How to make shopping more annoying

SACRAMENTO – While walking though the supermarket the other day, my wife and I began playing a game I call Unintended Consequences. We tried to guess how things will really work after some new law is put in place. Our governments continually pass legislation that promises to fix every problem in the world, yet problems rarely are fixed, and new problems and work-arounds crop up as quickly as the bills become law.

Remember how loosened lending rules would fulfill the dream of homeownership to people who previously couldn’t achieve it? Or how dramatic public employee pension increases wouldn’t cost governments budgets a dime? Or how the Great Society would end poverty in our lifetime? Or – well, you can recite your favorite example.
We played this game at the checkout line because of a new bill – which cleared the state Senate Appropriations committee last week – that would ban grocery stores from handing out those disposable plastic bags that we’ve come to depend upon for hauling home the beans and bacon.

“We are taught to REDUCE, reuse, recycle in that order because we can’t recycle our way to a better world,” said the bill’s sponsor, Assemblywoman Julia Brownley, D-Santa Monica. “This bill gets to the root of our litter problem by reducing our use of disposable bags. A statewide ban on single-use bags will persuade shoppers to switch to reusable bags.”

Back to our game: Will the law do what Browner predicts? Will Californians “reduce, reuse, recycle” after the state bans the cheap plastic bags? What else did our “wise” legislators miss as they promoted this absurdity?
The first consequence is easy to forecast. Stores will sell us bags, preferably (for them) those costly reusable models. Or they will sell us – for at least five cents each – recycled paper bags. Your grocery bill will go up by five cents, times the number of bags you use. Not a huge amount, but it’s something. More significantly, the grocery-buying experience will become even more annoying, as people dig through their purses for old bags or look for old boxes (like in those mega-discount stores) as the line backs up.

I’m guessing manufacturers will begin selling large boxes of inexpensive bags at discount stores that many of us will buy, then tote around in our cars, so we have what to use when we need some cold cuts. In that case, the plastic-bag problem certainly won’t go away. I’ll need to buy these or find some new ways to pick up the doggie poop on my walks, given that the grocery bags ideally suit that task.

Other people will reuse bags (old ones or the new reusable type) and keep them in the trunk of their cars, where they will collect germs and perhaps even cause outbreaks of food poisoning. It goes without saying that meats and dairy products will leak into bags, which will then be stored in hot cars, which will then be reused again.
“Recent studies have found that reusable bags are often a Petri dish for bacteria and increase the risk of food-borne illnesses due to cross-contamination,” wrote Patrick Gleason of Americans for Tax Reform, in a recent FlashReport article. “The most recent study … found that reusable bags are often used for multiple purposes and ‘seldom, if ever, washed.’ Researchers discovered ‘Large numbers of bacteria were found in almost all bags and coliform bacteria in half [of bags].’”

The environment may get worse. As Amy Kaleita of the Pacific Research Institute (the think tank where I work) discovered, “the paper bag produces more than four times the atmospheric pollutants and 15 times the waterborne pollutants” of a plastic bag. Furthermore, neither paper nor plastic will degrade in a landfill environment. Sure, if there are fewer plastic bags, fewer of them will end up as litter or pollution. But people, being people, will improperly discard whatever it is they have in their hands. After the law passes, I’m guessing the public will learn widely that the “plastic kills sea life” premise of the legislation is false, as even Greenpeace admits.
This is a silly bill, but environmentalists are always going to be promoting symbolic yet useless measures to “save” the planet – that’s completely foreseen. This particularly bill at least has some educational value. I routinely try to explain how crazy things are in the state Capitol. This bill illustrates that reality – one not often discerned by the public – without requiring much detailed analysis:

The prospective bag ban shows the kindergarten-level of political discourse in the Capitol (reduce, reuse, recycle!) and the willingness of legislators to waste time on nonserious endeavors rather than on narrowing the budget chasm. It shows that the state’s environmentalists are interested in symbolic measures that will not fix any real environmental problems, but will make them feel good about themselves. And it proves that the environmental movement isn’t so much about saving the planet as it is about annoying average citizens: i.e., it’s a quasireligious exercise reminiscent of folks who flagellate themselves during Lent. The bill also makes it clear how corporations will side with the bad guys in order to line their pockets, as the California Grocers Association has done by backing the Brownley bill to earn a few more nickels selling paper bags.

My favorite predicted unforeseen consequence comes from blogger Ethan Epstein, who reminds readers that, “[b]y opting for the canvas bag over the readily available plastic bag, the environmentalist is defining himself. … In a world where plastic bags are banned, carrying a re-usable canvas bag becomes an act devoid of meaning.” In other words, the enviros will feel worse about themselves, not better, if this one passes. At least there’s some potential silver lining, although how long will it be before they come up with a new Earth-saving measure?

Steven Greenhut is editor of; write to him at [email protected].

Nothing contained in this blog is to be construed as necessarily reflecting the views of the Pacific Research Institute or as an attempt to thwart or aid the passage of any legislation.

Scroll to Top