States Rethinking Single-Use Plastic Bag Bans

Chalk another one up for the Law of Unintended Consequences.

In the wake of the Coronavirus (COVID-19) outbreak, states are reexamining the wisdom of various regulatory edicts. While many of these regulations are as simple as permitting restaurants to sell alcoholic beverages for take-out and delivery, others aim to reduce the transmission of diseases like COVID-19.

One particularly eyebrow-raising roll-back? Single-use plastic bag bans.

Citing concerns with COVID-19, both Maine and New York have delayed implementation of bag bans scheduled to go into effect in April. Neither state has repealed the bans outright, but the delays – New York for a month and Maine for a year – have revived a debate long considered over.

Meanwhile, in New Hampshire, Governor Chris Sununu went a step further and banned reusable shopping bags. “Our grocery store workers are on the front lines of COVID-19, working around the clock to keep New Hampshire families fed,” said Governor Chris Sununu. “With identified community transmission, it is important that shoppers keep their reusable bags at home given the potential risk to baggers, grocers and customers. This Emergency Order directs all grocers and retail stores in the state to temporarily transition to only use new paper or plastic grocery bags provided by stores as soon as feasibly possible.”

Concerns over the cleanliness of reusable shopping bags are nothing new. In 2014, USA Today ran an article aptly titled “Eww, reusable grocery bags’ germs can make you sick,” citing the findings of a 2010 University of Arizona and Loma Linda University study. In the study, scientists from the two schools discovered illness-causing bacteria in half of the examined reusable shopping bags. At the same time, 97 percent of reusable bag users never cleaned their bags.

Now, six years later, regulators are being forced to reexamine consumer protection in ways previously unimagined. While much about COVID-19 is still unknown, state governments aren’t taking any chances. The last thing concerned consumers need is for workers at grocery stores to come down sick from a reusable shopping bag – especially when a better sanitary option is already readily available

The ban delays are a stark reminder that that not all regulations fully consider overall consumer welfare. All too often, the unintended consequences of regulations can lead to worse outcomes than doing nothing. In the case of single-use plastic bags, the bans may lead to less litter at the expense of consumer health.

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