Wednesday, February 26, 2020

SearchResearch Challenge (2/26/20): Does banning plastic bags actually help? How can you find out?

I'm interested in a variety of topics.. 

... If you've been reading SRS for a while you know I'm fascinated by matters cognitive, aquatic, geologic, musical, and biological.  We've also talked about historical issues and hysterical tales. 

One thing we haven't talked about much is the effect of unanticipated consequences.  

We invent something for a particular purpose--that is, we design or build something to achieve a particular end.  We do X to achieve Y.  

But as you know, The best-laid schemes o' mice an' men gang aft agley.  

For example: Eugene Schieffelin's plan was to introduce a few starlings into the American landscape, and within a few years, all of North America suffers from an abundance of giant flocks of starlings filling the sky, leaving messes everywhere, and eating crops.  Even the Audubon Society says it's okay to hate starlings.  

So it was with great interest that I heard a story on NPR (here's the transcript and the audio) pointing out that passing a law banning thin-film plastic bags in supermarkets seems to have actually caused an INCREASE in the number of plastic bags sold. 

That's pretty counter-intuitive--and clearly an unintended consequence of the law.  The intent was to reduce the consumption of bags.  That doesn't seem to have worked out.   

BUT... the story producers did  one thing that drives me crazy:  After creating a great story (and I encourage you to listen to it, because the story really is excellent), they neglect to give any citations or follow-up!  

Don't DO that!  

However, it give us, the Regulars at SRS, a chance to practice our sleuthing skills.  Our Challenge for this week is a natural outgrowth from reading this story.  These are the kinds of questions you should be asking yourself every time you hear a news story that makes a surprising claim.  In particular, news stories that make counterintuitive claims should be followed up... if only with a single query to validate what you've heard.  

After hearing this story about plastic bags, I naturally asked: 

1. The story is clearly talking about a paper that Rebecca Taylor wrote.  Can you find that paper?  (What's the title?  Where was it published?)  
2. Once you find that paper, can you tell us where the data was collected from?  How representative is this data?  
3.  What do you call the counterintuitive effect when a partial regulation of consumer products results in the increased consumption of these products?  Is there a technical term we can use in future searches on this topic?  
4. How well has banning plastic bags worked in other places?  Can you find another study of a place where plastic bags have been banned?  How well did that work out?

I hope you see this little Challenge as a kind of model for your own research practices when reading the news.  Many stories leave you with deep questions, even if the writers don't provide the follow-up information, I'm sure our SRS readers can find the missing information.  

Can you? 

Let us know if you can, and how you went about finding it!  

Search on.  


  1. …is it Jevons?
    used - [explain counterintuitive effect when a partial regulation of consumer products results in the increased consumption]
    Jevons paradox
    from Stanford - Jeff Dardozzi THE SPECTOR OF JEVONS' PARADOX
    Yogi: Nobody goes there anymore, its too crowded

  2. For this Challenge, decided to start searching New Scientist. Why? Because I read an article about the topic in the past and I liked. Therefore searched on Twitter [@newscientist plastic bag] recent

    Plastic tea bags shed billions of microplastic particles into the cup (2019)

    2018: Fixing planet plastic: How we'll really solve our waste problem This didn't work as we need to have subscription to read
    Plastic waste is a problem – but some solutions are even worse

    [Rebecca Taylor plastic bags]

    Are Plastic Bag Bans Garbage? "...Trash bags are thick and use more plastic than typical shopping bags. "So about 30 percent of the plastic that was eliminated by the ban comes back in the form of thicker garbage bags," Taylor says...."... Also article has other studies that I haven't visited

    The articles links to:

    Bag leakage: The effect of disposable carryout bag regulations on unregulated bags

    2019: Journal of Environmental Economics and Management and it is about regulations in California

    [effect one ban jumps sales of other]

    Wikipedia: Bandwagon effect is

    [plastic bag ban new markets]

    Mexico bags

    Wikipedia: Phase-out of lightweight plastic bags

    [plastic bag ban creates new markets]

    Need to read article by NatGeo

    “re-localising” production.

    From birth to ban: A history of the plastic shopping bag

    Circular Economy is the term coined for the new-style marketplaces where resources (such as plastics) are used again and again in a continuous cycle of profit and sustainability.

    1. In BBC Mundo (Spanish) read these articles:

      Data about plastic bags (Spanish)

      Mentions: "Green Alliance Plastic Promises: what the grocery sector is really doing about packaging ("Promesas plásticas: qué está haciendo realmente el sector de la alimentación sobre el empaquetado"). Still need to read that.

      Las bolsas de plástico deberían ser reusadas al menos cuatro veces, las de papel tres, mientras que las de algodón 131 veces. And, these data is very different from what Remmij found and also with what other articles mentions. Why so much differences?

      Sten Gustaf Thulin the inventor of plastic bags- Por qué las bolsas de algodón y papel pueden ser tan dañinas para el medio ambiente como las de plástico

      UK Supermarkets. Plastic promises: what the grocery sector is really doing about packaging

      Out of topic: I just read that are streaming Cherry blossom as people can't visit due to Covid19. I wanted to watch so searched and found nothing. Can you found the stream? I just found this Videos: Shanghai Chenshan Botanical Garden

    2. After reading Jon, searched [unintended consequences plastic bag ban]

      Lots of results and very interesting. Still need to read more. However, these 2 are very good and also the one from ABC mentions studies in Quebec, UK and California

      Plastic Bags and the Environment

      Feb 2020.A plastic bag bans go into effect, some question the unintended consequences

    3. About unintended consequences, very interesting the case of Coronavirus (Covid19) and Corona beer. Apparently many people think virus came from beer or is related and sales are going down

    4. I want to share with you these links. They are not related to the Challenge and are interesting. Hopefully you like them too

      ASTEROIDS Size Comparison ��

      February 30th. In Spanish

      Fighter Jets and Airshow in 4K Slow Motion (Super-zoom)

    5. Nicely done, Ramón! Great finds.

  3. 3. no good deed goes unpunished, comes to mind

  4. 1. The story is clearly talking about a paper that Rebecca Taylor wrote. Can you find that paper? (What's the title? Where was it published?)

    {rebecca Taylor "plastic bags"] finds it at

    Title: Bag leakage: The effect of disposable carryout bag regulations on unregulated bags
    Published: 4 January 2019 in Sydney Australia via Journal of Environmental Economics and Management

    Well, the abstract is there anyway. The actual article would cost me 50 Canadian pesos.

    2. Once you find that paper, can you tell us where the data was collected from? How representative is this data?

    Data: from the bottom of the page: This project would not be possible without the institutional and technical support of the retailers that provided data and access to their stores. This paper reflects the author's own analyses and calculations based on data from individual retailers and data from The Nielsen Company (US), LLC and marketing databases provided by the Kilts Center for Marketing Data at the University of Chicago Booth School of Business, Copyright © 2018 The Nielsen Company (US), LLC,

    I humbly suggest this is a good start but there are many others ways to dispose of garbage.


  5. 3. Technical term: I knew this. "law of unintended consequences" Goo cleverly came up with images/cartoons first. They are great.

    4. Nearby place that tried it. City of Victoria BC Canada enacted a bylaw January 2018 banning merchants from handing out plastic bags. The ban was challenged in court by the Canadian Plastic Bag Association, and B.C.’s top court ruled in July that Victoria had exceeded its legal authority by implementing the ban without provincial approval, which is required under the province’s Community Charter.

    “Legislative initiatives such as the city’s bylaw, which aim to protect the environment, can have unintended and harmful effects,” said the association.

    “For example, research that was available to the city has shown that plastic bags typically outperform paper bags and, from an environmental perspective, are in many ways the best packaging option, given that they can be recycled.”

    The Supreme Court of Canada dismissed an appeal from the city on Thursday, January 23, 2020 which sought to overturn a lower court ruling quashing the ban.

    1. Fascinating story. Thanks for posting it here.

  6. Anne and Deb here. We loved this challenge! First question- we listened to the podcast and as we were listening it reminded me of a conversation that I had with my daughter who has her Ph.D in Chemistry. Her undergraduate degree is actually a masters in Chemistry with a concentration in environmental and green chemistry with industrial experience. Yes the name is that long! She has railed against plastic bag bans for years saying almost the same thing. So to find the article we did a search for - Rebecca Taylor plastic bag ban California - that led to the first result of this link- when we clicked on it we got the title and abstract to a paper - Bag Leakage: The Effect of Disposable Carryout Bag Regulations on Unregulated Bags, Journal of Environmental Economics and Management. We then clicked on that and got the paper - This appears to be the paper mentioned. We will post answers to other questions separately.

  7. For q)3 we thought of unintended consequences as the term but also found this article in Wikipedia on minimal counter-intuitiveness and then there is also maximal counter-intuitiveness
    Not sure if there are any other terms. This is what we came up with so far.

    1. Q3) just found the term! Leakage! Was looking for info for Q4 and found this article -

    2. Bingo! Now, can you say WHAT it was about that term that alerted you to it? What part of your spidey-sense tingled when you saw it? Can you tell us?

    3. ⌘-F leakage… ('leakage' seems inelegant & subject to misinterpretation… imho, bwdik)
      the green paradox
      "referred to as non‐target entities. Leakage, slippage, or spillover have also been used in economics research "

  8. Q2)It appears that Rebecca Taylor did extensive research but it was only done in California, so one demographic. It would be interesting to see if this holds up in other areas. She also notes that she didn't tackle the issue of marine pollution "future research is needed on the costs and benefits of plastic marine debris reduction."

  9. You've got me watching for unintended consequences, so from today's (27 Feb 2020) newspaper I note 2 of them. Montreal wanting to get hundreds of diesel buses off the streets built a light rapid transit train system. The cars turned out to be badly designed and/or badly made. Reliability is so bad that the buses have started running again. Another bungle: Alaska's governor cut Ferries funding by 30 per cent. Now, 11 of the 12 ferries are tied up til money is available fix them. Meanwhile communities that rely on the ferry system for grocery delivery are starving.

  10. Today's Unintended consequences.
    To discourage use of the East West Market's plastic bags and to get their customers to bring their own bags the market printed gross, embarraasing slogans on the market's plastic bags, The consequence of which, according the radio program "Under the Influence" was that people really liked them. No a bit put off. In fact people came to the market just to buy the bags. But, it turned out to not be a bad move because now, after original excitement, 96% of customers now bring their own bags.

    1. I'm thinking about writing a book about Unintended Consequences. This would be a great story there. Do you have a cite for either this and/or the Montreal story?

    2. Vancouver… I searched… [plastic bags printed with embarrassing slogans]
      Vancouver Market
      EastWest Market

  11. the effects of DST…
    …not just bags, but now I find out fish poop in the water too… wha? tmi
    (at least I know where those went now…)
    thanks Google