By now you must have noticed how many of the big news stories that have political significance to the left, and are hyped for months or years (or even decades) on end throughout the mainstream media, turn out to be false. Donald Trump colluded with the Russians to hack and steal the 2016 election. Kyle Rittenhouse is a white supremacist vigilante who went to Kenosha to make trouble. There is no such thing as Critical Race Theory taught in K-12 schools. “Climate change” is an existential crisis that can be easily solved at little cost by building wind turbines and solar panels. Saturated fat in your diet is bad for you. Feel free to add your own ten or a hundred examples to this list.
One that I had paid little attention to up to now was the narrative about the evils of plastics — that they cause terrible pollution problems, that they have accumulated in vast amounts in the oceans, that they kill sea creatures by the millions, that they accumulate forever and never degrade, and so forth. While I haven’t been paying attention, this narrative, like so many others, has swept to universal acceptance in progressive precincts, which of course includes my own New York City.
It was a couple of years ago, as this anti-plastics narrative gained traction, that plastic straws first began to disappear from New York City restaurants, generally replaced by paper straws that are much less pleasant to drink from. And the campaign against plastic convenience items has only accelerated. A ban on single-use plastic bags in grocery stores was enacted to take effect in March 2020. That ban got delayed by litigation, but the state prevailed, and enforcement has gradually kicked in over the intervening period. Today, if you go to a grocery store, the formerly standard plastic carry-home bags are gone. You will need to pay to get a paper grocery bag, or alternatively pay even more for a “reusable” bag made of some kind of textile. The disappearance of plastic straws in restaurants has been gradual, but according to this article in the Daily News, an actual ban took effect just a couple of weeks ago on November 1 of this year.
So clearly, there must be something really horrible about these plastic bags and straws, and probably everything else made of plastic. At this point it’s one of those things that everybody just knows.
I thought it was time to learn something about the issue, and therefore when the Competitive Enterprise Institute invited me to an online presentation today on the subject, I signed up. The main presenter was a guy named Chris DeArmitt. DeArmitt calls himself a “plastics materials scientist,” and he has made a detailed study of the relative environmental impacts of plastic versus other alternative materials for applications including bags and straws, as well as other things such as textiles and cars. DeArmitt also has a recent book by the title “The Plastics Paradox,” and a website called plasticsparadox.com.
And of course it turns out that plastic bags and straws (as well as many other items made of plastic for many different applications) have minimal environmental impacts, and most importantly, have far lower environmental impacts than any reasonably available alternatives for the applications in question. DeArmitt points out that there is a formal method of analysis of environmental impacts called “life cycle assessment,” or LCA, that takes account of all of the environmental impacts of use of a given material for a given application at all stages of the process, from extraction through disposal. And there are dozens upon dozens of environmental LCA studies of plastics versus other materials, among which there will be multiple studies for any application you can think of.
So consider the situation as to plastic bags. DeArmitt:
Lifecycle assessments (LCA) are the only internationally accepted method for comparing the environmental impact of materials and products. They are used by governments, companies and environmental groups, including GreenPeace and are independently audited. The LCA method takes into account all the energy, materials, water, emissions and so on associated with the manufacture and disposal of a product. No tool is perfect, but LCA is by far the best, most widely-accepted way to see what is really green.
DeArmitt found some 24 LCA studies considering the subject of environmental impacts of plastic bags versus alternatives. The results:
LCA analyses are done by government agencies in the US, Canada, UK, Australia and Denmark. They all agree that the single-use polyethylene bags we use today have much lower environmental impact than potential replacements such as bioplastics, paper, unbleached paper, cotton or organic cotton. . . . To replace plastic bags with paper bags requires 2.7x more energy, 1.6x more carbon dioxide emissions and 17x more water usage. It has also been estimated that replacing the plastic bags in the EU would require cutting down an astonishing 2.2 million more trees per year and require 60 000 Olympic swimming pools more water.
Here are some conclusions from the above:
I was surprised to find that our traditional PE and PP bags are far greener than the alternatives that are being thrust upon us. That means that the bans being implemented are actually harming our environment. . . . I was also deeply disappointed with the so-called environmental groups. I had assumed that they had done their homework and given us good advice. After all, they collect millions in donations and have had decades to find the best path forward. How is it that with all that funding they did not find ten minutes to type “LCA plastic bag” into Google? Why are they advocating bans that harm our planet? It makes me seriously question their competence and motives.
DeArmitt has generated enormous amounts of information that can keep you busy learning about the environmental benefits of plastics for as long as you have time available. As examples, plastic beverage bottles are far lighter than glass, leading to large saving in energy consumption for transportation. And similarly, plastic components in cars and trucks are also far lighter than the alternatives, leading to much less energy consumption in use of the vehicles.
The big mystery of the campaign against plastics is the seeming religious zeal of the big environmental groups and of the mainstream media in the efforts to get rid of them. Could it really just be that they are too lazy to “find ten minutes to type ‘LCA plastic bag’ into Google,” and if they did that they would promptly come around to rationality? Unfortunately, I think that DeArmitt is deceiving himself there. When a religious or quasi-religious cause is in play, the human mind quickly becomes impervious to rational thought and appeals to evidence. That’s the essence of progressivism. I don’t expect the return of plastic bags or straws any time soon.