Virtue signaling and the plastic bag ban

Plastic bag


Yet more virtue signaling is coming from our friends on the left, this time a proposed plastic bag ban in Anchorage.

Wasilla and Palmer City Councils voted earlier this year to ban single-use plastic bags.

The rationale was similar to that of Alaska cities Homer, Bethel, Cordova and Hooper Bay: They pose a risk to wildlife and are an unsightly blight on the landscape (non-biodegradable).  Homer rescinded its ban.

Green mouthpiece Rep. Andy Josephson-D, District 17, proposed HB 264 for last session which would tax disposable shopping bags (paper and plastic) 20 cents per bag.  There’s nothing like being small-business friendly, is it?

It is always difficult to top virtue signaling with actual facts in the persuasion game, but let me try:

Plastic bag bans will make your life more dangerous.

Here’s why.

Reusable bags are not sanitary.  They are difficult to wash and otherwise clean, so people don’t clean them.

Over time, they pick up bacteria carried by produce and raw meats purchased in stores. This in turn, increases your exposure to bacteria like e-coli, coliform and MRSA, molds and yeast, all of which increase bacterial skin infections, allergic reactions, asthma attacks, and ear infections.

64 percent of reusable bags contain bacteria.  30 percent of them have higher bacteria counts that what is considered safe for drinking water.  40 percent of them had yeast / mold.  Many people used reusable bags for other purposes like carrying dirty diapers and gym clothing.

A 2012 Institute for Law and Economics paper entitled “Grocery Bag Bans and Foodborne Illness” found striking correlations between San Francisco’s plastic bag ban and increased deaths and emergency room visits related to foodborne bacteria.

Single use bags have none of these health issues. Neither do reusable bags at the first use.  Subsequent uses are another thing entirely.

The expected environmental positives of these bans are not supported by data.  For instance:

  • Paper lasts longer in landfills. Biodegradable plastic may be an option, though never discussed when these bans are imposed.
  • Plastic’s carbon footprint is smaller.
  • Bans trigger a move to other disposable plastic bags for the same use (trash bags, garbage bags, trash can liners)
  • Reusable bags must be purchased by the shopper, increasing their shopping costs
  • Reusable bags are not reused. In Austin, there are almost as many reusable bags at its recycling centers as there were when single-use bags were used.
  • There is an environmental cost associated with cleaning and drying the reusable bags.
  • 95 percent of reusable bags come from overseas, most of them from China.

Additionally, bans end up harming businesses, especially retail businesses. In Los Angeles, following its ban in 2011, every single store inside the ban area had to terminate some of its staff. None of the stores outside the area dismissed staff.  Stores inside the ban area decreased their employment by 10 percent.  Stores outside the area increased their employment by 2.4 percent.

A plastic bag ban or tax is virtue signaling at its worst.  Not only does it limit freedom, but it also increases your chances of picking up a foodborne illness, and harms business by forcing layoffs.  And we are doing all of this for what?  To feel good about ourselves during the worst jobs market in Anchorage since the late 1980s?

This is yet another time where the cost of doing something is far, far greater than simply leaving Alaskans alone to live their lives in a manner that they see fit.

As of this writing, it is unclear which problem the Anchorage Assembly thinks it will be solving.  If it is littering, we do have laws on the books against littering. However, given the ongoing crime spree, perhaps the simple solution of enforcing the laws on the books is beyond the esteemed members of our Assembly.

If it is some ill-defined obeisance to Mother Gaia, they will have to explain the cost benefit analysis of virtue signaling against higher exposure to bacterial infestations in reusable bags.

A final thought goes to Assemblymen Chris Constant and Dick Traini.  When does “Somebody’s got to do it” and “We need to get in line” become defensible rationale for foolish action?  I’ve heard three-year olds with better arguments.

Alex Gimarc lives in Anchorage since retiring from the military in 1997. His interests include science and technology, environment, energy, economics, military affairs, fishing and disabilities policies. His weekly column “Interesting Items” is a summary of news stories with substantive Alaska-themed topics. He is a small business owner and Information Technology professional.


  1. So what do we do? Put the dog and cat crap in plastic bags and dispose of them responsibly, or buy plastic bags from the store and use them for the same purpose? All this B***S**t when the city and state have much more pressing problems. Oh yeah, the plastic bags were meant to keep us from killing trees. What happened to that sanctimonious concept? Stop the nonsense. Now!

  2. This article is crap. I enjoy most of what is posted here, because it seems thoughtful and well researched. This seems more like a screed written by someone who is opposed to anything that even remotely resembles environmentalism. This whole article reads as though the writer just scraped together a bunch of specious statistics that loosely support his foregone conclusions. I hope it’s an exception and not the new normal.

  3. leftists and treehuggers ruin everything

    they have no problems that their wind turbines, tesla batteries and solar panels are highly toxic

    but muh plastic bags


  4. Wonderful piece, Ma’am !
    And a good laugh at the end !
    Guess we’ll be seeing them @
    garage sales too ..great trash bags,
    they are …

  5. “Somebody’s got to do it” assumes that single-use plastic bags do harm. It isn’t given as the only reason to ban them. And the stats on paper and plastic bags seem to be equal. Paper bags would degrade quicker but at the bottom of the dump pile with no oxygen they can last decades, easily as long as some estimates given for plastic bags, though not 1,000 years which is the upper limit for single-use plastic. Two other possible solutions would be the one that is researching floating dams to trap ocean waste (including plastic) and the one that uses all plastic waste- not just bags- to pave roads. However, if they are going to ban shopping bags, then I suggest they ban produce bags as well. People will put a single fruit in one of these, while a head of lettuce wrapped in plastic goes in another one and a single plastic wrapped package of meat goes in yet another- or two depending on the size of the package.

  6. There’s no need to read past the words “Virtue Signaling” in the headline. People who use this term are not participating in honest debate, but simply making ad hominem attacks on those who hold different opinions than they do.

    Does banning plastic bags improve the environment and people’s lives? Who knows. But demeaning those people who’s only motivation is protecting the environment with a seemingly derogatory term like `virtue signaling` gets us no closer to an honest answer. It’s just more divisive crap to keep us from focusing on real issues.

    • The author’s opinion is summed up in the title. The reasons for it are given in the body of the article which could be construed as honest debate. I agree that you should probably not use a loaded term if you are wanting to discuss an issue with someone on the other side of it. It makes it harder for them to want to listen to you.

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