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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