Be it bans for plastic straws, taxes on plastic bags, or the phenomena of banning styrofoam in major cities: there is a part of the political spectrum obsessed with ridding the world of plastic. However, their measures beg the question if they're actually achieving their goals, and what unintended consequences accompany the anti-plastic obsession.
Over 100 cities in the U.S. have heavily restricted or outright banned the use of expanded polystyrene (EPS) — commonly known as styrofoam.
The plastic product is blamed for being bad for the environment, and for bringing a substantial littering problem with it. Despite EPS being a recyclable product, some of its versions have proven to be very difficult to recycle. However, cities such as Seattle, Washington D.C., Portland, Minneapolis, or San Francisco, have put bans on EPS products across the board, which has consequences for both producers, retailers, and consumers.
A study by Kahoe, Fiscal & Economic Impacts found that the New York City styrofoam ban would increase cost for businesses: for every dollar spent on EPS containers, $1.94 need to be spent on alternative materials.
Needless to say that such price increases also reflect on consumer prices.
The same impact goes for retailers.
Based on multipliers calculated by Keybridge Research, the direct and indirect impacts of the ban on EPS manufacturing in New York City could eliminate 2,000 jobs and $400 million in economic activity.
In California, banning EPS would reduce overall output by an estimated $1.4 billion and raise annual consumer spending on disposable food-service products by roughly $376 million. All too often, food vendors are now encouraged by cities to charge customers takeout fees, in order to discourage the transport of food in styrofoam containers.
Now some people could claim that they do not care for the jobs lost and the increased consumer prices, because ultimately, these bans will be good for the environment. Here again, the evidence is not there. When we compare polystyrene foam to paper cups, we find that paper uses more petroleum, more steam, more electric power, more cooling water, more wastewater, and more mass to landfill.
The recycling opportunities of styrofoam is there: it shredded to be reused as ceiling insulation, or can be melted down and turned into pellets used to create harder plastic items, like toys or faux wood.
The Conversation on Plastic Bags Isn't Any Better
In January, the British government announced its intention to extend their plastic bag tax to all shops. The idea of completely ridding retail outlets of single-use plastic bags is popular across the board, and is already in effect in a number of places in the United States.
And still, when crunching the number we find evidence that such restrictions are actually a drain on the economy: in 2011, the UK's Environment Agency published an earlier-drafted life cycle assessment of supermarket carrier bags. The aim: establishing both the environmental impact of different carrier bags which are in use and their reuse practice.
The researchers then looked at the number of times that a bag would need to be reused in order to have the same environmental impact as the conventional HDPE (High-density polyethylene) bag that people are used to. They reach the following conclusion:
"In round numbers these are: paper bag - 4 times, LDPE bag - 5 times, non-woven PP bag - 14 times and the cotton bag - 173 times."
The report used two Australian studies that state the following life expectancy for the carrier bags mentioned earlier: paper bags (kraft paper) were found to be single use, LDPE (low-density polyethylene) between 10 and 12 times, while non-woven PP (polypropylene) bags weren't included (only woven HDPE bags had their life expectancy included), and cotton bags had 52 trips on average.
These findings may be an approximation, but even if we informed the public and doubled the reuse of alternative carrier bags, then paper and cotton bags wouldn't even break even.
Bill Wirtz is a political commentator currently based in Belgium. His articles have been published by Newsweek, The American Conservative, the Washington Examiner, Le Monde, and Le Figaro. He is a Young Voices Advocate, a regular contributor for the Foundation for Economic Education, and works as a Policy Analyst for the Consumer Choice Center. To read more of his reports — Click Here Now.
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