Law professors Jonathan Klick (U Penn Law) and Joshua D. Wright (George Mason Law) have posted a paper, Grocery Bag Bans and Foodborne Illness, that has been making the rounds in the news and blogs in the last few days. The paper argues that the bans on plastic bags in San Francisco and other California cities have caused a spike in the rate of illness and death from foodborne illnesses such as E. Coli and salmonella.
Cities banned plastic bags in response to claims that the bags increase the costs of waste disposal and harm marine animals. But according to the article, the bag bans have exacted a serious human toll; after San Francisco's enactment of the first major plastic bag ban in 2007 the number of emergency room visits and deaths related to foodborne illness increased sharply. According to the article, the reason may be that consumers rarely wash the bags, mixing residues from raw meat, vegetables, and other items together over time creating a Petri dish of bacteria in which food items marinate. Of course, the authors' observational study does not prove that the bag ban caused the increase in illness, but overall the authors' argument seems persuasive.
Since 2007, the bag bans have been spreading in California like an epidemic. After San Francisco, three other California cities quickly enacted the bans: Malibu, Fairfax, and Palo Alto. The bag ban hits close to home for me, as my town is one of the four called out in the article. As a resident of a "Malibu-adjacent" neighborhood, I have had the opportunity to "enjoy" the twin benefits of the increased seagull and salmonella populations. And I am no longer alone, as the bans are now much more widespread than these initial four cities.
The law profs' study has attracted some significant coverage in the last few days, but the major outlets seem to have overlooked the most astounding calculation from the paper, perhaps because one would need to read the paper to find it. The authors estimate that the additional deaths from the plastic bag ban value each saved animal at $87,500. Perhaps more significantly, this figure only takes into account the costs of those people killed by foodborne illness, not the legions hospitalized, sickened, absent from place of employment, or otherwise incapacitated because of eating food out of filthy cloth bags. One can only imagine that the number of those sickened is orders of magnitude larger than those killed.
It is possible that residents of these (largely uber wealthy) cities would value each sea lion, harbor seal, dolphin, and other endearing animal at $87,500. (I wonder how they value the fish populations that are decimated by the overpopulation of sea lions off the Pacific coast.) My guess, however, is that the primary beneficiary is the elusive Pacific Sea Rat (a.k.a. the seagull), which is one of the few things more unappealing to have in direct contact with food than reusable fabric shopping bags. One would guess that even in Malibu, Marin, Palo Alto, and San Francisco, one could come to a consensus that $87,500 is too steep a price for a seagull.
The plastic bag ban is but one of thousands of examples of regulatory zeal gone awry in California. As I have argued before, California's inability to consider the costs of regulation is turning the state's economy into a rustbelt economy. I hope more law professors will follow the lead of Klick and Wright, conducting the assessment of the costs and ancillary effects of regulation that our California state and local governments seem unable to perform or uninterested in considering.