First Blush: Cambridge bag ban is working

A quick stop-in at Harvard Bookstore this morning - it was raining and I had some time to kill - led to a brief conversation with the three ladies behind the register area about Cambridge's new plastic bag ban. The bag ban is designed to reduce the distribution of plastic bags for one-time use.

I overhead one of the women tell a funny story of offering up a bag to a customer, noting that they would have to pay for the bag. The customer was fine with this.

"How much does it cost?" the customer queried.
"Ten cents," the clerk responded.

The customer reached in her purse for a dime.

"Well, it's actually 11 cents," responded the clerk.

If you buy a bag, which the city ordinance requires if you did not bring your own bag but would like the store to provide you with one, you will have to pay $0.11 for it. The bag costs $0.10, but don't forget the tax! And, the store is not allowed to have the bag cost $0.09 so that with tax it will cost $0.10.

But how is the ban working? I wanted to know. By their unofficial estimates, and they were just that, nothing more than back-of-the-envelope guesstimates, the bag ban may have already reduced bag consumption by 50 percent!

If that number is even vaguely correct, then this policy, so many years in the making, is a success. The goal is reduction of plastic bags, the vehicle is an added fee as disincentive to waste, and the resulting human behavior is following suit.

It's textbook Econ 101, with a whole lot of other stuff thrown in for good measure. Regardless, the result is a good one.


  1. Many of us used the plastic bags for vital tasks. This has caused hardship and confusion and it would have been better to educate the public about one time usage. Not happy.

    1. Thank you for taking the time to comment. Agreed, public education is an important part of any effort like this. I know from personal experience that the plastic bag ban was many years in the making, with discussions going back at least a decade. Although my story above is purely anecdotal, it is amazing to think that this policy change has reduced plastic bag consumption by 50 percent in three weeks. That can only be considered a major success. I hope the city is tracking numbers to be able to report on the efficacy of ban after one year.


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