Of Booze and Bags

(Photo: Taber Andrew Bain)

The Austin City Council is about to outlaw the paper and plastic bags you get at the grocery store. Retailers don’t like the ban. One particularly clever argument by liquor retailers is that it will encourage people to buy less — not a good thing, so they argue, when unemployment is high. 

This is a bad argument for so many reasons: 1) Booze demand and bag provision are at most only a tiny bit complementary — one can always carry the six-pack out by hand; 2) To argue that high unemployment is a reason for anything other than macro stimuli is totally self-serving.  I think all universities should hire more economists to reduce unemployment (although others may differ). The best argument against the ban is that it is not efficient—the environmental improvements don’t justify the extra resource cost of schlepping reusable bags into stores.  I don’t find even that argument to be very persuasive.

(HT to TC).

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  1. Adam says:

    I thought paper bags were required in order to drink booze in public. If so, bags might be much more complementary to cheap booze than non-homeless economists might realize.

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    • Van says:

      It could be a plus for the liquor store. If I must be seen walking out with a bottle in my hand, I want it to be something upscale, not a jug of cheap vodka.

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    • Tiffany Madison says:

      This will deter purchase of additional items. The more creative way to get around this issue would be to reward those that bring the bags back for recycling. But that would require thinking outside of the box; something government rarely does when they can just “ban” everything.

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  2. Curt says:

    This is probably a stupid question, but what bags will the shops be offering instead? Or will customers just have to bring their own?

    But yes, I agree it’s a dumb argument to say people will buy less in a single shopping session, unless bags and buckets and slings and boxes and anything else you could use to carry shopping were all completely outlawed.

    But then, if that were the case, it would possibly encourage more frequent visits to the shops, which could have positive results: People who walk to the shops would get more exercise, people who take public transport would be giving the state more money (Though what the state does with that might not necessarily be positive), people who use private transport would be buying more fuel which is good for the economy (In a limited sense), and old people who need assistance with getting about and making purchases would be providing more work for their carers.

    Also, without bags, I imagine people will start wearing large coats for carrying more shopping, which could lead to the hiring of more security staff to prevent shoplifting. Also the wheelbarrow market might flourish in such a dire bagless situation.

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  3. Adam says:

    I understand the environmental impact that plastic bags have but paper?

    The argument is fairly invalid, people won’t buy less booze because of a ban on bags.

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    • Enter your name... says:

      Well, in practice, bag bans do reduce sales, at least in the short term, for unplanned transactions.

      The scenario works like this: You suddenly decide to stop by the store to get one or two things because you’re going right past it anyway. You don’t have a cloth bag with you, but this is no big deal, because it’s just one or two items, and you can carry one or two items out in your hands. When you’re in the store, you’re tempted to make an impulse purchase. Why not pick up a few more things since you’re already there? Previously, you would have bought the extra items, but now you have to make a decision: Do I buy these extra things and also spend $1 to buy a bag to carry them home in, or do I resist the impulse to buy these extra items now and save the $1?

      Many customers decide to save the $1, and some of those sales are permanently lost.

      The decision is really no different from “If I stop shopping now, I can use the express checkout lane; if I add one more item, I have to go through the much slower regular lanes.”

      The businesses most affected by this are the ones with the highest proportion of unplanned visits and impulse purchases. A liquor store is probably more vulnerable to the effect than a grocery store.

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    • Tyler says:

      Paper bags require significantly more energy to produce than plastic bags do, though neither one is particulary environmentally-friendly.

      As more and more cities start requiring reusable bags, I’m curious whether this truly has the desired impact of reducing production of disposable bags.

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      • Joshua says:

        But then again reusable bags are many times more resource intensive to manufacture. In addition if you use reusable bags, you may feel the desire to wash them at some point, which if you use hot water, likely uses significantly more energy resources, meaning that your investment in reusable bags could never break even.

        In general with disposable products compared to reusable ones, never wash with hot water if you care about environmental impact.

        Though I guess outside of energy and emissions impacts, you could make the case for landfill and litter reduction (and businesses might actually save some money by not providing free disposable bags).

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    • Sbard says:

      It would hit hard the liquor stores that do lots of business in single-serving portions and the requisite tall-boy sized paper bags that typically accompany same.

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  4. Woody says:

    As an economist, do you have data on the environmental improvements vs. the extra resource cost? I would think recycling bags would be better than the petroleum costs (both as material and as energy in production) in addition to the environmental damage.

    Is carrying a couple nearly weightless bags to the store really a significant extra resource cost?

    I thought you lived in Germany for a bit where bringing bags as well as returning beer bottles is a cultural standard and not really a big deal.

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    • James says:

      “Is carrying a couple nearly weightless bags to the store really a significant extra resource cost?”

      That depends on whether you’re the sort of person who carefully plans shopping trips, or are (like me) the sort who remembers he needs a few things, and stops at the store on the way to/from other things. I usually do remember to keep a few bags tucked in the car, but not always (and sometimes I have one bag, but buy enough groceries to fill two bags), so every time I didn’t I’d waste resources, thereby causing more environmental harm than if I could just get a bag or two in the store.

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    • Enter your name... says:

      It’s not the fuel costs of carrying the bags; it’s the human/time costs of keeping the bags with you. Not only does the customer have to buy the bags, but the customer has to maintain them. Planning (so the bags are with you) is not free. Walking the empty bags back out to the car is not free. Washing the bags (if you don’t, you really should!) is not free.

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      • twobeef says:

        “Planning (so the bags are with you) is not free. Walking the empty bags back out to the car is not free. ”

        …Okay, I understand the point of factoring in opportunity costs, but now we’re just taking it off the deep end. The one minute that it takes to walk my bags out to the car is not one minute that I would’ve instead spent working for a 1/60th portion of my hourly wage. I would not be saving that extra one minute per shopping trip into some sort of virtual time bank by which I would magically have a half hour of extra work at the end of the month.

        The law in question is obviously misguided, but this sort of analysis is now crossing the threshold into just plain laziness.

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  5. artemis says:

    How would you define “macro stimuli” and has such ever occured? It would seem to me that all stimuli are micro in practice because no stimilus occurs evenly across all industries.

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  6. Howard Brazee says:

    We live at a place where our garbage must be in plastic bags. We use grocery bags for that – having a trash can designed for that purpose. When we get low, we must buy other bags that don’t fit nearly as well, cost more, and have a bigger impact on the environment. When we have plenty, we use cloth bags.

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  7. Speed says:

    In West Virginia, “Liquor, wine and beer products that are not already in closed packaging must be bagged before exiting retail locations.”

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  8. Doug says:

    Bans like the one mentioned also fail to account for people who, like me, have their weekly grocery purchases bagged in paper so that I can then reuse the bags for my household trash and recycling.

    If I did not have access to this supply of bags, I would be forced to buy plastic trash bags. I may be wrong, but I assume increasing demand for plastic bags is not what the council has in mind.

    Based on my experience, I know my bag usage in uncommon. But it’s an unintended consequence nonetheless.

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    • John Pula says:

      This is what I was thinking, except a small difference– dog poop. Plastic grocery bags are perfect for picking up after the mutt, especially when, on a walk, he “double bags” you.

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    • James says:

      Another use for paper grocery bags is to cool cookies after they come out of the oven.

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