Denying Plastic

I made a comment a couple of weeks back on this libertarian site. The post in question was discussing the newly introduced plastic shopping bag tax in Wales and generally the author was trying to claim how it was such a bad idea (because he’s too forgetful to bring bags to the supermarket) and how it will result in more plastic being wasted rather than the other way around (more on that later).

Figure 1, What to do about the (not-so) humble plastic bag?

Figure. 1, What to do about the (not-so) humble plastic bag?

I would firstly note that is not quite how things have gone in other regions of the world, where such taxes have been introduced. In Ireland, one of the first countries in Europe to introduce a bag tax, we saw a 90% reduction in plastic bag use within a few weeks of its introduction. By and large the tax is well supported by many, both retailers and the public. Some even go so far as to call it “Europe’s most popular tax”. Indeed, as things stand the Welsh tax is reported to have resulted in a 96% drop in single use plastic bags within a few months.

The reason for the introduction of this tax was very simple, plastic bags are an enormous waste of resources and represent a serious pollution hazard. It takes about 60g’s worth of oil to make just one average sized bag (32.5g weight), resulting in about 2kg’s of carbon emissions for every five plastic bags and globally between 500 Billion and 1 trillion of them are used each year. On average a plastic bag is used for just 12 minutes before being disposed of. Yet a plastic bag lasts for hundreds of years!

But are reusable bags better?

Of course, on of the key questions has to be, are reusable bags better? The answer is, it depends on how you define the question, as discussed in a recent Life Cycle Analysis of shopping bags undertaken by the UK Environment Agency. Certainly on a straight like for like comparison, i.e. one single use bag v’s a more durable “reusable” plastic bag (which is heavier and thus requires more oil and energy to make), then you’d need to reuse the more durable plastic bag 4 times to get back the higher carbon costs. Cotton would require nearly 131 uses, but consider again that if you go shopping say, twice a week, that works out at about a year’s usage. I have cotton bags (which oddly I don’t use much for shopping with) which are at least 6 years old and still in use ( I know that because I got given one at a conference and it has “2006” written on it!).

Figure 2, Carbon footprint of single use bag v's other options [Credit: BBC 2012 , Based on EA data]

Figure 2, Carbon footprint of single use bag v’s other options [Credit: BBC 2012, Based on EA data]

The situation looks a little less rosy, if like me, you use shopping bags as bin liners (or better yet recycle them). Nine uses (or about a month’s worth of reuse) still works out as having a lower carbon footprint (contradicting the point our libertarian friend claimed) for the reusable bag (about 2 months worth of usage). Although a cotton bag doesn’t quite work out so well, as it would require about 3 year’s worth of use before it beats the disposal plastic bag (again mine are still in a gain, but I’m assuming most people won’t hang onto a cotton bag for that long).

Figure 3, Carbon footprint of single use bag, accouting for bin liner reuse v's other options [Credit: BBC 2012 , Based on EA data]

Figure 3, Carbon footprint of single use bag, accounting for bin liner reuse v’s other options [Credit: BBC 2012, Based on EA data]

Of course I would point out, that the whole point of the tax is to discourage people from discarding such bags needlessly (i.e. if it’s worth something people are unlikely to just throw it away and its thus unlikely wind up working its way into the environment!) and encourage reuse. The 90% reduction rate recorded in Ireland would suggest it works in this regard. I for example use a mix of “bag’s for life” and “single use” bags and I normally opt to take both to the supermarket multiple times before using them as bin liners (or reuse to use the term) or recycle them. And this is largely because the Irish bag tax drilled such behaviour into me!

Furthermore, I would note that the above analysis doesn’t really consider the disposal issues regarding plastic, as here cotton or paper (which are biodegradable) comes out looking alot better compared to plastic which can leach all sort of stuff into water sources for centuries to come.

 Still not convinced?  – The dirty side of plastic

Future generations, centuries from now, will not remember us for our contribution to the Arts and Culture. Nor will they remember us for putting people on the Moon. No, they’ll remember us as those lazy fools who took the worlds greatest treasure, its irreplaceable oil endowment (built up over hundreds of millions of years), and turned it into a couple of billion tons of crap that they are left with the problem of cleaning up.


Figure 4, Plastic bags recovered from a dead Sperm Whales Stomach

Already, large “trash spirals” are forming the middle of the Oceans  (notably the so-called “Great Pacific Garbage Patch”, much of it made up of plastic waste. As this documentary film discusses, this is having very large and quite devastating impact on marine life, in particular endangered species such as whales (that’s the big things in the sea with flippers, not the ones to the West of England 😉  ) are being killed by plastic waste, not to mention the hazard plastics present to fish (some of which we eat!) and birds, if indeed not the entire Ocean ecosystem.

Figure 5, The Pacific Garbage Patch [ ]

Figure 5, The Pacific Garbage Patch []

And it is perhaps the more immediate short term problems that plastic bags present that has councils introducing these taxes. Plastic bags, along with other non-biodegradable wastes have to be gathered up by local authorities (bin men and road sweepers, etc.), then disposed of, often either through incineration or landfill. The costs of all of these tasks of course comes out of those taxes that libertarians are so incensed at being made to pay. The pollution that results, is literally dumped in taxpayers back yards or into the very air we breathe.

Plastic bags also have a nasty habit of getting flushed into drains and clogging them up. Down the road from my house in Ireland we used to have a problem with the drains, at a low point in the terrain, flooding on a semi regular basis. This was usually due to the drains getting blocked by various debris, with leaves and plastic bags often being the top culprits. One time, a spell of heavy rain led to the whole street being flooded to the point where the road was blocked off and local houses were threatened. The council had to bring in divers from the Police water search unit to unclog the drain! Although on the plus side, the council seemed to get the message after than and began regularly doing work to keep the drains clear.

So it seems to me perfectly reasonable for the state to charge us some small amount of cash for something that we should be encouraged to avoid doing (by bringing bags back to the supermarket) and offset the costs of this “life style choice” against council expenses.

In denial….again!

Of course, as I mentioned in my last post (regarding climate change denial), many on the political right, especially libertarians, have something of a “selective deafness” as regards pesky little facts that contradict they’re politics. The fact that a plastic bag tax shows how there are positive things that governments and local authorities can do to make the world a better place does not sit well with a libertarian philosophy.

Indeed one could argue that the piles of trash floating in the Pacific demonstrates very clearly that the governments aren’t doing enough about this problem and its more rules and taxes we need to solve it, not less. Thus libertarians are forced to either deny the problem exists, or deny that the governments proposed solution can be effective.

But indeed, in a libertarian world, how would they deal with these challenges? Without some form of regulation to limit the impact of plastic waste, the problem would simply build into an ever greater catastrophe until we hit some sort of crucial crisis point. And when that crisis hits, who is going to pay the inevitable costs of the clean-up? The oceans are a global commons (like the atmosphere) that we all need to collectively take responsibility for. Passing the buck onto a couple of fishermen on small (and not terribly wealthy) Pacific Island states, who depend on those waters for their livelihood, hardly seems fair nor a workable solution.

At a more local level, who pays for trash collection/disposal? Into whose back yard do we dispose of the mess? If a drain gets clogged, who pays the costs of it being unclogged? Householders such as myself (I used to live on a hill, safe from flooding and a blocked road would suit me as it reduces traffic in my part of the street!) might refuse to do so, yet those who live in another part of the street, or depend the road it to get to work may have a different opinion. Indeed who pays for the road maintenance to begin with? (anyone have any idea how much councils and the highway’s agency spends annually maintaining roads!)

It is the inability of libertarians to answer these basic questions that forces me to be very sceptical of them.

About daryan12

Engineer, expertise: Energy, Sustainablity, Computer Aided Engineering, Renewables technology
This entry was posted in efficiency, energy, fossil fuels, Global warming denial, peak oil, politics, sustainability, sustainable. Bookmark the permalink.

5 Responses to Denying Plastic

  1. Zombie Enrico Fermi says:

    I commend your blog for providing a balanced analysis of scientific issues while making your posts readable for the general public! One of the problems that plagues debates over nuclear power (for example) is that most of us are in over our heads scientifically. I think you make a unique contribution to the body of scientific literature by bridging the gap between public understanding and technical detail.
    Having said that, I was wondering what your background in science looks like; in the comments section of an article on MSRs you mentioned you have a PhD in a thermodynamics related field with a Masters specializing in materials science. Care to expound further? I’ve been forwarding your articles without knowing the man behind the blog, and some of the reviews I’ve seen of your nuclear stuff (especially from members of the various next-gen nuclear internet cults) tend to assert your lack of qualifications to speak to atomic issues.
    Thanks, and again great work on this blog.

    • daryan12 says:

      I often find it amusing how you get these armchair nuclear cheerleaders claiming I and other critics of their ravings are “discredited” when they themselves have absolutely no qualifications to speak of…other than the ability to make You-tube videos and powerpoint slides!

      Of course the fact I’ll reference material from sources such as MIT or NNL (you know, people who tinker with “nuke stuff”….might know something about nuclear power!) goes over their heads. They seem to believe that if you shoot the messenger the message itself can be ignored.

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