Tuesday, June 29, 2010

Don' t ban plastic bags!! They are GOOD for the environment...

From LA TIMES: The unintended consequences of a plastic bag ban

This opinion piece comes from an admittedly biased source.  However, it is a good example of government policy-making and the tendency to act without considering the full scope of costs relative to benefits (there appears to be no benefits in California).  I would not say the policy is wrong or incorrect, because politicians, being politicians,  respond to constituencies and not necessarily to cost/benefit analysis (two different things in my mind).  Besides, this issue raises my contrarian-self when it comes to policies that are presented and implemented as "slam-dunk/no-brainers"---my inner Bastiat is aroused and I immediately look for the negative consequences that may arise out of such policies.

The issue is a proposed ban in California of plastic bags provided at retail establishments.  We ALL know the reasons (as we are often reminded) why they are bad for the environment, wildlife, litter, etc.  The explicit COSTS are easy to see in terms of the plastic bags themselves (resources to make the bag, production, disposal, etc) if you look ONLY at the bags themselves. 

 But to get an accurate counting of costs, you have to ask "plastic bags are costly RELATIVE to what alternative?" Paper bags? The writer suggests that 85% of people would use paper bags if plastic were banned.  Whether recylced or made from new/farm-raised trees it would entail the use of resources, albeit different resources than making plastic bags, that would be consumed by society. The "seen" is we are not using resources to make plastic bags if they are banned but shifting resources from the production of plastic to paper. Is the net effect "conservation" of societal resources or just moving the burden from one place to another?  This is the "unseen" question I would like to see answered, or at least addressed, when policy-makers implement something as definitive as a ban. 
     Tell me where I am wrong? (Full disclosure:  I get plastic bags at the grocery store.  I re-use them as lunch bags, to put weeds in when doing yard work, and for cleaning the cat box).  Does multiple use reduce my carbon footprint?? ..Also, see THIS BLOG ENTRY on the "costs" of canvas bags...
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