’s Josh Wright and Penn’s Jonathan Klick on the adverse health tradeoffs of plastic bag bans, but Ramesh beat me to it in his Bloomberg column.

Wright and Klick have performed the simple task of comparing before and after rates for food borne illness in counties that enacted plastic bag bans and adjacent counties that didn’t.  The results aren’t even close: counties that enact plastic bag bans see a sharp spike in hospitalizations for food-borne illness, much of it generated from reusable cloth bags that gather bacterial growths from raw food.  From the abstract:

San Francisco County was the first major US jurisdiction to enact such a regulation, implementing a ban in 2007. There is evidence, however, that reusable grocery bags, a common substitute for plastic bags, contain potentially harmful bacteria. We examine emergency room admissions related to these bacteria in the wake of the San Francisco ban. We find that ER visits spiked when the ban went into effect. Relative to other counties, ER admissions increase by at least one fourth, and deaths exhibit a similar increase.

I’ll just borrow Ramesh’s summary here:

Klick and Wright estimate that the San Francisco ban results in a 46 percent increase in deaths from foodborne illnesses, or 5.5 more of them each year. They then run through a cost-benefit analysis employing the same estimate of the value of a human life that the Environmental Protection Agency uses when evaluating regulations that are supposed to save lives. They conclude that the anti-plastic-bag policies can’t pass the test — and that’s before counting the higher health-care costs they generate.

Simple!—the bag banners say: just get people to start washing their reusable bags.  Okay, fine, but if public education is the remedy, why isn’t that same remedy used for the purported evils of plastic bags, which are recyclable?  I always recycled mine, and also used them for a variety of secondary uses.

Of course, one of the things you also hear in California is that we need to reduce water use.  Twenty years ago the crusade of the greenies for a time was banning disposable diapers, which take up more than twice the space in landfills as plastic bags.  Santa Barbara County, and then the state of California itself, considered a total ban on disposable diapers.  They were routed in Santa Barbara County when someone did the calculations of how much additional water would be necessary to wash cloth diapers.  The state legislature backed off when it contemplated the army of pitchfork- and soiled-diaper-bearing moms who would come at them if they passed a disposal diaper ban.  I guess plastic bag users don’t have as strong a constituency.

It’s always fun watching environmentalists when they learn that tradeoffs are a real bitch.  Doesn’t happen often enough, especially when their refusal to consider tradeoffs result in increased deaths of real people.

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