Plastics ban—look before you leap

Printer-friendly version
Appeared in the Thunder Bay Chronicle-Journal, July 3, 2019
Plastics ban—look before you leap

Prime Minister Trudeau recently proposed a federal ban on certain single-use plastics, in an effort to protect marine life and the beauty of Canadian shores. Trudeau justified the proposal by saying, “We have a responsibility to work with our partners to reduce plastic pollution, protect the environment, and create jobs and grow our economy.” And yet, while we can appreciate the sentiment behind such bans by more and more governments, economic reasoning and some basic statistics shows they are largely symbolic gestures that come with real downsides.

In the first place, the efforts of provincial or the federal government (or U.S. jurisdictions such as California) won’t really put much of a dent in the problem of plastics in the ocean. As Bjørn Lomborg reports, a 2015 article in Science concluded that less than five per cent of plastic waste from land sources originates from OECD countries; by far the biggest contributors are places such as China and Indonesia. What’s more, research from earlier this year found that after California’s ban on plastic bags, “the elimination of 40 million pounds of plastic carryout bags [was] offset by a 12 million pound increase in trash bag purchases.”

Such outcomes are familiar to economists who specialize in studying unintended consequences. New regulations often induce people to change their behaviour, leading to results that undermine or even totally offset the intent of the original policy change. In the case of plastic bags, most people would use some of them a second time as trash bags in their home or to pick up after their dogs. Once that “free” source of bags from the grocery store disappeared, California residents had to buy more trash bags in traditional packaging.

Not only does this cost consumers more out of pocket—they are ironically prevented by the government from “recycling” the grocery bags that like they had before—but the stores’ switchover to paper bags also leads to more CO2 emissions. As economists continuously remind policymakers and the public, actions come with tradeoffs. Cracking down on plastic bag waste ends up damaging the goal of slowing climate change. Indeed, a 2011 United Kingdom government study found that a cotton tote bag must be used 131 times before causing less environmental damage than the plastic bags it would replace.

If we move beyond plastic bags and consider single-use utensils and plates—which are also assumed to be on Trudeau’s chopping block—there are, again, downsides to the proposal. By forcing people to carry around durable forks and plates rather than disposable versions, in many situations this will foster the spread of disease (the same is true for reusable grocery bags). In some scenarios, it makes more sense to use something once and throw it away; tissues are often better than handkerchiefs, and many parents greatly appreciate “single-use plastics” in the realm of diapers.

Yet perhaps the biggest drawback to the proposal is its inconvenience. There’s a reason, after all, Canadians use so many plastic drinking straws and grocery bags—they are far more convenient than the alternatives. Policymakers should resist the urge to simply ban products when they begin causing some problems. There may be much more sensible solutions that mitigate the concerns while retaining the freedom of consumers to benefit from more choice.

For example, if the problem is bottles and other plastic on beaches, then it might make more sense to hire a few extra people to pick up the litter. After all, people drop litter in movie theatres all the time and the solution is for crews to clean them up, not to have the government ban the manufacture of popcorn. Along these lines, another possibility is to track down more precisely the source of litter washing up on beaches. If, for example, a waste management company is behaving poorly, then it could be made financially liable for the cleanup its shoddy practices made necessary. But to simply ban an entire class of products just because of leakage points in their disposal is gross overkill.

Canadians understandably want to be good stewards of the environment, and nobody likes seeing plastic waste when swimming. Yet Trudeau’s proposal for outright bans on single-use plastics would be a largely symbolic gesture. It will greatly inconvenience consumers, harm the environment once people respond to the policy, and won’t do much to reduce the amount of plastic in the ocean. Policymakers should consider much more narrowly focused responses that target the actual sources of litter—or make sure we do a better job cleaning up.