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Collateral Damage of Plastic Bag Bans


Mike and Patty Duke operate Lake City Grocery Outlet in Seattle. Since that city's ban on single-use plastic shopping bags took effect this past July, they've lost at least $5,000 in produce and $3,000 to $4,000 in frozen food to theft.

The Dukes are not the only economic casualty of the Emerald City's plastic bag ban. In a survey released in January by Seattle Public Utilities, more than one-fifth of business owners said they have suffered a spike in shoplifting because of the six-month-old plastic bag ban.

The problem, Mike Duke explained in an interview with the news site, is that shoplifters enter his store, carrying reusable bags that enable them to more easily conceal items they steal.

And even though the grocery store has a lost-prevention officer, as well as more than a dozen security cameras, it's difficult to ascertain what a customer has paid for and what they brought with them. So store staff has to scrutinize customers more closely (which some, if not many, no doubt, find off-putting).

The first six months of Seattle's plastic bag ban might very well be a portent of things to come for other cities around the nation that have enacted similar bans or are considering bans of their own.

It's what sociologist Robert Merton, who died 10 years ago last month, famously referred to as the law of "unintended consequences."

Indeed, we accept that bag-banning city governments did so to improve the environment.

But, in their zeal, they never took the time to fully consider the downside of such bans.

Indeed, the increase in shoplifting documented in Seattle is but one unintended consequence of banning plastic bags.

Last fall, a paper published by Jonathan Klick of the University of Pennsylvania and Joshua D. Wright of George Mason University, found that food-borne illnesses in San Francisco increased 46 percent after the city's plastic bag ban went into effect in 2007, while there was no similar spike in neighboring Bay Area counties.

The researchers concluded, "Our results suggest that the San Francisco ban led to, conservatively, 5.4 annual additional deaths."

Of course, some recalcitrant advocates of plastic bag bans question whether such public policy had anything to do with the rise in shoplifting in Seattle markets or the increase in food-borne illness in San Francisco.

But it seems to us that the evidence in both cases rises to the level that other cities ought to consider whether the putative benefits of bag bans outweigh the cost to business and threat to public health.




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