The past several years have seen a groundswell of bans on plastics — from plastic bags to foam cups. The rationales for such policies range from downright foolish to simply misguided.
Lawmakers offer the more outlandish claims. For example, California state Sen. Alan Lowenthal recently told the press that his bill to ban foam cups and packaging is "a job booster for California." Italy's Minister of the Environment exclaimed last January that her nation's ban on plastic bags was "a great innovation."
Goodness, where do they come up with this stuff?
Government bans never promote innovation or growth — they do the opposite. Bans destroy the investment, productivity and creativity that go into making products. They divert resources from useful enterprises as investment must go into replacing products often banned for no good reason.
While such hype about economic benefits is easily dismissed, consumers should be equally suspicious of claims that plastic bans serve Mother Nature.
In fact, plastics are usually more energy efficient and more easily disposed of than alternative products. For example, a review of several "life-cycle assessments" produced for a group called Use Less Stuff found that when compared to paper bags, plastic bags require 6 percent of the water, consume 71 percent less energy and produce one-fifth the amount of solid waste.
Plastic bags even out-perform reusable bags. A study produced for the Environment Agency in the United Kingdom found that cotton bags must be used 103 times before they yield environmental benefits, yet most people only use them 51 times.
And reusable bags also require additional water and energy to wash — lest they become carriers of dangerous pathogens. A study conducted by researchers at the University of Arizona and Loma Linda University measured bacteria in a sample of reusable bags. Many contained dangerous bacteria, such as coliform and E. coli.
Clearly, banning sanitary, plastic alternatives is a bad public health policy!
Similarly, foam cups are more energy efficient than reusable ceramic cups in many cases. University of Victoria chemistry professor Martin B. Hocking demonstrated back in the 1990s that plastic foam cups were far more energy efficient than paper cups and even more energy efficient than ceramic cups that were used less than 1,006 times.
More recently, a 2011 Franklin Associates study found that the average 16-ounce foam cup uses a third less energy, produces 50 percent less solid waste by volume, and releases a third less of greenhouse gases than does a 16-ounce paper cup with a sleeve. Foam packaging also require 20 to 30 percent less water than do paper alternatives.
But what about using bans to eliminate plastics in the environment? You've probably heard the stories about trash collecting in the ocean to form several massive trash "islands" made mostly of plastics that kill or deform wildlife. The New York Times reported in 2009 that a patch in the Pacific Ocean was believed to be twice the size of Texas.
Reality is less dramatic. According to university researchers, these patches are not dense islands, but instead consist of areas where bits of plastic pieces float here and there. The Pacific patch is only a "small fraction" of the land mass of Texas, says Angelique "Angel" White, an assistant professor of oceanography at Oregon State University. And that patch has not grown in size since the 1980s, according to the research by the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution.
In any case, trash in the oceans is a real problem, yet bans on plastics are a phony solution — unlikely to make much of a difference. Fortunately, there is a better answer: litter control.
Keep America Beautiful, which has taken the lead in the United States to fight litter since 1953, demonstrates that private, voluntary efforts are the best solution. KAB educates the public through public service announcements and mobilization of businesses, individuals, and local governments around the nation to implement litter control programs.
In fact, KAB reports that litter in the United States has declined by 61 percent since 1969, which may explain why the Pacific garbage patch has not been growing much in recent decades.
Policymakers who desire to address the real problems associated with litter should look to existing private initiatives with a proven record of success. Such policies may not offer the same opportunities for high-profile media coverage and credit claiming as do bans. They do, on the other hand, actually work.