FACT CHECK: Are “Single-Use” Plastics Worse for the Environment Than Alternatives?


Single-use plastics are the new targets of policymakers and environmental advocates who believe that Americans’ way of life is incompatible with protecting the environment, leading to more and more legislation governing the use of everything from plastic bags to straws to Styrofoam containers to even some paper bags.

Boston, Chicago, Los Angeles, San Francisco and Seattle are among the major cities with plastic bag bans in place. Vermont has placed restrictions on plastic straws. Hawaii’s largest island has banned non-biodegradable plastic bags at checkout.

Advocates are pushing to bring a plastics ban to Colorado as well:

The outrage was ever present Friday, but so were policy goals. One 8-year-old activist asked the crowd to lobby state politicians to ban single-use plastics in Colorado. Another asked for a ban oil and gas development where people live.

But where does it stop? And do these laws actually help?



Plastics are an integral part of many American consumer goods, from building and construction, to packaging, and automobiles and related parts. Not only that, plastics are better for the environment than most alternatives because they require less energy to be produced and, for most plastic material, when transported.

As Steven Greenhut recently noted in the Orange Country Register, bag laws do little to help the environment – and provide a major inconvenience for consumers:

This has not improved the environment one iota, even though it has added to our daily annoyance. There always was plenty of evidence to debunk the push for the bag ban. Those bags comprised an infinitesimal portion of the waste stream.

But grocery stores supported it because, well, they can now charge for something they previously gave away. You can always count on a coalition of true believers and profit-seekers—the “Baptists and bootleggers” from Prohibition lore—to unite behind such edicts. And voters, who are easily swayed by uplifting ballot nonsense, rejected a referendum that would have overturned the ban. Those who promote these laws don’t view shoppers’ inconvenience as a downside. They often view it as a self-healing and education process.

Targeting plastic bags in the United States does little to protect the environment – or reduce litter.

  • Plastic bag production uses less water and produces less carbon than paper, cotton or canvas bags.
  • Nine out of 10 Americans report reusing plastic bags for other household purposes.
  • Plastic bags represent less than 0.5 percent of litter.

Additionally, there are real costs associated with changing from plastic straws to paper straws. According to the CEO of a food services product company that distributes paper straws, switching from a plastic straw to a paper straw was significantly more expensive.

“You’re looking at maybe ten times the cost,” Adam Merran, CEO of PacknWood, a food service products company, told CNBC on “Closing Bell” Monday.  “If you buy a paper straw, it’s about two cents and a half,” he said.

By comparison, plastic straws cost about a half-cent.

As policymakers enact feel-good laws that restrict consumer freedom, we recommend that they closely examine the facts to ensure the bans, fees and other restrictions will actually achieve their goals – and not just inconvenience Americans in the day-to-day lives.