Call it California peer pressure if you will, but in accordance with the city’s trademark environmentalism Austin is taking further steps to stop all that is bad in the world: Mayor Lee Leffingwell recently announced a revived proposal to ban plastic shopping bags in the city’s retail businesses.

The anti-plastic bag movement has rolled across the nation ever since San Francisco took the lead in March 2007. It isn’t new to Austin: the city council unsuccessfully attempted a ban in early 2008. But a renewed effort is on the horizon.

It’s no secret the Austin city council believes all ills can be soothed with additional government intervention or regulation, but they should leave these bags alone. This issue is best left to the market and private businesses to decide since there is no compelling evidence to suggest that these plastic bags pose a serious and urgent threat to Austin’s population.

A brief survey of the present environmental situation does not suggest a matter urgent enough to require governmental intervention in the free market.

The plastic bag does not have as drastic an impact upon the waste stream as its opponents might surmise. While Austin has no hard data, a California study of its state’s waste stream has indicated that plastic bags make up less than 0.5% of the state’s entire waste stream. Other recent studies have also concluded that the type of bag used by grocery stores and others who would be affected by the proposed ban have “the lowest environmental impacts” of the bags considered.

Additionally, plastic bags do not wildly consume the earth’s petroleum supply. The monthly chart published by the U.S. Energy Information Administration revealed that “Miscellaneous Petroleum Products” (the category under which polyethylene bags fall) constituted a mere 0.5% of the total U.S. Refinery Yield in May 2011. Assuming a constant pattern, these miscellaneous products consume only 6% of U.S. petroleum resources per year—and the EIA doesn’t even specify what fraction of that percentage polyethylene demands.

But this is not only a question of environmental urgency. The crux of the matter lies within the issue of government intervention in the free market. Here, the government of America’s fourth-largest capital city plans to take charge over a matter of preference that should belong to the retailers alone.

Six major Austin retailers have already volunteered to curb the use of plastic bags by offering only a paper option. The paper upgrade may prove costly for small businesses, but that’s a choice these businesses should have to make for themselves.

There is still no final conclusion to the debate between plastic and paper grocery bags. If environmental protection is the defining issue, neither material claims a thorough solution. If energy is the concern, there is still no satisfactory answer—both materials require natural resources for production. If economics is the question, there yet remains confusion over the relationship between the respective costs for consumers and retailers.

Because this issue’s controversy rests not within an ethical dilemma (and, as earlier observed, is not a matter of drastic urgency), the available options from which to decide ought to be left to Austin retailers, providing choice for the city’s shoppers.

The debate is not about bag material, but about government intervention.

The bottom line: Leave it to the stores. Hands off the free market. There is no need for the government to reach its fingers into this issue. Retailers can make their own decisions regarding this policy according to their own budgets and priorities. And in so doing, the freedom of the consumer’s choice—the pride of the American economic system—will not face encroachment from the mandates of an increasingly officious government.


Owen Stroud is a Summer Intern with Empower Texans

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