Plastic fantastic

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Last year, major Australian supermarkets have stopped using thin plastic bags to save the environment from more pollution. I don’t know about others, but I’m still using plastic bags as rubbish bin liners, except now I have to buy new ones instead of using the old shopping bags. So not sure about the environment but Coles and Woolworths must be certainly happy to have cut costs and increased their sales. Many perhaps are feeling virtuous; I just feel annoyed.

Bjorn Lomborg, “the skeptical environmentalists”, tackles the anti-plastic crusade:

Even if every country banned plastic bags it would not make much of a difference, since plastic bags make up less than 0.8 per cent of the mass of plastic currently afloat on the world’s oceans.

Rather than trying to save the oceans with such bans in rich countries, we need to focus on tackling the inferior waste management and poor environmental policies in developing regions.

Research from 2015 shows that less than 5 per cent of land-based plastic waste going into the ocean comes from OECD countries, with half coming from just four countries: China, Indonesia, Philippines and Vietnam. While China already in 2008 banned thin plastic bags and put a tax on thicker ones, it is estimated to contribute more than 27 per cent of all marine plastic pollution originating from land…

We also need to consider the wider environmental impact of our bag choices. A 2018 study by the Danish Ministry of Environment and Food looked not just at plastic waste, but also at climate-change damage, ozone depletion, human toxicity and other indicators. It found you must reuse an organic cotton shopping bag 20,000 times before it will have less climate damage than a plastic bag.

If we use the same shopping bag every single time we go to the store, twice every week, it will still take 191 years before the overall environmental effect of using the cotton bag is less than if we had just used plastic.

Even a simple paper bag requires 43 reuses to be better for the environment – far beyond the point at which the bag will be fit for the purpose.

Ban on plastic bags seems to be yet another example of the familiar trend: we need to save the environment and this feels like we’re doing something. It’s certainly a very public and visible initiative that touches pretty much everyone, and so creates the misleading and exaggerated impression about both its impact and our valiant contribution to the good cause. As Lomborg argues this is bound to happen if we don’t understand the overall context and are uninterested in a genuine cost/benefit analysis. Our virtue, after all, is priceless. If our self-love was the only criteria to judge our actions by, there would be little debate about the wisdom of banning plastic bags or plastic straws or some such gestures. But in real life actions have consequences (often perverse and unintended), resources are limited and their allocation matters (getting the best bang for your buck is important), and problems are complex and multi-faceted, making them resistant to simplistic solutions. Want to clean the oceans? Invest in waste management in the developing world. And in the fishing industry, which accounts for 70 per cent of plastic floating in our seas. But this both more difficult and less sexy – even if infinitely more useful – than banning shopping bags in the West.

The drive towards eliminating fossil fuels and replacing them with renewables, no matter at what cost or effectiveness (renewables are still more expensive and can’t provide a reliable base power) is another example. We pay for our virtue with much higher energy prices, which many in our society cannot afford. Pensioners in Melbourne are getting hypthermia so that doctors’ wives in Point Piper can feel good about themselves. Meanwhile the whole Australia could turn off its power tomorrow, or for that matter vanish from the Earth, and it would make zero practical impact on the global temperatures and the climate, considering the negligible contribution we make to the emissions compared to countries like China, India or the United States (where the emissions have actually been declining, unlike in most preachy countries). This is another example of doing something because “we need to do something”. Again, there is no cost/benefit analysis. What if instead of subjecting Australians to some of the highest power prices in OECD we invested that money into research to get a little faster to the point where the “green energy” is actually reliable and competitive without subsidies? And even if you accept all the science of climate change as 110 per cent correct, what if it would actually be cheaper and easier for the world to adjust to a warmer temperature than to try to lower it?

Treat the environment less like a religious or moral issue and more like a scientific and economic challenge and maybe, just maybe, we’ll make the whole place objectively a bit better rather than just making ourselves feel better.

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