On January 1, 2012 single-use plastic bags vanished from the San Jose, CA shopping scene. Your options are to bring your own bag, pay $.10 for a paper bag, or do without. Fines for noncomplying businesses can hit $1000/day after a warning. Such a simple technology - a plastic bag with a handle - such a complex set of issues.

Decisions around a simple plastic bag have implications for:

  • Our behavior - remembering to grab the bag from the car, planning for the number of bags, finding new sources of trash bags for home, washing our cloth bags to reduce the spread of bacteria.
  • Recycling technologies - as I browsed the environmental impact report (pdf) for the new ordnance I saw comments that current systems jam with the filmy bags and the city ends up paying to dispose of them.
  • Environmental impact evaluations, enforcement procedures, etc.
  • Opportunities for new technologies around bag size, germ carrying characteristics, etc.
  • Opportunities for new services that perhaps let you trade your bags at the store front (to be professionally cleaned) for clean bags.

I've been bringing my own bag to Trader Joe's for years. They offer a weekly drawing for a $25 gift certificate. Did we need a law or did we need more lotteries?

Is a lottery enough?

This comment from the San Jose Mercury news suggests not. From a resident in a nearby city that is considering a similar law:

San Carlos resident Gayda Chi said she chose plastic bags because the store's paper bags have no handles, which makes them difficult to carry.

"I would be motivated to bring my own bags if they told us we had to," Chi said. "I would do it," she added, recalling when car seatbelts became mandatory a few decades ago.

"I hated buckling my seatbelt, I fought it," she said. "Now I put it on and I just don't think about it."

If the physical rewards and punishments of using a seatbelt weren't enough to get everyone to wear their seat belt(and they weren't), perhaps the chance at a $25 gift certificate for bringing a shopping bag never had a chance. Looking forward to a Freakonomics analysis of this as we settle in to a new way of shopping.