Feel-Good Bans on Straws and Plastic Bags Don’t Help the Ocean

Updated: Oct 28, 2018

National Review


By Nicholas Kerr, National Review


They increase plastic use, energy consumption, and health risks. Better idea: Improve trash collection in Third World countries.


Politicians in Seattle and San Francisco are being cheered on by some voters for their recent bans on plastic straws, having already banned plastic bags years ago. California in 2016 became the first state to ban plastic bags, New York and New Jersey are mulling similar laws, and countries from Slovenia to New Zealand are planning on banning them in 2019.


Supporters of laws prohibiting plastic products encourage politicians to make meaningless gestures rather than focus on ridding the oceans of plastic and other waste. A 2015 study in the journal Science found that of the estimated 4.8 to 12.7 million metric tons of plastic that entered the ocean from 192 of the world’s coastal countries, as little as 0.9 percent of it came from the United States.


A more recent study, from the Helmholtz Centre for Environmental Research, found that 90 percent of plastic polluting the world’s oceans comes from ten rivers, eight of which are in Asia; two are in Africa. In other words, developed countries such as the United States and New Zealand aren’t part of the problem, and taking away the freedoms of their citizens isn’t part of the solution either.


As with most government dictates, plastic bans can have unintended consequences such as increasing energy use and water pollution, heightening public-health risks, increasing overall use of plastics, or harming groups in society such as the disabled and poor. For example, a recent Danish Environmental Protection Agency study found that an organic cotton bag uses more than 150 times as much energy and causes over 600 times as much water pollution when compared with low-density polyethylene (LDPE) grocery-store bags.


A University of Arizona study found that 97 percent of users of reusable grocery bags never wash or bleach them. The research found bacteria levels in bags “significant enough to cause a wide range of serious health problems and even lead to death.” Paper bags have their own drawbacks vs. LDPE ones. These are even more pronounced when one considers how much more frequently supermarkets double up paper bags in an effort to match how remarkably strong LDPE is for its weight. A Scottish report concluded that paper bags, compared with plastic bags, resulted in “higher environmental impact” when it comes to “consumption of water, emissions of greenhouse gases, and eutrophication of water bodies (rivers, lakes, etc.).”


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