Unintended consequences

February 8th, 2013 at 11:00 am by David Farrar

Ramesh Ponnuru at AEI writes:

Conservatives often point out that laws, no matter how benign they may appear, have . They can reverberate in ways that not many people foresaw and nobody wanted: Raising the minimum wage can increase unemployment; prohibition can create black markets.

The efforts in many cities to discourage the use of plastic bags demonstrate that such unintended consequences can be, among other things, kind of gross. 

San Francisco has been discouraging plastic bags since 2007, saying that it takes too much oil to make them and that used bags pollute waterways and kill marine animals. In 2012, it strengthened its law. Several West Coast cities, including Seattle and Los Angeles, have also adopted bans for environmental reasons. The government of Washington, D.C., imposes a 5 cent plastic-bag tax. (Advocates prefer to call it a “fee” because taxes are unpopular.) Environmental groups and celebrity activists, including Eva Longoria and Julia Louis- Dreyfus, support these laws.

So what happened?

Most alarmingly, the industry has highlighted news reports linking reusable shopping bags to the spread of disease. Like this one, from the Los Angeles Times last May: “A reusable grocery bag left in a hotel bathroom caused an outbreak of norovirus-induced diarrhea and nausea that struck nine of 13 members of a girls’ soccer team in October, Oregon researchers reported Wednesday.” The norovirus may not have political clout, but evidently it, too, is rooting against plastic bags.

Warning of disease may seem like an over-the-top scare tactic, but research suggests there’s more than anecdote behind this industry talking point. In a 2011 study, four researchers examined reusable bags in California and Arizona and found that 51 percent of them contained coliform bacteria. The problem appears to be the habits of the reusers. Seventy-five percent said they keep meat and vegetables in the same bag. When bags were stored in hot car trunks for two hours, the bacteria grew tenfold.

That study also found, happily, that washing the bags eliminated 99.9 percent of the bacteria. It undercut even that good news, though, by finding that 97 percent of people reported that they never wash their bags.

And the impact?

Klick and Wright estimate that the San Francisco ban results in a 46 percent increase in deaths from foodborne illnesses, or 5.5 more of them each year. They then run through a cost-benefit analysis employing the same estimate of the value of a human life that the Environmental Protection Agency uses when evaluating regulations that are supposed to save lives. They conclude that the anti-plastic-bag policies can’t pass the test — and that’s before counting the higher health-care costs they generate.

It is a good reminder about the law of unintended consequences.

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38 Responses to “Unintended consequences”

  1. Fletch (6,108 comments) says:

    Frontpage mag extrapolates the numbers (I don’t know how accurately) and reckons that a nationwide ban would mean another 1,380 dead people a year.

    So now let’s consider what a national plastic bag ban would look like based on the national foodborne illness rates.

    The CDC estimates that each year roughly 1 in 6 Americans (or 48 million people) gets sick, 128,000 are hospitalized, and 3,000 die of foodborne diseases.

    That number will go up to at least 64 million or 1 in 5 Americans. Assuming a 46 percent increase in the national foodborne illness death toll… we end up with 1,380 more people dying under a ban.

    http://frontpagemag.com/2013/dgreenfield/national-plastic-bag-ban-would-kill-1380-people/

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  2. RRM (9,606 comments) says:

    5.5 deaths or an increase of 46% – WOW, that’s almost statistically significant! :-P

    If re-using shopping bags is killing that many people per year… just think how many senseless deaths could be prevented if people just used disposable plastic plates and cutlery every meal!

    Instead of these crazy hippy efforts to wash and re-use stone age luddite mung bean china plates?

    Why won’t greenies / lefties think of the children?

    Is it because they hate children?

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  3. tropicana (79 comments) says:

    Why do I find myself drawn by this discussion of
    “the law of unintended consequences”
    to thoughts of gay marriage?

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  4. anonymouse (706 comments) says:

    And it gets weirder,

    “Bill Hoffman, owner of Aptos Jewelers in Aptos, Calif., sells bracelets, rings and pendants for thousands of dollars each. He balks at the notion of charging customers an extra 10 cents for a shopping bag, but Mr. Hoffman has no choice. It is the law.

    Not just in Santa Cruz County, where Aptos is, but similar rules apply in more than two dozen California cities. Grocery stores, pharmacies and sometimes other retailers are no longer allowed to use plastic shopping bags and must charge customers for paper ones. Fees typically are 5 or 10 cents, and are aimed at nudging people to carry reusable bags when they shop.”

    http://www.nytimes.com/2012/09/29/business/energy-environment/communities-curb-use-of-paper-and-plastic-shopping-bags.html?pagewanted=all&_r=0

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  5. campit (467 comments) says:

    They then run through a cost-benefit analysis employing the same estimate of the value of a human life that the Environmental Protection Agency uses when evaluating regulations that are supposed to save lives. They conclude that the anti-plastic-bag policies can’t pass the test — and that’s before counting the higher health-care costs they generate.

    They would need to find out if deaths caused by plastic bag related asphyxiation have reduced before coming to that conclusion I would have thought.

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  6. Lucia Maria (2,239 comments) says:

    I stopped using reusable shopping bags for that very reason – that they got dirty and disgusting and I didn’t want to wash them. My husband was really into buying them, so I threw out quite a few and went back to plastic shopping bags. It’s much cleaner.

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  7. Manolo (13,514 comments) says:

    Only in San Francisco, home of nutters and loony left-wingers: http://blogs.telegraph.co.uk/news/timstanley/100093718/san-francisco-goldfish-ban-exposes-the-pathology-of-americas-bourgeois-liberal-nutjobs/

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  8. PleaseThinkOfTheCatapults (7 comments) says:

    What was the drop in infant deaths by asphyxiation (due to disposable plastic bags) in the same period?
    What was the drop in animal deaths caused by said disposabl plastic bags in the same period? or lower amounts of rubbish floating by on windy days?

    Looking at increase in deaths due to people’s poor hygiene habits is all well and nice, but misses other potentially beneficial aspects of the ban.

    Everything you do or don’t do has unintended consequences. Including cherry picking factoids.

    edi: just as i typed this, a plastic bag floated by…

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  9. RRM (9,606 comments) says:

    Do you ever feel like a plastic bag
    Drifting through the wind wanting to start again?

    You just gotta ignite the light and let it shine
    Just own the night like the 4th of July

    ‘Cause, baby, you’re a firework
    Come on, show ‘em what you’re worth
    Make ‘em go “Oh, oh, oh”
    As you shoot across the sky-y-y

    -Katy Perry [abridged]

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  10. Lloyd (125 comments) says:

    I keep a stack of recyclable shopping bags under my desk. In the event of a major aftershock, all the key texts for my research, plus assorted computer bits get thrown into them as I evacuate the (university) office. I can do this in under 15 seconds. (Thankfully this exercise has only been required three times since Feb 22, 2011)
    This is the only real use, on a long term basis, that I have found for these bags.

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  11. Sb (58 comments) says:

    “four researchers examined reusable bags in California and Arizona and found that 51 percent of them contained coliform bacteria.”

    Not a particularly useful statement. Unless you have recently been soaking your hands in medical alcohol then you hands are 100% certain to have coliform bacteria on them.

    If you have touched a surface or a bag (disposable or otherwise) you have probably left them there as well.

    “The problem appears to be the habits of the reusers. Seventy-five percent said they keep meat and vegetables in the same bag”

    I think you more likely have a problem there.

    ” San Francisco ban results in a 46 percent increase in deaths from foodborne illnesses, or 5.5 more of them each year”

    In an area with a population of approx 8 million. I find it very hard to take this report seriously.

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  12. Nigel Kearney (904 comments) says:

    The cost/benefit analysis is incomplete because it doesn’t include the value that people derive from feeling smug and self-satisfied when they implement these kind of policies.

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  13. barry (1,317 comments) says:

    And the biggest scam….

    Re-useable shopping bags are made of – guess what – plastic.

    And its a type that takes much longer to break down, and are no good if you put the biodegradable additive in them.

    If there was ever an example of self-delusion- its these bags.

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  14. Sb (58 comments) says:

    “Re-useable shopping bags are made of – guess what – plastic.”

    And its almost 100% second use plastic so what your point?

    Additionally many are made out of fabric.

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  15. Grendel (966 comments) says:

    i read somewhere a while back (and i cannot find the link anymore), that the energy it takes to make the resuseable bags equates to about 1000 plastic bags (especially if the resuable bag has the solid piece for the bottom of the bag like the green ones you see about).

    if that is true (and it seems plausible as plastic bags in NZ are made from polyethylene (sp?) which is a by product of making petrol (and its either used to make bags or burnt off), then how long does a bag have to last to replace the plastic bags properly?

    if a reusable bag replaces two plastic bags of shopping volume, and i use it 50 times a year (becuase its friday and my maths is lazy), i need to use it 500 times, or once a week for 10 years. hell even if its half the energy, i have to use it for 5 years to break even.

    if i have to wash them, how much extra energy does that use?

    what is the time wasted in supermarkets? i used to do checkout and i could get a new bag ready in about 1 second off the rack.

    with a customers bag, i have to untangle it, get their other bags out of the way, and get it ready to fit stuff into it.

    if its 10 seconds extra per customer to get their reuseable bags ready, how much time is wasted across every customer a check out person sees in a day and whats the cost of that?

    anyway, are the new plastic bags not designed to perish and go brittle, they seem to fall apart much easier than the older ones did.

    unintended consequences of goody two shoes laws always end up costing us someway. if i dont have plastic bags for my rubbish, i either have to buy proper rubbish bags, or i give up and just use a wheelie bin and dont bother recycling.

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  16. Sb (58 comments) says:

    “then how long does a bag have to last to replace the plastic bags properly?”

    Most studies seem to indicate approx 25-60 uses of the reusable bad to equate the disposable.

    However the same studies show that most bags are not actually used that many times. However its hard to equate them directly as people tend to use releasable bags in other ways that they don’t use disposables for. (Long term storage, travel bags packing material etc)

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  17. Viking2 (11,226 comments) says:

    ha, my ladies all agree that they are dirty and a couple who have done checkouts reckon most of the greenie bags are dirty bloody things.
    Fancy putting your food in a sewer.

    another Greenie policy fail.

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  18. All_on_Red (1,466 comments) says:

    Speaking of Unintended Consequences..
    “Opponents of the Government policy have claimed the generous grants awarded to wind farm developers have pushed electricity costs through the roof, leaving Scotland with some of the highest energy bills in Europe.
    The subsidies were introduced across the UK last year and are expected to have cost up to £1 billion.
    They offer a huge benefit to the energy companies as they push ahead with wind power projects but their cost in added on to household bills.
    The subsidies are said to be rising faster than inflation, with wages struggling to keep up.
    Almost 30% of Scottish residents are being left in fuel poverty and Energy Action Scotland claims the figure could be as high as 40%.
    “Each electricity bill has a rapidly increasing levy for paying the subsidies for wind turbines,” Mr Fraser said.
    “Every time we hear someone evangelising on behalf of the wind power industry, let us remember it is built on increasing fuel poverty.
    “Every time we hear wind farm developers talking about the sums they pay out in community benefit, let us remember every penny of community benefit is being robbed from the public, many of whom can barely afford to heat their homes.”

    Its not the only country with this problem. Germany is feeling it too. Remember this when the Greens bang on about “renewables”. They hurt poor and make landowners richer!

    http://www.thecourier.co.uk/news/politics/warning-wind-farm-subsidies-are-pushing-scots-into-fuel-poverty-1.67798

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  19. YesWeDid (1,041 comments) says:

    What I can’t get my head around is how DPF can argue that forcing people to recycle plastic bags is costing lives yet he constantly argues against the law preventing you from using your cellphone while driving.

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  20. barry (1,317 comments) says:

    Sb @ 12:07 pm

    Oh dear….. Theres hardly a fabric today that isnt some form of plastic. These bags are all made from Polyester. Its the same stuff used to make coke bottles…..
    And it cant be recycled if the original is coloured (because all you can make is black)

    Grendel @ 12:18 pm … you are quite right. Reuseable bags are a complete con. They cost more than the equivalent number of ordinary shopping bags, they last longer, they are dirty.

    Sb @ 12:22 pm ….. the equivalence in cost is more than 50 times. If they dont last that long – they are more costly and more wasteful.

    the only two things reuseable bags do are:
    1. Make morons feel good.
    2. Make the supermarkets more profit (because they give away the standard shopping bag – but deluded people buy the reuseable ones.

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  21. Sb (58 comments) says:

    “Oh dear….. Theres hardly a fabric today that isnt some form of plastic.”

    I don’t know about where you live but here in West Auckland many of the reusable bags have no plastic in them.(except possible an insert) I know the ones you are talking about, they are mainly made from recycled plastic not fresh.

    “Sb @ 12:22 pm ….. the equivalence in cost is more than 50 times.”

    The experts on such things say 25-60 as I said.

    “2. Make the supermarkets more profit (because they give away the standard shopping bag – but deluded people buy the reuseable ones.”

    In other words people have a choice – whats wrong with that?

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  22. barry (1,317 comments) says:

    Ah – SB – yes out west there are few made of coconut fibre – sorry forgot them……………….

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  23. Sb (58 comments) says:

    Using the back of my car as a completely representative sample of the whole country

    I have 2 cotton and 1 linen reusable (no plastic in any of them) and two plastic reusable.

    The linen one might be hemp – I wounder if its possible to smoke it?

    Some mold is eating both of the cotton ones …..

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  24. Fletch (6,108 comments) says:

    The plastic bags are reusable and recyclable. People can take them back to supermarkets where they are then recycled. The greenies were all for this a few years back, and now that it’s being done it’s still not good enough. Not to mention the workers out of jobs when the plants that manufacture these bags get closed down.

    http://www.ustream.tv/recorded/24444260

    There’s really no point in not having plastic bags.
    A 2011 study by the NCPA found that in places where plastic bags are banned, they experience a drop of 5.7% in sales.

    According to the study, commerce in incorporated businesses has been dealt a significant blow in the year following the bag ban. While unincorporated businesses, free of the regulations, reported nine percent overall growth, those within jurisdiction reported a decline around six percent. The decline in growth also brought a spike in unemployment for incorporated businesses.

    Should the trend of banning plastic bags grow more widespread, such stark unemployment numbers call into further question the damage that may be done to an entire sector of American manufacturing. The study notes that “most thin-film plastic bags are made in the United States, and the plastics manufacturing industry employs more than 30,000 people directly and many more indirectly.” In contrast, “most reusable bags are imported.”
    As such, the study reasons that widespread deployment of bag bans nationwide would result in potentially crippling economic impact on an entire industry that has provided Americans with jobs.
    Reinforcing the study’s notion is the sharp decline in bag production.
    NCPA further challenges the supporters’ entire reasoning for banning plastic bags: that plastic bags deal woe to the environment. In terms of energy produced, the study notes that plastic bags require 182,361 kcal but recover “2,581.3 through combustion.”
    However, paper bags fare far worse, observing that they require “three times as much energy consumption as plastic bags (626,672.9 kcal), whereas only 6,859.5 kcal can be recovered through consumption.”

    The study – http://www.ncpa.org/pdfs/st340.pdf

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  25. Fletch (6,108 comments) says:

    http://www.bagtheban.com/

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  26. Lance (2,540 comments) says:

    @All_on_Red

    Renewables need a level playing field but not subsidies as subsides lead to boom / bust cycles.
    I have no time for comments about renewables being crap, neither are they a silver bullet for our energy needs. They are another option in the tool kit as the part of any well planned power system.
    Renewable systems need smart grid and demand-side management to be practical, standalone renewbale (variable) generation is patently idiotic but alas what we have seen implemented.

    Alas a lot of the idiocy was on the behest of the windfarm advocates keen on making huge profits at the tax payer expense, where to implement demandside and smart grid would have reduced their cut of the pie. And the fools who implement the policy to make it happen.

    Wind-turbines are not bad per-sae. The fucked up rollout has been.

    Some people need to sit down and THINK about the future of power and the most cost-effective and secure way of implementing it with all the advantages and disadvantages associated with the choices. This has not been done, anywhere on earth from what I can see.

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  27. snowy (107 comments) says:

    I reuse plastic shopping bags…

    Someone has to offset Lucy Lawless’ carbon footprint

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  28. David Garrett (6,661 comments) says:

    What no-one has mentioned is that 20 odd years ago we all took our groceries home in sturdy, brown, totally biodegradable, made-from-renewable-resources, PAPER bags….they gave way to plastic when the latter became cheaper, and the paper grocery bags (“sacks” in the US) disappeared very quickly.

    Being the environmentally conscious right winger that I am, if I had a choice of supermarkets selling the same range of products for a similar price, and one used brown paper bags instead of plastic, the former would get my business every time. And yes, I am quite serious.

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  29. barry (1,317 comments) says:

    David Garrett – did you ever see the rivers just below the paper plants? I recall seeing “the whitest ” river in the world in northern spain. They were so proud of – it was white from the waste from the paper plants. Nothing could live in it. It was so thick with waste that I could almost walk across the river.

    Paper production requires the cutting down of trees – that takes tons of oil – and the processing into a sheet of paper. And although brown paper isnt as dirty as white paper – they still have to use tons of chemicals – mainly to make sure that the paper is “Safe” to put food into. (like fish and chip people arent allowed to use newspaper any more – might kill someone – dont know how)

    And Paper IS NOT biodegradable unless its wet – and in many landfills it never gets wet – so just sist there. Which isnt so bad actually. Probably less damage than breaking down and releasing all the glue and binders into the ground. Paper is not as clean and green as everyone thinks.
    A paper sack takes a lot more energy to make than a typical shopping bag (but no where near as much as the reuseable bags)

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  30. Sb (58 comments) says:

    @barry 3:21pm

    “like fish and chip people arent allowed to use newspaper any more – might kill someone – dont know how)”

    That’s silly, you can eat fish & Chips out of newsprint paper just fine, however you can’t eat it out of standard newspaper. Its not the paper which is the problem its the inks which tend to contain heavy metals. The fat lifts the newsprint off and if you had fish & chips too often you would exceed the safe level on several heavy metals.

    For the F&C industry paper manufactures now make fake newsprint, which looks like old newspapers but they have been printed with safe inks.

    I don’t know about you but personally I like my Fish & Chips with vinegar not lead and chromium

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  31. Ryan Sproull (7,056 comments) says:

    Speaking as someone who had the norovirus a few months back, I can say with some certainty that I probably would have strangled a baby seal right there and then if it would have stopped the apocalyptic symptoms.

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  32. David Garrett (6,661 comments) says:

    barry: you make some good points, the best of them being that ANYTHING we do is going to have enviromental consequences – even living in caves cooking over open fires as some of the loonier Greens would have us do.

    Incidentally when did you see the “white river” in Spain? When I grew up in Gisborne 40 odd years ago we used to have turds floating onto the beaches, and even lungs and other unwanted bits of offal from the abbatoir outfall which discharged right onto the beach. Everyone has learned a lot since them days.

    I dont think there is much argument that of the two, plastic bags have a more detrimental impact on the enviroment than paper ones. I have never heard of a dolphin or a seal being killed by a wet paper bag.

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  33. wat dabney (3,715 comments) says:

    If you shop at Pak’N’Save you can bring it all home in cardboard boxes and then make a fort.

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  34. unpcnzcougar (52 comments) says:

    I have been to San Francisco several times recently. I absolutely hate the no use of plastic bags there – they are completely banned. One of the unintended consequences is the amount of dog poop everywhere. San Franciscans I believe have one of the highest dog ownership rates. And now there are no plastic bags to take with them on their walks. Some areas are quite disgusting.

    I think recently I read here that there have been a couple of cases of food poisoning as people put their meat in the bags and the juices run out and then contaminate other foods.

    To me this is PC madness.

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  35. David Garrett (6,661 comments) says:

    Actually that’s a good point “dog poop” as the yanks call it….not so pleasant picking it up with a paper rather than a plastic bag! Still, you can buy small plastic freezer bags, which when full of “poop” and tied off are unlikely to kill a dolphin…

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  36. kowtow (7,875 comments) says:

    How funny is that? All those “environmentally” friendly San Fransiscans who own dogs that live in apartment blocks,get hardly any exercise and shit all over public space. Seems awfully queer.

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  37. CharlieBrown (916 comments) says:

    The GFC and drug murders in mexico are all signs of unintended consequences caused by governments screwing around with peoples free will.

    Government over-regulation and poor tax policies resulted in the GFC, and the war on drugs has made the illicit drug industry huge in mexico and ruled by thugs.

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  38. kowtow (7,875 comments) says:

    Don’t blame the war on drugs for drug wars.

    Drug murders are caused by drug murderers.

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