Actor and environmentalist Ted Danson urged Congress to pass legislation to reduce the production of “single-use plastics,” saying they are dangerous to the world’s oceans:
“We must stop the runaway increase of plastic production and reduce the amount of plastic companies make and are foisting on us, because it will last forever.”
“Recycling is like trying to mop up water from an overflowing bathtub while the faucet is still running. We need to turn off the faucet and reduce production of plastic,” he added.
Danson added that “[plastic] has been incredibly useful and now it has become incredibly dangerous.”
Danson’s call follows bans and taxes on what critics call “single-use” plastics across the United States – including plastic bag bans in Maine, Vermont, Boston, Chicago, Los Angeles, San Francisco, Seattle and Hawaii’s largest island, as well as restrictions on plastic straws in Vermont. Advocates are urging other municipalities and states to consider bans and taxes as well.
But do the bans work? While they do reduce consumption of plastic, there have been unintended environmental impacts.
As NPR reported in April:
A bunch of studies find that paper bags are actually worse for the environment. They require cutting down and processing trees, which involves lots of water, toxic chemicals, fuel and heavy machinery. While paper is biodegradable and avoids some of the problems of plastic, Taylor says, the huge increase of paper, together with the uptick in plastic trash bags, means banning plastic shopping bags increases greenhouse gas emissions.
What about reusable cotton tote bags?
They can be even worse.
A 2011 study by the U.K. government found a person would have to reuse a cotton tote bag 131 times before it was better for climate change than using a plastic grocery bag once. The Danish government recently did a study that took into account environmental impacts beyond simply greenhouse gas emissions, including water use, damage to ecosystems and air pollution. These factors make cloth bags even worse. They estimate you would have to use an organic cotton bag 20,000 times more than a plastic grocery bag to make using it better for the environment.
In short, 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, meaning the bags are not “single use.”
- Plastic bags represent less than 0.5 percent of litter.
That doesn’t even take into account the costs saved by plastics. Experts say 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.
Advocacy stunts may create media headlines and bring about misguided policies, but they do little to nothing to solve environmental problems. Plastics enable the American consumer way of life, have clear environmental benefits and are significantly more cost effective than alternatives.