More on plastic bags

Following up on my post about three weeks ago on the movement to curb plastic bag use, the NYT has an article focusing on the success of the Irish campaign.

In 2002, Ireland passed a tax on plastic bags; customers who want them must now pay 33 cents per bag at the register. There was an advertising awareness campaign. And then something happened that was bigger than the sum of these parts.

Within weeks, plastic bag use dropped 94 percent. Within a year, nearly everyone had bought reusable cloth bags, keeping them in offices and in the backs of cars. Plastic bags were not outlawed, but carrying them became socially unacceptable — on a par with wearing a fur coat or not cleaning up after one’s dog.

I think that imposing such fees, essentially a pollution tax being paid in direct response to the pollution itself, may be effective as a means to use market forces for environmental protection. While some libertarian hardliners claim that the only market which matters is the so-called “free market,” operating with no governmental interference whatsoever, in a completely unregulated market the costs of pollution and environmental damage are simply externalized, and born far away from either the producer or consumer of the offending product. By raising the cost of a polluting product, such as a plastic bag, consumers are not just made intellectually aware of the abstract cost which consumption of such a product imposes on the system as a whole, but are forced to make a choice whether or not they, as the responsible party, actually wish to pay the real cost.

Could this be a model for the larger market? It is essentially the same philosophy behind the proposed carbon emissions tax, in which industrial emitters of carbon dioxide are charged fees to encourage thrift and conservation, to reduce the production of greenhouse gases.

On a side note, the article said two more things of which I was not aware. First:

Whole Foods Market announced in January that its stores would no longer offer disposable plastic bags, using recycled paper or cloth instead, and many chains are starting to charge customers for plastic bags.

A positive development from  a major US supermarket, and one whose up-scale yuppie customer base will doubtless embrace. Unfortunately, there is still no sign of a nationwide -or even statewide effort, but perhaps competitor supermarkets will be spurred by Whole Foods.

And on a related, yet surprising note:

While paper bags, which degrade, are in some ways better for the environment, studies suggest that more greenhouse gases are released in their manufacture and transportation than in the production of plastic bags.

Rather unfortunate news, I would say. I hope that recycled paper bags, such as the ones which Whole Foods uses, are in fact less polluting. Still, even if paper bags may pollute the air slightly more than plastic, they certainly don’t have as much impact on the sea.

14 thoughts on “More on plastic bags”

  1. A small error, on your part, sir. While production of paper bags may result in more greenhouse gases, that is very different from “pollution,” which is contamination of the environment. Your use, an incorrect expansive view of the word, would mean that we are each polluting everytime we exhale or fart.

  2. A debatable semantic. I think that it is possibly to say that industrially produced CO2 may be considered a pollutant where naturally produced CO2 may not.

    Don’t just take my word for it. The US Supreme Court has ruled it so:

    In a landmark decision, the U.S. Supreme Court has ruled that the gases that cause global warming are pollutants under the Clean Air Act. The court also found that the U.S. government has the authority to regulate carbon dioxide (CO2) and other heat-trapping gases.

    On the other hand, I have no idea how they arrive at the figure stating that paper bags are responsible for more carbon emissions. Is this solely due to their increased weight, requiring more fossil fuels burned in transportation? Is it the industrial process of making the bags? Is the fact that paper comes from trees in any way accounted for? And, as I asked in the post, what about recycled paper?

    And finally sir, are you being so bold as to claim that your farts are not polluting? I beg to differ.

  3. As I said: you’re welcome to muddle greenhouse gases with pollution and call them the same thing if you like, just be aware that this is innacurate. Supreme Court rulings discussing federal authority notwithstanding, there is a reason for the distinction, the first one being that CO2 is vital for photosynthesis, and second, 500,000,000 years ago carbon dioxide levels were 20 times more prevalent than today.

  4. Neither one of those are good arguments. Our concern in labeling things pollution or not is whether it changes the environment in a fashion we consider adversely. If excess levels of CO2 do this, then they are pollution. Yes, a certain level of CO2 is vital, but that doesn’t mean that excess levels don’t become pollution.

    If your baseline is 500 million years ago, then we don’t have nearly enough greenhouse gases, but I think a more reasonable basis for standard levels would be something like 100-200 years ago.

    Anyway, try looking at an encyclopedic definition of pollution.

    Here’s Encarta:
    “Pollution, contamination of Earth’s environment with materials that interfere with human health, the quality of life, or the natural functioning of ecosystems (living organisms and their physical surroundings). Although some environmental pollution is a result of natural causes such as volcanic eruptions, most is caused by human activities.”

    Wikipedia says:
    “Pollution can be in the form of chemical substances, or energy such as noise, heat, or light. Pollutants can be naturally occurring substances or energies, but are considered contaminants when in excess of natural levels.”

    One Oxford reference book lists as an example of types of pollution “Carbon dioxide emissions from traffic exhausts contribute to the greenhouse effect.”

    I’m sorry, but I just don’t think you’re working with the real scientific definition of pollution. Most substances that we label as pollutants occur naturally in nature SOMEWHERE, but once human action raises the level of the a substance to a point where it breaks down homeostatis in an environment, it becomes pollution.

  5. Try asking one of the two scientists in your “inner circle” for their thoughts on the point and then get back to me.

  6. Try asking one of the two scientists in your “inner circle” for their thoughts on the point and then get back to me.

    I already have, for years. I’ll revert to you shortly with updated comments.

  7. I’m sorry, but I just don’t think you’re working with the real scientific definition of pollution.

    I look forward to your apology.

  8. Mr. Berman: in reference to your comment above, I asked the scientists in my inner-circle via email the following: “In one paragraph or less, starting with “yes” or “no,” is CO2 pollution?” The first response from a biochemist PhD:

    No. Carbon Dioxide has always been a part of the earth’s atmosphere, at levels that have varied dramatically over the ages. Increasing levels may well have significant effects on climate, and it would be wise to consider ‘planning’ for them, but the same can be said about other quite natural phenomena, such as the sinking and rising of continental land, and the flooding of rivers. Carbon Dioxide is unusual in this category because it diffuses around the globe. I think the word ‘pollution’ should be restricted to the unintended local disruption of ecosystems by careless human activities.

  9. A good answer from the biochemist, but that doesn’t make your first argument that CO2 can’t be pollution because it is required for photosynthesis any less wrong.

    I’m also somewhat skeptical that one should not refer to it as a pollutant merely because “unintended disruption of ecosystems by careless human activities” is not localized. Leaving aside the greenhouse effect for a moment, which is a controversial topic, what about the high levels of oceanic CO2, which erode the shells of microscopic organisms and threaten ecosystems in a more direct fashion?

    Regardless. CO2 is frequently referred to as a pollutant in the science press, so there is clearly some debate about whether or not being localized is a key part of the definition.

    Examples below.

    An article from entitled “CO2 Pollution and Global Warming
    When does carbon dioxide become a pollutant?”

    Living systems, be they an ecosystem or an organism, require that a delicate balance be maintained between certain elements and/or compounds in order for the system to function normally. When one substance is present in excess and as a result threatens the wellbeing of an ecosystem, it becomes toxic, and could be considered to be a pollutant, despite the fact that it is required in small quantities. piece entitled “Seas absorb half of carbon dioxide pollution”

    Wired science blog

    Whether or not carbon dioxide emissions cause global warming, they’re very much a pollutant — something that’s been overshadowed by the climate change battle.

    Science News Online (from all the way back in 1999)

    He proposed a two-step process for getting rid of carbon dioxide. First, separate that gas from the rest of the pollution belching out of power plants.
    Researchers instead focused on other ways to reduce carbon dioxide pollution, such as increasing energy efficiency and developing alternative power sources that emit little or no greenhouse gases.

    Noone else has anything to add?

  10. MF: you’re quoting from pulp science mags like newscientist and a blog, and I won’t even get into Environmental Chemistry. However, reputable science mags such as “Science” and “Nature” would not so carelessly or ideologically refer to CO2 as pollution.

    Your tenacity to ignore the evidence to the contrary and struggle to find sources supporting your original (careless?) mistake is impressive. I’m done with this argument from my side — you’re welcome to have the last word.

  11. Shouldn’t this discussion first resolve who has the authority to define “pollutant” before discussing whether X is a pollutant or not?

  12. If Nature or Science had free access I would have checked them, but I certainly don’t care enough to make the effort. I would imagine that scientists tend to simply avoid the issue.

    Jade, I would like to hear from say, an environmental or climate scientist what he or she thought of this argument, but it doesn’t seem like there are any reading this blog or I assume they would have chimed in.

  13. “Most people think that lightsabers that is powered up by Kryptonite could cut Superman.”

    From that thread. I really want to believe that most people have not thought about this.

Comments are closed.