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Plastic: to Be Or not to Be

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Table of contents

  1. Market failure and tragedy of common
  2. Plastic and its change of technology
  3. Arguments for plastic

When first plastic was first introduced, many people thought that replacing everyday materials such as wood and glass with plastics can help to address climate change. However, in doing so, we have been myopic as we have neglected the long term large negative externalities caused by use of plastics.While making this essay, references are taken from articles published on international journals and papers.Specification of an Economic model.

Market failure and tragedy of common

To correct the negative externalities caused by plastic bags, governments had two options: command and control regulation (bans) and direct price intervention (fees and taxes). In 2002, Ireland, by way of environmental taxation, and Bangladesh, via a regulatory ban, were the first nations to introduce government policy on plastic bags.

Today over 140 cities, states, and nations have implemented a form of plastic bag reduction policy. Plastic bags were initially introduced to the US market in the 1950s for packaging items such as bread loaves. For thirty years, demand soared as plastic bags offered consumers a “one and done” product usability. With plastic bags having a marginal cost to retailers and a perceived zero cost to the consumer the product proliferation without market restraint led to a Tragedy of the Commons.

As plastic bag use spread globally their negative externalities began to emerge; reports of littering, lack of biodegradability in landfills, ocean contamination and other environmental pollutants began to crop up. An intended utilitarian good quickly turned into a non-disposable consumer good.

At first, there were attempts to create a market in property rights to control the impact of plastic bags on the environment; retailers created recycling programs to take back the bags and some even had a deposit refund associated with their return, but the reform didn’t take. Consumers just don’t recycle their plastic bags. Without the market of plastic bag recycling, plastic bags became a common good that was over-exploited by the consumer and the supplier without proper disposal.

Plastic bags became a market failure. The EPA states that today the United States alone currently uses around 380 billion plastic bags annually; less than 10% of these bags get recycled. Vincent Cobb, President of described the plight of plastic bags , “[They] are a brilliant product but they are a victim of their own success. They’ve been perceived as free when they have a real cost to the environment and to consumers.”

Until the start of the 21st century, the social cost was hidden and economic cost was thought to be null, that is until the San Francisco Department of the Environment (SFDOE) put a price on the cost to “cleanup the commons.” In 2004, the SFDOE released a study of estimated costs for clean up and landfill processing of plastic bags at 17 cents for each bag. For San Francisco, this adds up to $8.5 million in costs to clean up the over 100,000 plastic bags found annually in the waste stream. To correct the negative externalities caused by plastic bags,

Plastic and its change of technology

With a reduced demand for plastic bags, suppliers followed the trappings of “see a need, fill a need” product development. Reusable bags were quickly championed as the new right way to transport our harvest. The benefits over plastic bags were quickly apparent; they reduced litter, were cost-effective and, used continuously, – are environmentally effective. The number of reusable bag imports to the U.S. rose from 100 million in 2000 to half a billion in 2010. With over 3.3 billion bags imported to date and the US population at just over 311 million, we have already exceeded “a few per person” utilization.

“Biodegradable” plastic bags. In 2010, raw plastics production in the U.S. used the energy and natural gas equivalent of 172 million barrels of oil, government figures suggest. But some newer plastics are made from vegetable matter, allowing manufacturers to claim their plastics are biodegradable. In theory, that means these plastics can be used to feed bacteria that convert them into water, carbon dioxide and biological matter. But the process rarely works in a landfill – these products need to be composted with the right microbes. When they’re not, they may not break down at all or can release methane, a greenhouse gas.

So-called starch-polyester bags, made from a blend of vegetable matter and synthetic plastics, had the highest global warming impact in the 2011 study conducted by the British environmental agency “due to the high impacts of raw material production, transport and the generation of methane from landfill[s].

”The European Union hosts an online forum to discuss biodegradable plastic bags. Researchers have looked into the policy challenges of biodegradable plastics, how they break down in the ocean and wider environmental impacts.

Plastic bags were a market failure because they couldn’t satisfy any of the three R’s: reduce, reuse, and recycle. Where plastic bags failed at recycling, reusable bags must triumph at their intended design. There is a potential Catch-22 that may ensue around reusable bags if they aren’t able to transcend the same market failure mechanisms that plagued the plastic bag.

As consumers purchase numerous reusable bags and/or collect free ones from retailers, the bag inventory in-house starts to accumulate. It remains to be seen if consumer behavior around bag reuse will adapt fast enough to impose market control on the scale of reusable bags. Should the stockpile of reusable bags begin to seep out of kitchen cupboards and car trunks and into our landfills and roadsides, it is possible that a repeat offense of negative externalities will be seen in this new generation of carrier bags.

Arguments for plastic

Proponents of plastic bags argue that they are hygienic and cheap and preserve foods that would otherwise spoil. A number of lobbies have worked to confound legislation that would reduce the availability of plastic bags. In California, for example, The Washington Post found that the American Progressive Bag Alliance – a Washington-based group run by a plastics lobby – spent over $3 million in the fourth quarter of 2014 to oppose California’s attempts then to legislate a (a project of the American Chemistry Council) is supported with funds from large multinationals like Dow Chemical and ExxonMobil.

Some organizations – such as the Plastics Industry Association, which directs visitors to the American Progressive Bag Alliance and — support recycling as a solution, rather than less plastic.Plastic shopping bags are widely reused as trash-can liners, the British environmental agency study points out. When they are banned, the study adds, consumers purchase more plastic trash bags: “The reuse of conventional HDPE [plastic] and other lightweight carrier bags for shopping and/or as bin-liners is pivotal to their environmental performance and reuse as bin liners produces greater benefits than recycling bags.”

According to a hazard-ranking model based on the United Nations’ Globally Harmonized System of Classification and Labeling of Chemicals, the chemical ingredients of more than 50% of plastics are hazardous.We feel that the physical dangers of plastic debris are well enough established, and the suggestions of the chemical dangers sufficiently worrying, that the biggest producers of plastic waste — the United States, Europe and China — must act now. These countries should agree to classify as hazardous the most harmful plastics, including those that cannot be reused or recycled because they lack durability or contain mixtures of materials that cannot be separated. Focusing on the most problematic materials is a realistic first step.

Currently, just four plastics — PVC, polystyrene, polyurethane and polycarbonate3,4 — make up roughly 30% of production. These are particularly difficult to recycle and are made of potentially toxic materials. PVC is used in construction, such as in pipes that carry drinking water; polystyrene is used for food packaging; polyurethane in furniture; and polycarbonate in electronics. Healthcare and technology industries are already replacing PVC components in intravenous drip bags and in computers with materials that are safer, more durable and recyclable, such as polypropylene and aluminium.

With a change in plastics categorization, numerous affected habitats could immediately be cleaned up under national legislation using government funds. In the United States, for instance, the Comprehensive Environmental Response, Compensation, and Liability Act of 1980 would enable the EPA to clear the vast accumulations of plastic that litter the terrestrial, freshwater and marine habitats under US jurisdiction.

Others may argue that in the current global economic crisis, nations can ill afford to regulate an industry that, in the United States alone, is worth US$1 trillion and employs 1.1 million people.Yet dealing with plastic waste is hugely costly; removing litter, most of which is plastic, from the west coast of the United States costs taxpayers $520 million each year. Also, the production of safer materials would spur innovation and boost employment in research and development.

In fact, in the past three years or so, some plastics manufacturers themselves, under pressure from lobbyists and perhaps perceiving that current practices are unsustainable, have called for closed-loop systems.For some activists, the effort to reduce the use of plastic shopping bags is both urgent and too late. According to a 2008 estimate in Waste Management, people around the world discard between 500 billion and 1 trillion plastic bags a year.

The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) lists single-use plastic bags as a major contributor, along with food wrappers and fishing nets, to the Great Pacific Garbage Patch — vast, shifting waves of trash that often arrive via storm drains and rivers and can entangle marine life or be ingested.

According to a 2014 estimate published in PLOS ONE, more than 5 trillion pieces of plastic (not all from bags) weighing a combined 250,000 tons are floating in the world’s oceans.Yet substitutes also offer cause for concern. A comprehensive 2011 study by the British environmental agency argued that plastic bags are greener than many alternatives. A paper bag must be used four or more times “to reduce its global warming potential to below” that of conventional plastic bags. The reason is that paper production — from the felling of trees to the emissions and effluent from paper factories — is dirty. The study found “no significant reuse of paper bags,” not even as trash-can liners.

Legislation:With a referendum in November 2016, California became the first state to ban single-use plastic bags, according to the National Conference on State Legislatures, which keeps an active list of American laws. Thicker, reusable bags are still available for purchase for 10 cents. Before California, cities often organized the bans: In 2016, for example, Cambridge became the first Massachusetts city to ban plastic bags altogether and require merchants to offer paper bags for a fee of no less than 10 cents. By contrast, Missouri’s legislature in 2015 forbid cities and counties in the state from enacting plastic bag bans.

The European Union passed legislation in 2015 aiming to cut plastic bag use in half by 2019 and half again by 2025. E.U.-member France went further, banning single-use plastic bags on July 1, 2016, and phasing in other, more restrictive bans in the upcoming years – including the prohibition of plastic cooking utensils by 2020. They do appear to reduce the number of shopping bags used, but the effect on demand for (potentially pernicious) alternatives is unknown.

Five years after Ireland instituted a 15 Euro cent levy on plastic bags in 2002 – Irish stores had been giving out 1.2 billion each year for free – a paper published in Environmental and Resource Economics suggested a 90 percent reduction in use. One year after its ban San Jose reported “a reduction in bag litter of approximately 89 percent in the storm drain system, 60 percent in the creeks and rivers, and 59 percent in city streets and neighborhoods.”

Researchers at Cardiff University, in the United Kingdom, found that a fee for plastic bags introduced in October 2015 has led to a sharp decline in the number of shoppers who take single-use bags at checkout, from 25 percent to 7 percent after one year. China, which banned many types of plastic bags in 2008, claims some successes. But some reports suggest the rule has been difficult to enforce. Academics have measured consumer behavior and public opinion on plastic bags in many countries, including Turkey, Uganda and Canada.

A 2016 study in Social Marketing Quarterly examines how shoppers respond to different incentives for bringing their own shopping bags – such as avoiding a fee or paying a tax – and remarks “that a penalty framed as a tax may be more effective in motivating shoppers to bring reusable bags.” Anti-plastic lobbying and activism: The California plastic bag ban received support from the California Grocers Association.

Grocery stores stood to benefit because the law mandated they charge 10 cents for reusable bags. The American Forest and Paper Association argues for the use of paper bags and against the imposition of fees on paper bags. A website – – founded by a California lawyer who consults for activist organizations, has a number of useful links. The Worldwatch Institute, another nonprofit campaigner, estimates at least 267 animal species have suffered “from entanglement or ingestion of marine debris, and plastics and other synthetic materials.”

Other resources: This 2011 E.U. study shows, among other things, that residents of eastern E.U. members and Portugal use the most plastic bags in the union. Journalist’s Resource profiled a 2016 paper on gender stereotypes and environmentally friendly behavior that found some people think recycling is feminine. A 2015 paper in the Journal of Marketing found that people who bring reusable grocery bags on their shopping trips may purchase more junk food. NOAA has fact sheets on micro plastics in the ocean and plastic marine debris.

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