The Unfair Demonization of Plastic Bags

Brownstone Institute
Published on February 22, 2024

The Unfair Demonization of Plastic Bags


Sometime in the last ten years, the crunchy left decided that average people were far too happy and satisfied leaving the grocery store with 50 pounds of groceries piled in plastic bags. They decided that such joy is surely bad for the environment. So they decided to ban them.

I’m not sure that it was any more complicated than that. It’s been this way for a while, reminding us of H.L. Mencken’s definition of Puritanism: “The haunting fear that someone, somewhere, may be happy.” Mother nature surely doesn’t like that so let’s just make it stop. We need more misery around here!

So some years ago, states started to ban them. We all had to revert to brown paper bags which tear and are awkward to carry. Clearly an inferior product. Another solution was to bring your own bag, which is invariably made of, you guessed it, plastic. So that was replacing one kind of plastic with another.

If you live in a blue state, you know about this very well. You have to keep all sorts of bags in your closet or car and remember to haul them into the grocery store. But then you forget and you have to buy more. Now you have two extra bags, and this is to add to your growing collection at home.

It’s all a bit of a peasant way to shop and that’s the whole point, to make you feel poor and grubby, which, for some reason I cannot understand, is very fashionable among left-wing, academic-influenced communities. They are saving the planet, don’t you know, and probably curbing carbon emissions to forestall the existential threat of… climate change!

Except that there is one problem. Freedonia Market Research—at the behest of the disposable plastic bag industry, of course—has taken a close look at New Jersey’s program and concluded that the new plastic bags you slog around require much more plastic than the old thin and brilliant bags we used at the store in the old days. They discovered that the new bags are used only two or three times by 90 percent of people, so of course they have to keep buying more and more.

So get this. These new non-woven polypropylene bags have increased greenhouse gas emissions by 500 percent. Whoops!

Probably none of this surprises you now that you read it. After all, the bulk of actual plastic related to the grocery comes from the products themselves. Think of it. Every bit of meat, everything made of bread, every box has a plastic inside for freshness, and even your vegetables are put in bags to get them to the counter. The whole place is a plastic mecca. How much difference would the carry-out bags really make?

The point, as it turns out, has nothing to do with actually reducing plastic consumption but rather imposing coercive behaviors that take away conveniences and replacing them with a virtuous signal that everyone can understand. They do this to us even when it makes no sense at all.

We should anticipate this effect by now. Name any policy you can think of that is designed to somehow “save” resources—wind turbines, electric cars, solar panels—and you can pretty much guarantee that deploying them will be less efficient overall than the process which it replaces. It just keeps happening.

The plastic bag frenzy of the last ten years has some odd twists and turns. Remember when the world was freaking out about COVID germs? In my community, plastic bags had already been banned but now the germophobic pearl-clutchers grew concerned that the polyester bags people were slogging into the store carried bad germs on them. Once that word got out, the city council instantly abolished the very thing they had spent years encouraging.

Suddenly the whole community was back to using disposable plastic bags at checkout, because they were deemed to be more sanitary than the stuff people were bringing in from outside. None of it makes sense but there it is.

So there were a few merciful months when we could bag our groceries the way we used to, slipping them in bag after bag and hurling them around our arms to the point that on two arms we could conceivably lug 100 pounds of groceries in without tears and struggles and fruits rolling all over the floor. Those were the good old days.

But once the COVID hysteria died down, and especially once the idea that the bug could live on surfaces was thoroughly debunked, guess what happened? The all-knowing city council issued a new edict that once again banished plastic at the checkout counter and poked people to dig up their old polyester bags again and bring them to the store.

In other words, they bounced from one bogus belief to another bogus belief and then back again, all in the name of signaling virtuous actions to save the planet and the human race from extinction. So far as I know, no one thought to do anything about the tons of plastic used to wrap food in the store. That is what it is.

The people who do this stuff are quite fascinating creatures. Let’s say they were in a Brazilian village and shopping for meat and stumbled upon a farmers market with open cuts around which flies were flying. They would be grossed out and not eat a bite. And yet here we have exactly what they are going for: no plastic, no energy use, no artificial anything. Still, they won’t touch it.

What classifies as clean and worthy to this crowd is malleable and largely socially determined, having nothing to do with science or even reality.

So will this new study make any difference in the New Jersey law? Absolutely not. The state government will go on its blind path toward stupidity without a thought. It’s how they do it, because pretending to care about big issues like climate change is far more important than doing anything actually to fix the supposed problem.

The plastic bag at checkout was and is a marvelous innovation: clean, convenient, and surprisingly recyclable as trash bags in the average American home. We should bring them all back and stop this ridiculous charade of bringing one’s own bags everywhere. It’s degrading and pointless—not that this ever stops the new breed of woke puritans who have seized control of our lives and standard of living.

Let’s conclude with a slightly amusing blast from the past. Remember when plastic straws were considered terrible and we should all carry metal straws? That was before COVID. Then a woman in England died after falling and impaling herself, which went through her eye and into her brain. Then a young boy who suffered a life-threatening injury when a metal straw plunged into his throat and artery.

And so now we use wet and soggy paper straws which aren’t really straws at all. Blech. What can we say but “man’s inhumanity to man”? At least the sea turtles are safe.


Jeffrey A. Tucker is Founder and President of the Brownstone Institute and the author of many thousands of articles in the scholarly and popular press and ten books in 5 languages, most recently Liberty or Lockdown.

Jeffrey A.Tucker’s interview with David Leis on Leaders on the Frontier can be seen here.

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