Plastic is the eco-activists’ favored demon of the moment. Policymakers can’t get enough of banning plastic consumer items. But the bans are worse than useless. They are counterproductive.
California leads the world in virtue signaling, having outlawed single-use plastics bags, as well as plastic straws. Plastic bottles of shampoo, conditioner, and soap handed out by hotels might be the next items prohibited under California law, if lawmakers don’t ban plastics utensils first. Other states have rushed to enact bans, including Vermont, New York, and Hawaii (which has a de facto statewide ban due to multiple county bans). More cities than can be easily counted have either already or are in the process of outlawing various plastics. Canada’s lightweight Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, never one to pass up an opportunity to appear more virtuous than thou, is promising a national prohibition on single-use plastics by 2021.
There are many reasons why banning single-use plastic bags in Western nations is wrong. Let’s look at a few:
- The multi-use bags that have replaced single-use plastic bags have been found to carry nasty bugs that can be fatal.
- Washing fabric bags carries enormous costs.
- Thicker plastic bags need to be used at least 11 times before the sought-after environmental improvements are realized, which is far longer than their typical lifespans.
- Consumers are stripped of private choices, and are forced to buy bigger, heavier bags, which are less environmentally friendly, to do the work of single-use bags which are actually multi-use bags, because consumers use them to carry other items, line their trash cans at home, and pick up after pets.
- Only about 1% of the plastic in the ocean comes directly from the U.S.
- Less than 1% of visible litter, in other words just about zero, is made up of plastic bags.
Now let’s add another: A consumer would have to use an organic cotton shopping bag 20,000 times before it inflicts less environmental damage than a single-use plastic bag. So says the Danish Ministry of Environment and Food. To put that 20,000 figure in perspective, a bag would have to be put through nearly 55 years of daily use to reach an even tradeoff.
Other bags also have to be used multiple times before their impact is less than that of a single-use plastic bag. A recycled polyethylene terephthalate bag requires at least 84 uses, a non-woven polypropylene bag 52, a woven polypropylene bag 45. Bleached and unbleached paper need at least 43 uses each to have a smaller environmental footprint.
While those minimums are a bit easier to reach than the threshold for organic cotton bags, it’s reasonable to assume some might not be reached at all. Can anyone actually use a paper bag 43 times before it begins to rip apart? How about the polypropylene bags — are they durable enough in real-world use to make a difference, especially if they’re washed to prevent contamination?
The rush to be green has turned out little that increases the greenery around us. Too often it has produced outcomes that make things worse. Given this history, the future isn’t looking so good.
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