SHANGHAI – Last year, roughly 12 percent of Americans weren’t offered an equal choice of paper or plastic at the checkout counter, because of local ordinances that banned or imposed fees on single-use plastic bags. This week, legislators in California are trying to impose the nation’s first statewide ban on such bags. The issue has aroused intense passions and expensive lobbying. Even if it passes, the California bill’s impact would be more symbolic than real.
The numbers tell the story. According to the Environmental Protection Agency, Americans tossed out 3.4 million tons of plastic bags, sacks and wraps in 2012. Although that sounds like a lot, it’s a little more than 10 percent of the 31.8 million tons of plastics thrown away, and a mere 1.3 percent of the 251 million tons of solid waste generated that year.
It’s possible for a substance to be far more hazardous than its proportion in the waste stream suggests, of course. (Just ask a nuclear engineer.) Released into waterways and the wider environment, plastic bags certainly pose a hazard to wildlife, and play a role in the Pacific Ocean’s floating garbage patches. Still, multiple studies suggest they’re less energy-intensive to manufacture and recycle than paper.
There’s a case for banning them — just not an urgent one.
So why have so many municipalities imposed such bans? These are feel-good measures, an easy way for civic leaders to demonstrate their concern for the environment without requiring too much of their constituents or local businesses.
In 2008, for example, a year after San Francisco (a city no stranger to promoting itself with misleading environmental data) imposed a plastic bag ban, National Public Radio reported that the city was using 5 million fewer bags a month.
Symbolic gestures such as these can be important in inspiring broader, more meaningful environmental reform. But they risk fueling a self-congratulatory complacency that distracts from more serious challenges.
Take furniture, for example. In 2012, Americans disposed of 11.5 million tons of furniture and furnishings — a volume more than three times greater and far less recyclable than plastic bags because of the labor involved in disassembling a sofa into recyclable components. (The EPA reports that less than 1 percent of discarded furniture is recovered.)
Even worse, Americans wasted an indefensible 36.4 million tons of food in 2012, according to the same EPA data. Although compostable, less than 5 percent of the total was recovered. The rest was presumably laid to rest in landfills where — because of the lack of oxygen — it does little more than take up space.
An even more pressing issue is the number of portable electronics such as smartphones and tablets that are tossed every year. In 2012, the EPA estimated that Americans disposed of about 3.4 million tons of electronic scrap (or e-waste). The plastic in those devices is expensive to extract, and the devices arguably cause greater environmental problems because of the energy-intensive and often hazardous methods required to recycle them.
Obviously this other stuff is harder to regulate than plastic bottles, which San Francisco has also banned, and bags.
Convincing consumers to cut down on the most damaging kinds of waste will require public education, outreach to product manufacturers and political will. All three have been employed in pursuit of California’s bag ban. Next time, let’s hope they’re applied to a real problem.
Adam Minter contributes to Bloomberg View.