Saturday, August 22, 2015

Banning plastic bags is bad for the environment

When the city council in Austin, Texas, passed a single-use plastic shopping bag ban in 2013, it assumed environmental benefits would follow. The calculation was reasonable enough: Fewer single-use bags in circulation would mean less waste at city landfills.

Two years later, an assessment commissioned by the city finds that the ban is having an unintended effect –- people are now throwing away heavy-duty reusable plastic bags at an unprecedented rate. The city's good intentions have proven all too vulnerable to the laws of supply and demand. ...

Part of the problem is that -- despite the world-saving rhetoric that typically promotes and supports plastic bag bans -- plastic bags simply aren't that big of a problem. According to the national data recorded by the EPA in 2013, the weight of single-use plastic shopping bags amounted to around 0.28 percent of the total municipal solid waste that Americans generate. ...

Among the main environmental benefits of Austin's ban was supposed to be a reduction in the amount of energy and raw materials used to manufacture the bags. To that end, the city encouraged residents to instead use reusable bags. Those bags have larger carbon footprints, due to the greater energy required to produce their stronger plastics...

What the city didn't foresee is that residents would start treating reusable bags like single-use bags. The volume of reusable plastic bags now turning up at the city's recycling centers has become "nearly equivalent to the amount of all of the single use bags removed from the recycling stream as a result of the ordinance implemented in 2013," according to the assessment. And those lightly used bags are landfill-bound, because recycling isn't any more cost-effective for reusable plastic bags than the single-use variety.

Some of these issues could be addressed through the increased use of reusable canvas bags. But canvas is even more carbon intensive to produce than plastic; studies suggest consumers would need to use a single canvas bag around 130 times before they start achieving any net environmental benefit as compared with a single-use plastic bag.
--Adam Minter, BloombergView, on the case for keeping the single-use plastic bag alive. HT: OM