West Chester’s Single-use Straw and Bag Ban Is Worthless Virtue Signaling

plastic bags

West Chester Borough has joined a growing list of locations where single-use plastic items have been banned. While this may seem like an important action to some, banning single-use straws and plastic bags is essentially a useless action and a superficial measure, which potentially causes more harm than good.

It is understandable why single-use plastic bans are popular among certain segments of the population concerned about the environment, yet who are generally uninformed about the consequences of such actions. Globally, there is roughly 8 million metric tons of plastic trash leaking into natural spaces annually, harming wildlife, spoiling the ocean and imperiling people’s livelihoods.

While local governments should work to combat plastic litter,  straw and plastic bag laws work to reduce easily visible plastic pollution at the expense of other environmental consequences. The irony of such bans is that disposable plastic bags need fewer resources (CO2 emissions, water, etc.) to manufacture than paper, cotton or reusable plastic bags by a very large margin.

For example, Denmark’s Ministry of Environment and Food found that a paper bag would need to be used at least 43 times for its per-use environmental impact to become equal to (or be less than) that of a conventional disposable plastic bag being used just once. Additionally, an organic cotton bag would need to be reused 20,000 times to produce less of an environmental impact than a single-use plastic bag. This equates to using a cotton bag every day for nearly 55 years.

Also not taken into consideration is how bans on plastic shopping bags change consumer behavior. A 2019 study published in the Journal of Environmental Economics and Management showed that often plastic grocery and takeout bags were reused as trash bags pre-ordinance. Consequently, a bag ban shifts consumers towards using larger, heavier bags, which have a greater negative environmental impact.

Banning plastic bags will also increase the use of paper bags. Since paper bags are biodegradable, you may see this as a fair trade-off. But, the fact is the process of manufacturing paper bags is intensive, and there’s evidence that paper bags are actually worse for the environment.

Finally, let’s talk about plastic straw banning, which has become progressively popular. Generally speaking, straws don’t provide as much benefit and convenience as bags. So, for many people, eliminating plastic straws is an easy change.

However, straw bans, which began in Seattle and has spread like an infection, were first inspired by an informal and unscientific survey by a 9-year-old activist and based on the mistaken assumption the United States is the cause of plastic buildup in oceans. At best, single-use straw bans are useless and an inconvenience.

Ultimately, local governments banning single-use straws and plastic bags leave constituents with the false impression that officials are solving the plastics pollution problem. The fact is, it can make the problem worse. We need to think about the impact of the products we use systematically and not as individual parts, and we certainly should not arbitrarily ban individual products.

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10 Comments on “West Chester’s Single-use Straw and Bag Ban Is Worthless Virtue Signaling”

  1. US single-use plastics have been sent abroad for recycling but other countries have caught on and won’t fall for that any more. Often those countries threw our own bags into rivers headed to the ocean anyhow, where (unlike paper and cotton) they choke marine mammals and virtually never degrade.

    Plastic bags are made from fossil fuels, as in the pipeline now tormenting Chester and Delaware Counties, designed to export petroleum products to Scotland to manufacture single-use plastic bags.

    If people are really into reuse, they can keep reusing an ostensibly single-use plastic bag. What is really absurd is to buy some small item in a store and be given a new single-use bag that you may not even want. It seems buyers have to practically grab their purchases away form the cashier not to be given a bag. Why is this?

    Every resource has its cost, of course. Plastic, paper and cotton are not the only solutions to carrying purchases in. We need proper studies in this country of how best to meet our own needs.

  2. Sometimes you wonder where the simplicity stems from that people can’t see the obvious
    Why Plastic is bad:
    1. Plastic does not go away => only 9% of it is actually recycled (know your facts). Plastic cannot biodegrade; it breaks down into smaller and smaller pieces, which will end up in our food.
    2. Plastic negatively affects our health. Toxic chemicals leach out of plastic and are found in the blood and tissue of nearly all of us. Exposure to them is linked to cancers, birth defects, impaired immunity, endocrine disruption and other ailments.
    3. Plastic spoils our groundwater. There are thousands of landfills in the United States. Buried beneath each one of them, toxic chemicals from plastics drain out and seep into groundwater, flowing downstream into lakes and rivers.
    4. Plastic attracts other pollutants.
    Chemicals in plastic which give them their rigidity or flexibility (flame retardants, bisphenols, phthalates and other harmful chemicals) are oily poisons that repel water and stick to petroleum-based objects like plastic debris. So, the toxic chemicals that leach out of plastics can accumulate on other plastics. This is a serious concern with increasing amounts of plastic debris accumulating in the world’s oceans.
    5. Plastic threatens wildlife.
    Wildlife become entangled in plastic, they eat it or mistake it for food and feed it to their young, and it is found littered in even extremely remote areas of the Earth. In our oceans alone, plastic debris outweighs zooplankton by a ratio of 36-to-1.
    6. Plastic piles up in the environment.
    Americans discard more than 30 million tons of plastic a year. Only 8 percent gets recycled. The rest ends up in landfills, is burned or becomes litter.
    7. Plastic poisons our food chain.
    Even plankton, the tiniest creatures in our oceans, are eating microplastics and absorbing their hazardous chemicals. The tiny, broken down pieces of plastic are displacing the algae needed to sustain larger sea life who feed on them.
    8. Plastic costs billions to abate.
    Everything suffers: tourism, recreation, business, the health of humans, animals, fish and birds—because of plastic pollution. The financial damage continuously being inflicted is inestimable.

  3. The trouble with plastic is that it’s not part of nature. It doesn’t fit into any ecosystem. Nothing can eat it, so when it goes in the trash, it never goes away. Plastics last for hundreds or even thousands of years. And because plastics are lightweight and blow around in the wind easily, a lot of them end up in the ocean. The best way to take your groceries home is in your own bag. You can use it as many times as you like. You never have to throw it away!

  4. Congratulations! Your perceived victory to defeat plastic pollution will help contribute to Global Climate Change. I will never understand how some people become so emotionally invested in obviously flawed ideas and are intentionally unable to see the forest for the trees on this and many other issues. It is a FACT that paper bags and reusable fabric bags have a far greater negative impact on the environment than single-use plastic bags. People will still need bags to bring their groceries home. The lightweight plastic bag ban means businesses will switch to paper bags, which consume far more resources and produce significantly more pollution per bag because of their high carbon footprint. Those consumers who opt for fabric bags, which consume even more resources and produce greater amounts of pollution per bag, will never use those bags enough to offset greater negative environmental impact those bags have compared to the single-use bags. Residents who use to save and reuse those lightweight bags for trash will end up using heavier-grade plastic bags, which are less biodegradable.

    1. I agree that paper bags are a silly option to replace the plastic bags. We have been using our re-usable bags for many years as a mode to transport the groceries. If there was a better option I would use that but so far none in sight. Plastic concerns me as its becoming part of the food chain, fish has it, dairy has it and basically all foods now have it in them. I am against bags and have been for 30 years, my motto ‘everything in moderation’ so yes I use plastic but I try to do better where I can.

  5. First, you admit that getting rid of plastic straws would be an easy change. Then you say that banning them would be useless and inconvenient. If the large majority of the population doesn’t need plastic straws and wouldn’t miss them, why would a ban be useless? What’s useless about getting rid of plastic that is polluting our environment that we admit we don’t need.

  6. This article is so unbearably biased and saturated with negativity, it was difficult to tolerate reading if only if just to count the number of incorrect statements it listed. The whole use of this pejorative term is baffling – in no way is this virtue-signaling because unfortunately for you, mysteriously absent-named editorial writer, this move by the West Chester community is not an empty act of public commitment. It is a call for unity in action in a time of distress. It is a movement we are finally catching up to that the world has embraced, and yes, from partly a 9-year old’s voice (Do I read a hint of jealousy about the middle schooler’s influence?) The WORLD is under stress, animals are actually dying from this mess we created, right before our eyes, swimming up to us (the Plastic Creating Gods, mind you) to get it off their necks or from in their noses! And here you write, from your cozy plastic-covered desk, an anonymous writer with the threadbare gall to criticize what small changes we are making to better the planet and change the fragile male-egocentric, anti-environment, pro-GDP-OR-DIE, feed-my-future-children-plastic-who-cares USA? Do you realize how far we need to go to show the world we know and care we are part of it? USA pulling out of the Paris Climate was orgasmic for you I bet. Wake up and smell the changing sustainable scents of this town. Get behind the movement and get involved. Voice your opinion in the daylight and do something with your bitterness instead of complaining. It’s so old fashioned. Join the real 21st century go-getter crew. You might actually learn from us.

    1. Rachel, I believe you are reading an anti-environment bias in this editorial that is not there. As I read it, the point is that there are many ideas that become popular in the public that just don’t help improve the situation, and I happen to agree that a lightweight plastic bag ban is one of them. While they are a very visible form of pollution, the current alternatives are more harmful to the environment. As I pointed out to in my past comment, I will never understand how some people become so emotionally invested in certain ideas that they are unable to see the forest for the trees. Which is more important, winning a single-use plastic bag ban or actually improving the environment? Sure, these types of bags are bad but they are currently the lesser evil.

  7. There are a couple of facts overlooked in this article. For starters, the obvious – There is a lot of it. According to a study by the Ocean Conservatory in 2015, plastic bags came in second to discarded cigarette butts as the most-identified type of refuse aka TRASH.

    Further more:
    Rampant waste. Items like plastic packaging, bags and bottles are thrown away every day, and end up in trash sites as well as in forests, creeks, rivers, seas, and oceans around the world. While some of these items are recycled, the growth of plastic consumption and its improper disposal currently outpace efforts to recycle and produce post-consumer plastic materials.

    Danger to aquatic life. Every square mile of ocean has 46,000 pieces of plastic floating in it. That is why over a million sea birds, whales, seals, dolphins, sea turtles, and so on die from plastic debris that ends up in our oceans and seas. 100,000 sharks are also part of the death toll. As a heartbreaking video of Midway shows us, plastic ends up inside these animals (especially birds), which can lead to their deaths. The impact of plastic pollution in our oceans and ecosystems creates chaos for the environment.

    Toxin carriers. In addition to not breaking down fast, plastic materials also break down dangerously. A lot of plastic already contains toxins, such as phthalates, BPA and flame retardants. And as plastic breaks down, it can absorb many dangerous toxins more easily, such as damaging pesticides like DDT, PCB and PAH.

    Sustaining the petroleum industry. The production of plastic for the U.S. alone uses 331 billion barrels of petroleum, equal to 5 percent of the national consumption of petroleum. Petroleum production and its use plays a harmful role in polluting the environment, as its use contaminates the water and air.

    There are so many ways to help reduce the impact of plastic on the environment. By reducing our use with reusable bags at grocery stores, working with industrial companies that design and build re-usable packaging systems or using mugs or travel tumblers for our next to-go cup of coffee, we can greatly reduce our every day use of disposed plastic products. We can also take it to the next level, by engaging with our communities to clean up our local environment, as well as pressuring local governments to ban or tax the use of plastic bags. Ireland reduced its plastic bag use by 90% by introducing at 37 cent tax!

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