Kriston Capps is a staff writer for CityLab covering housing, architecture, and politics. He previously worked as a senior editor for Architect magazine.
The administration has moved to ban trans fats. Single-use bags should be next.
The food industry’s got three years to phase trans fats out of the American diet, thanks to a new decision from the U.S. Food and Drug Administration.
Trans fats were already on their way out, of course. In recent years, since lawmakers and litigators started taking aim at partially hydrogenated oils (mmm….), the industry’s reliance on trans fats has declined by 85 percent. The Obama administration’s latest action only hastens their exit.
This is such an obvious move that, at this late date, it might not accomplish that much in the way of real snack reform, as Politico explains. Still, the Obama administration is using its bully pulpit to enact a regulation that only New York City (under former nanny-mayor Michael Bloomberg) and California have had the good sense to adopt before now.
There are plenty more commonsense but statutorily rare regulations that Obama’s administration could speed along during his final year in office. Here’s one modest suggestion: Immediately enact a nationwide plastic-bag ban.
Do you know who hates plastic bags? Ranchers. Cows eat plastic bags—cows’ll eat whatever is in front of them, and plastic bags are ubiquitous across the surface of this planet—and eating plastic bags make cows sick. Plus, roadside litter is unattractive, a deterrent to drivers deciding where to stop. They’re hard to pick up. Those are among the reasons why tiny West Texas towns like Fort Stockton and Kermit have adopted plastic-bag bans. These are hardly hippie enclaves.
In Austin, a city that’s as liberal as they come but still a deeply Texan place, virtually no one misses plastic bags now that they’re gone. One year in, after Austin implemented its single-use bag ordinance in 2014, the city has fielded just 89 complaints from residents. According to a new report just released by the city, over the same period, Austin used 200 million fewer plastic bags—a 75 percent reduction.
Opponents of plastic-bag bans have portrayed these regulations as infringing on consumer freedom. Of course they do: They’re bans. It’s the government literally telling people what to do. That doesn’t mean that these regulations aren’t warranted. But cities alone can’t do the job.
The Dallas City Council voted this month to repeal its 5-cent surcharge on disposable bags on the grounds that the government had overreached. In Dallas and in Huntington Beach, California—whose City Council recently repealed a plastic-bag ban as well as a 10-cent fee for paper bags—critics have said that the restriction is too onerous for consumers and retailers.
But those cities cannot repeal litter. They cannot vote or decree plastic bags out of rivers, trees, sewers, fences, and landfills. Cities cannot trust the market to keep plastic bags from serving as breeding grounds for mosquitoes or from gumming up materials-recovery facilities and other infrastructure.
Right now, a battle is shaping up in California over the future of the plastic bag. The American Progressive Bag Alliance (an arm of the Society of Plastics Industry) has successfully placed on the California ballot a referendum to repeal the statewide ban on plastic bags. (The law is stayed pending the results of the November 2016 vote.) But the Obama administration should pluck the issue out of the state’s jurisdiction.
The Environmental Protection Agency, maybe the last effective federal policy-making body left, should ban the consumption of plastic bags nationwide. It wouldn’t be completely unprecedented. Lawmakers in Maryland and the District of Columbia cited Clean Water Act requirements as the justification for a disposable shopping bag fee.
The move will mean a jobs hit: One high-density polyethylene bag manufacturer claims that the plastic-bag industry supports 30,000 jobs in the U.S. Even granting that this figure is reliable, it doesn’t count the waste-management jobs involved with cleaning up plastic bags everywhere, all the time, constantly—across every park, river, forest, playground, and schoolyard, in every town, county, city, and state—forever.
Plastic bags are the plainest illustration there is of the tragedy of the commons. Look at the commons: It’s littered with plastic bags! Every commons is covered in plastic bags. Whatever jobs that Big Plastic Bag supports, they’re not worth the enormous negative externalities the bags impose on all Americans everywhere.
With a plastic-bag ban in place, some 5.1 million plastic bags still circulate in Huntington Beach, according to Seal Beach Surfrider Foundation, an environmental group. Minus the ban, that figure is 104.5 million plastic bags. Huntington Beach Council Member Mike Posey—who authored the city’s repeal bill—says that there’s no way to prove that the plastic bags in the ocean are produced by the city.
He’s right. And that’s exactly the point.