Many people loooove to scold other people, and many politicians loooove to hop on bandwagons that involve scolding. And, when ideas about controlling scoldable behavior arise, they, like lies, run twice around the world before corresponding truths even get out of the starting gate.

We’ve recently witnessed the birth and explosive growth of one such idea: the banning of single-use plastic bags (and its own progeny, the banning of plastic straws and utensils). Already the law or pending law in hundreds of localities, this ban is the misbegotten offspring of an understandable outrage and a nearly complete dissociation from relevant facts.

First, the outrage. There exists in the Pacific Ocean a gigantic (>1M square kilometers) aggregation of non-biodegradable trash and debris. A significant fraction of this Great Pacific Garbage Patch is plastic, which can take many hundreds of years to decompose via organic means. Naturally, such large-scale pollution offends us, especially in a first-world culture where people are willing to spend a lot of extra money for (at least the appearance of) doing things that are environmentally friendly. People buy organic, locavore, non-GMO, and sustainable of their own volition, and countless municipalities mandate recycling of household trash, to varying degrees. The facts that organic is actually counterproductive in terms of environmental efficiency (more land to grow less crop), that “non-GMO” is mostly bullshit and that science shows GMOs not only safe, but a boon for the world’s poor, that locavore is often more wasteful, transportation-energy-wise, and that most recycling is counterproductive are irrelevant to the feeling of doing something good for the environment.

Of course, in classic big-government style, if something is “good,” it must be mandated. And, so it goes with plastic bags.

Here’s the logic chain: Plastic doesn’t biodegrade. There’s a giant mass of plastic garbage in the Pacific Ocean. It harms aquatic wildlife, and may threaten our food supply. We need to be conscious of this problem and stop using disposable plastic products, including bags, straws, and utensils, to “help.”

Many of you know the punch line already. The last sentence does not derive naturally from the first three.

Some facts (yes, they’re inconvenient).

First, the US has minimal culpability in the Great Pacific Garbage Patch, producing less than 1% of the total that’s accrued therein. Most comes from five Asian nations, and countless other (much smaller) countries dump far more of their plastic waste into the oceans than America does. We are not the problem.

Second, plastic bags are a tiny fraction of the waste America generates (and plastic straws an even tinier fraction). This makes any effort on our part to reduce plastic trash irrelevant to the status of the Great Pacific Garbage Patch, and a mostly meaningless gesture overall (see: recycling). Furthermore, our trash goes to landfill, and despite all sorts of wild-eyed scaremongering, landfill is an effective means of getting rid of the trash that we generate in living our comfortable, productive lives. See the red square in the picture to the right? That’s how big a landfill would have to be to hold the entirety of America’s trash for the next ONE THOUSAND YEARS. Bans on plastic bags, straws, and utensils aren’t going to make a drop-in-the-ocean difference in the amount of stuff we toss into landfills, anyway.

Third, while the bans that have been instituted have greatly reduced the number of plastic bags (some places mandate a small charge per bag, others mandate heavier, supposedly reusable bags), they’ve resulted in both a huge increase in the use of paper bags (which are in multiple ways worse for the environment) and in a massive increase in purchased trash bags, especially the smallest sizes.

Why might the last bit be?

Because people reuse those single-use bags, all the time. Ban advocates assert that only 1% of single-use bags ever get returned to recycling centers, but they don’t make mention of the fact that people do other things with them once they get them into their homes. All my grocery bags get recycled in some form. They line small trash cans around the house, they pick up dog poop, they cover my shoes when I pack for travel or come into the house for a water break while doing yard work, and so forth. One web site lists forty-five uses for plastic grocery bags. Bags of that size have utility, and enough utility to motivate people to buy them. And, since purchased bags are made of thicker plastic than the free bags, there’s a decrease in efficiency.

Then there’s the public health angle, both global and individual. The green scolds expect us all to switch to reusable fabric totes. I have a few, and I even remember to use them from time to time (they live in my car, but 90% of the time I go grocery shopping I forget to take them into the store). But, laziness and forgetfulness are secondary to some other hard facts. One – each of those canvas totes hundreds or thousands of times for it to warrant use over disposable plastic bags, in terms of overall environmental benefit. Moreso, get any sort of protein liquid leaking into one of those bags, and you’ve now got a petri dish for bacteria. If we have to wash those bags from time to time, that makes the break-even period even longer.

On all the facts, plastic bag bans not only fail to address the Great Pacific Garbage Patch outrage, they don’t even work to our benefit domestically.

So, why is there this mad rush to ban them?

It’s all a giant virtue-signal. It’s a way for some to feel good about themselves, by controlling others’ behavior even though it produces no tangible result, and for politicians to show off that they’re doing something good, even though they’re not. After all, if you oppose the ban, you hate baby seals, sea birds, and the food we eat, and you’re a shill for Big Oil.

Peter Venetoklis

About Peter Venetoklis

I am twice-retired, a former rocket engineer and a former small business owner. At the very least, it makes for interesting party conversation. I'm also a life-long libertarian, I engage in an expanse of entertainments, and I squabble for sport.

Nowadays, I spend a good bit of my time arguing politics and editing this website.

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