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  • Topic: Plastic shopping bag, California
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  • Published : February 2, 2013
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University of Pennsylvania Law School

A Joint Research Center of the Law School, the Wharton School, and the Department of Economics in the School of Arts and Sciences at the University of Pennsylvania


Grocery Bag Bans and Foodborne Illness

Jonathan Klick

Joshua D. Wright

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Grocery Bag Bans and Foodborne Illness

Jonathan Klick Joshua D. Wright

November 2, 2012


Recently, many jurisdictions have implemented bans or imposed taxes upon plastic grocery bags on environmental grounds. San Francisco County was the first major US jurisdiction to enact such a regulation, implementing a ban in 2007. There is evidence, however, that reusable grocery bags, a common substitute for plastic bags, contain potentially harmful bacteria. We examine emergency room admissions related to these bacteria in the wake of the San Francisco ban. We find that ER visits spiked when the ban went into effect. Relative to other counties, ER admissions increase by at least one fourth, and deaths exhibit a similar increase.


Klick (, Professor of Law, University of Pennsylvania and Erasmus Chair of Empirical Legal Studies, Erasmus University Rotterdam; Wright (, Professor, George Mason University School of Law and Department of Economics. We thank Nathan Harris, Natalie Hayes, and Elise Nelson for excellent research assistance. Klick thanks the Property and Environment Research Center (PERC) for support for this project through its Julian Simon Fellowship.

Electronic copy available at:


In an effort to reduce litter and protect marine animals, jurisdictions across the globe are considering banning plastic grocery bags. In the US, California leads the way. San Francisco enacted a county-wide ban covering large grocery stores and drug stores in 2007. It extended this ban to all retail establishments in early 2012. Los Angeles followed suit in 2012, as did a number of smaller cities throughout the state. Some municipalities have imposed taxes on the bags rather than implement direct bans.

These bans are designed to induce individuals to use reusable grocery bags, in the hope that a reduction in the use of plastic bags will lead to less litter. Recent studies, however, suggest that reusable grocery bags harbor harmful bacteria, the most important of which is E. coli. If individuals fail to clean their reusable bags, these bacteria may lead to contamination of the food transported in the bags. Such contamination has the potential to lead to health problems and even death.

We examine the pattern of emergency room admissions related to bacterial intestinal infections, especially those related to E. coli around the implementation of the San Francisco County ban in October 2007. We find that ER admissions increase by at least one fourth relative to other California counties. Subsequent bans in other California municipalities resulted in similar increases. An examination of deaths related to intestinal infections shows a comparable increase.

Using standard estimates of the statistical value of life, we show that the health costs associated with the San Francisco ban swamp any budgetary savings from reduced litter. This assessment is unlikely to be reversed even if fairly liberal estimates of the other environmental benefits are included.

We provide details about the motivation for and the provisions of the San Francisco ban in Section 2. We discuss the evidence regarding the health risks of reusable bags in Section 3. Section 4...
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