The Hidden Consequences of Plastic Bans

Now I want to preface this essay by stating the fact that I am, by and large, against the usage of single-use plastic goods. We absolutely need to transition away from such things as fast as possible, and should look for functional alternatives to all such goods. But, that’s the key word: functional. Truth is, these bans are yet another attempt to divert our attention away from the biggest polluters, while instead focusing the conversation on distraction issues which negligently impact the most marginalized in our society in many unseen ways while only serving to make us feel good. Feeling good doesn’t actually translate into positive outcomes however.

Plastic products only make up about 10% of all discarded waste, with single-use plastics only making up a small fraction of that 10%. Most bans focus on what have become known as the big three of single-use plastic goods: straws, bags, and utensils. Of course plastic bottles or packaging are not on the ban list, and this speaks volumes about how this ban targets individual citizens over giant corporate polluters. Instead of focusing on the point of production thus nipping the problem in the bud, they are instead focusing on the points of distribution and consumption. Sure, some companies will be adversely affected by these bans, but the bulk of the stress will fall onto small businesses rather than larger corporations who have less resources to make the necessary transitions.

Most plastic straw bans do not ban the production or sale of plastic straws in general, as one can still go buy a pack at the grocery store, but rather focus on restaurants and similar establishments. Some laws merely require servers to ask or be asked before giving a customer a straw, thus reducing the use of single-use plastic straws. Such a rule generally can be seen as a good thing although it should be noted that many businesses are voluntarily adopting such practices as it both pleases customers while also reducing costs. Others however have proposed all-out bans on single-use plastic straws and a move towards other alternatives such as bamboo, glass, metal, and paper. These alternatives, however, have been criticized by many disability rights activists as being inadequate in meeting the needs of those with certain types of disabilities.

Plastic straws are the only straws that have the strength to not dissolve in liquid, are easily bendable, can easily handle extreme temperatures without becoming too hot or cold to handle, and are not too soft as to bite through but are not so hard that they’d hurt one’s teeth. All these things are important to consider when thinking of effective alternatives. So far the best compromises seem to be reusable plastic straws or compostable plastic straws, both of which have their pros and cons. Reusable ones can be easily forgotten at home, and while some restaurants can indeed still carry them for their diners, it is less cost-effective to give out reusable plastic straws to those customers on the go. Biodegradable or compostable plastic straws could be the answer for those scenarios but some of these products, despite the name, will not actually break down well in your home compost, but rather they need to go through an industrial process which involves incineration which contributes to greenhouse gas emissions. Composting these types of straws using traditional home composting methods, on the other hand, may actually lead to a slower breakdown process which releases even more pollutants than the incineration process.

Do the greenhouse gas emissions caused by processing these biodegradable straws cause more or less environmental damage than throwaway single-use straws? That’s hard to say. Both produce greenhouse gas pollution in the initial manufacturing process and both involve some level of emissions in the disposal process. Whereas throwaway single-use straws get disposed of as litter or in landfills, thus usually skipping the process of being incinerated, they still produce emissions as they slowly deteriorate. They may not break down completely (at least not anytime soon) but that doesn’t mean that they do not break down at all. Concentration of such waste into landfills concentrates those emissions as well.

Of course while this is generally true for petrochemical-based biodegradable plastics, there are various forms of bioplastics made from biomass products such as food waste, plant oils, fats, starches, sugars, wood, or cellulose. While bioplastics produce significantly less greenhouse gas emissions and use significantly less non-renewable energy in their production, they are not always biodegradable and the production process suffers from all of the same environmental issues as all modern forms of industrial farming, primarily the concern is soil and water pollution caused by herbicides, pesticides, and fungicides used. Partnering the production of bioplastics with methods such as permaculture and organic farming and focusing on biodegradability could go a long way towards rectifying these concerns but that push starts with confronting the agricultural industry and banning plastic straws outright does nothing to address this situation whatsoever, effectively throwing out bioplastics with the rest of them.

This is to say that we do not have the answer yet as to what the most effective alternative is when it comes to straws. The best thing we can do is to push businesses to stop compulsively giving customers straws unless they specifically ask and reduce our overall use of plastic straws by promoting abstinence among those who don’t need them and alternatives for those who can use them, while still encouraging businesses to carrying bendable plastic straws, preferably made from sustainably grown and harvested biodegradable bioplastics, for those who need them.

Single-use plastic bags are also a huge target of plastic bans. This however seems misguided as the main alternative stores have turned to is paper bags, which actually cause more environmental damage to produce than plastic bags. The logging process throughout the production process includes the use of heavy machinery, fossil fuels, and toxic chemicals, all of which total to higher greenhouse gas emissions than those from the production of plastic bags. Of course it can be argued that we should encourage the use of reusable bags and that’s fair and extremely reasonable. We should, in fact, promote the use of reusable bags, however we should also take into account that people forget said bags and some people never get around to buying them for one reason or another. What of those people? How is it beneficial for them to use a disposable alternative that actually causes more greenhouse gas pollution? Of course, paper bags can much more easily decompose and thus creates less waste but again we come to a question of which causes more long term environmental damage: air pollution or ground and water litter?

Bag bans haven’t even proven to significantly lower plastic bag use in any meaningful way since it does not ban plastic trash bags. While plastic bag use is still lowered somewhat without plastic grocery bags, it is not as effective as one might expect due to this. In fact, in areas where there are bans on plastic grocery bags, the sales of thicker plastic garbage bags have seen a marked increase to compensate. Of course this raises the costs for the consumer since they now have to pay for what they used to get for free and this obviously hits the poor the hardest. Those who are affected the worst however seem to be our houseless neighbors.

Aside from being useful for carrying one’s belongings, plastic bags are also utilized by many in the houseless community as makeshift toilets. One can line a bucket or similar item with a plastic grocery bag to have a place to sit down or one could squat over a bag in an emergency. After the deed is done, one can tie the bag up and dispose of it in a sanitary manner. This is such a common strategy for public waste disposal that many outreach services have even taken to distributing plastic bags alongside other common items such as food, clothing, and hygiene products. Some places that have instituted bag bans have seen the rise in fecal-related diseases among the houseless due to increased exposure caused by a lack of sanitary disposal methods. Unfortunately a paper bag doesn’t hold up quite the same.

Somewhat related, there has also been a rise in illnesses related to cross-contamination due to the use of unwashed reusable bags however that seems easily solved by educating people about the importance of washing their reusable bags. The production of reusable grocery bags has been called into question for its own pollution, with some studies claiming that one would have to use a reusable bag well over 100 or even several thousand times before it would make any difference in emissions than using single-use plastic bags. In fact, single-use plastic bags have the smallest carbon footprint overall compared to any other single-use bag. However seeing how often we use plastic bags and how easy they are to carry on your person, this does not seem like much of a deterrent. If you forget your reusable bag then go for plastic over paper but ideally try not to forget your reusable bags.

A plastic bag tax has seen more success in lowering the use of single-use plastic bags while having less adverse effects than an outright ban. Consumers are more likely to remember to bring their reusable bags if they are charged extra for forgetting while people can still access plastic grocery bags for uses such as personal garbage, pet cleanup, and the like. This still affects poor people the most but less harshly than an all-out ban which forces them to turn to much more expensive and thicker plastic trash bags. Merely taxing plastic grocery bags allows consumers to purchase cheaper alternatives to traditional garbage bags while also producing less waste since plastic grocery bags are smaller and thinner than most garbage bags. Such a tax would still make it more difficult for the houseless to obtain as freely but community aid groups can still make a concerted effort to distribute plastic bags to those who will utilize them for such purposes.

As for cutlery, I can’t seem to find any particular reason not to make the switch from single-use plastic utensils to other alternatives such as bamboo. While the other bans seem to have more immediate negative effects, this ban seems relatively harmless in comparison. If there are downsides, aside from the possible monetary costs of switching, then they would likely come from comparing the environmental costs of single-use plastic cutlery to that of other alternatives. Of course any monetary costs will hit smaller businesses the hardest but non-plastic forms of disposable cutlery are not all that expensive and should not entail a huge difference in cost.

So a flat out ban may not be the best solution and in many cases can have adverse effects but that still means we can significantly cut down on our usage of single-use plastic goods by utilizing more eco-friendly alternatives where available. But it doesn’t have to stop at education and individual consumer decisions. While a decrease in usage does translate into a decrease in demand and thus supply in a truly free market, we live under a rigged market system. The production of plastic, usually being a petrochemical byproduct, is propped up by oil subsidies. These subsidies help to keep the cost of plastic artificially low therefore abolishing these subsidies would lessen the incentive to produce plastic goods and the higher price would encourage consumers to seek cheaper alternatives. Partner this with a carbon tax which would further increase the price of these goods and businesses would seek more eco-conscious alternatives in order to meet customer demand, thus allowing the market to find solutions to the problem of single-use plastic.

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