Plastic pollution in water bodies
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Let me make a terrible confession. In a kitchen cupboard I keep an enormous trove of what the news media keep telling me are single-use plastic bags. The trove exists because the description is, well, rubbish. A 13-gallon trash bag is for a single use. The little bags I get from the store – or used to get from the store – I nearly always reuse.

Alas, my trove will stop growing. This week, Connecticut joined the cascade of localities that have implemented plastic-bag bans. The main reason, as far as I can tell, is that the government thinks I’m an uneducable dunce. If the government believed anything else, it would surely consider educating me in the environmental impact of various means of carrying goods home from the store, rather than telling me what I can and cannot do. I find it a continuing mystery that our quite sensible worry about climate change must always lead to fewer choices for ordinary people.

Regular readers know that I lean libertarian, but my argument here isn’t ideological. Certainly I’m not saying the state should never constrain choice; but given that constraint comes in the form of law, and law always carries the risk of violence at the moment of enforcement, we should always be sure we’ve exhausted the alternatives first.

Let’s start with a simple proposition. So-called single-use bags are, well, useful. For example, my wife and I recently and I hosted a barbecue for extended family. There was plenty of extra food, so when the festivities ended, we gave cousins and siblings and in-laws leftovers to take home … in plastic bags from my stash. (What else were we going to put the food in?)

I use the stash for other things. When I pack a suitcase, shoes go into the plastic bags from the store. Yes, I could purchase cloth bags made for the purpose, but if like most it was made of cotton, I would have to use it over a hundred times before its environmental impact was less than that of the plastic bag.

It’s absolutely true that single-use plastic bags are dangerous to the environment – particular to waterways and oceans – and that the cycle of manufacturing and discarding them contributes to climate change. But if we’re going to impose prohibitions rather than educate and nudge, we need hard data on the problem.

Also read: Some plastic packaging for food is necessary to protect the environment

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Studies on what winds up in domestic rivers and lakes suggest us that the plastic pollution is mostly polystyrene and microbeads. It’s true that plastic pollution is literally smothering life at the bottom of the seas. That pollution, however, comes overwhelmingly from 10 rivers, none of which is located in the Western Hemisphere. (And, by the way, it’s not at all clear that paper bags are an improvement.)

Don’t get me wrong. When used just once, plastic bags can cause problems. But before we talk about a ban, we should have good data on how many people reuse them. Alas, data are hard to come by.

We might try to extrapolate from figures on recycling compliance. A well-known study of recycling of plastic bottles found higher compliance rates among the better educated, those with higher incomes (these tend to run in tandem), and homeowners. Even if the results for homeowners reflect the convenience of curbside pickup, it’s striking that those with degrees seem more likely to follow the rules. If the same holds true for how we reuse bags – and it well might – then the subject would seem tailor-made for a mix of education and incentives.

The Hartford Courant editorialized that a ban was needed because public education “isn’t working” – but in truth public education has hardly been tried. The Courant cited as evidence of failure only the extent to which people ignore a reminder on a state website about the importance of keeping plastic bags out of recycling bins. That’s not exactly a billboard or public service announcement.

Public education is always better than restriction. We should be working to create strong norms, perhaps adding the occasional nudge to help overcome our cognitive biases. True, the incentives would have to be carefully tailored. Recent research suggests that charging for “single-use” bags increases the use of reusables by those of higher incomes but not by those of lower incomes.

If the poor aren’t responding to the incentive, there is likely a salience problem – exactly the sort of challenge a robust public education campaign can combat. Certainly we should try. If we can’t protect the environment without constantly reducing the scope of personal freedom, chances are we haven’t thought hard enough.

Alas, the parade marches on. I read now that San Francisco, which was early to the bad-bag-ban bandwagon (try saying that twice quickly), is now considering a rule against offering plastic bags for produce. Evidently, if the government isn’t making everyday life a little harder, it’s not doing its job.

By the way, I won’t be surrendering my stash of plastic bags. When the supply of these useful reusables runs dry, I will replace them with small trash bags – more plastic, that is, and thicker besides. As it turns out, I’m not alone. Since California’s ban on “single-use” plastic bags, sales of small plastic trash bags are up 120%. Lots of people, evidently, repurpose their plastic bags. It’s the environmentally friendly thing to do.

Oh, and I have one more confession. A closet in our kitchen holds my largish stash of 60-watt incandescent lightbulbs. But that’s another story. –Bloomberg

Also read: People make it so hard to ditch plastic straws


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4 Comments Share Your Views


  1. Just banning is no solution to this mammoth problem. Especially when imposing bans is practically impossible. Also plastic is as useful, if not more, as its notorious impact.
    So, a multi-pronged and inclusive approach is a must. The people and the govt. should work in tandem. At every level there should be a ministry to guide people to solve this problem.
    I for one would happily cooperate if the govt made it easier for me to dispose my plastic waste.
    IAM open to taking all my packing material to the store for them to pack fresh supplies. Like groceries in ziplock bags.
    The govt. should look into finding more ways of reusing plastic and recycle as the last resort.
    A lot more manpower will be involved but wit people participation it should work. Spending on tackling the plastic problem is worth. The scope of employment creation is also immense. But educating people must go hand in hand.

  2. yes, it is good to ban plastic.
    our tax money is going to dump plastic waste,
    if plastic is banned can use that money for other devlopment work.
    cloths bags, paper packets, jute bags can be used insted of plastic.
    for blood,medican,& for planting in nurssery plastic ban be exempted like in maharashtra.

  3. One of the bad decision taken by government on banning plastic. There is no alternate to plastic bcoz no other material is recyclable like plastic by banning plastic the government is just filling the landfills oceans etc

  4. My humble opinion :-

    I pick up plastic waste door to door in my neighborhood on weekends in a rapidly urbanizing village on the outskirts of Mumbai.

    Bans and education are both necessary. Providing alternatives is another alternative. We are a multilingual country with a zillion languages, education is difficult, the bans were tried, but won partly.


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