Sunday, June 24, 2007

Paper, Not Plastic (or, better still, cloth)

by Ken Houghton

A marvelous novelist in her own right, spouse of (and coauthor with) Steve Gould—a novelist in his own right as well as the tech-brain behind of Eat Our Brains—and a lapsed Investment Banking professional, Laura Mixon was the first person who taught me (while shopping in NYC) that one of the easiest ways to help the environment is to carry your own bag for the small-shopping moments that are endemic to big cities.

The dynamic is somewhat different in non-metropolitan areas, where buying is done on a less frequent basis. But the damage is exaggerated every time one opts for "plastic" instead of paper.

Now, one city is battling back:
It was watching sea creatures choke on plastic bags in the Pacific Ocean that finally persuaded Rebecca Hosking that enough was enough.

The British filmmaker had already recoiled in disgust at deserted Hawaiian beaches piled up with four feet of rubbish, the jetsam of Western consumerism washed up by an ocean teeming with plastic. Now, filming off the coast, she looked on aghast as sea turtles eagerly mistook bobbing translucent shapes in the water for jellyfish.

"Sea turtles can't read Wal-mart or Tesco signs on plastic bags," fumes Ms. Hosking, who returned to Britain in March. "They will home in on it and feed on it. Dolphins mistake them for seaweed and quite often they'll eat them and it causes huge damage."

Within a few weeks of coming back, Hosking persuaded her hometown to ban plastic bags outright and found herself in the vanguard of a sudden British revulsion for that most disposable convenience of the throwaway society.

Think globally, act locally. Or maybe follow Tom's suggestion and "kill all the subsidies":
And there is a climate-change dimension as well: Plastic bags are manufactured using oil. Cutting usage in Britain by a quarter would reduce CO2 emissions by as much as 63 tons a year – equivalent to taking 18,000 cars off the road, the government says.

Some countries have taken decisive action against the plastic bag. Bangladesh and Taiwan have banned them. Ireland took a much-lauded step of imposing a tax (€0.15 per bag) in 2002, leading to usage reduction of up to 95 percent. Next month, California will become the first US state to force supermarkets to provide recycling bins.

The tax is just a realisation of the cost of externalities, which, as Prince Charles noted, is actually just a matter of presenting people with the information about the full cost of their decision and letting them decide.

Those who support Greg Mankiw's "Pigouvian tax" argument have only two possible answers to "Paper or plastic"? One is "paper." The other is "I brought my own."

An entire British city and several other economies understand this. UPDATE: And so, apparently, does the mayor of San Francisco, at least as a start.

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Any legislation banning plastic bags would also have to mandate that the paper bags would have to have handles. Paper bags without handles are almost as useless as no bag at all.
Very true that handle-free bags are only good for loading into automobiles. Though it does seem like paper bags are spontaneously growing handles at a number of grocery stores, including most with upscale or enviro-friendly pretensions (Whole Foods, Trader Joe's; most also offer a small bag-reuse credit) but also some mainstream stores.
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