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trueHUE® Water cooler stories
Municipal officials expected to save money by recycling trash instead of burying or burning it. Now that recycling has turned out to be ruinously expensive while achieving little or no environmental benefit, some local officials—the pragmatic ones, anyway—are once again sending trash straight to landfills and incinerators.
More than 100 countries now restrict single-use plastic bags, and Pope Francis has called for the global regulation of plastic. The European Union parliament has voted to ban single-use plastic straws, plates, and cutlery across the continent next year. In the United States, hundreds of municipalities and eight states have outlawed or regulated single-use plastic bags.
Like the recycling movement, the plastic panic has been sustained by popular misconceptions. Environmentalists and their champions in the media have ignored, skewed, and fabricated facts to create several pervasive myths.
After painstakingly analyzing debris in the north central Pacific Ocean, where converging currents create the “Great Pacific Garbage Patch,” a team of scientists from four continents reported in 2018 that more than half the plastic came from fishing boats—mostly discarded nets and other gear. These discards are also the greatest threat to marine animals, who die not from plastic bags but from getting entangled in the nets. Another study, published last year by Canadian and South African researchers, traced the origins of plastic bottles that had washed up on the shore of the aptly named Inaccessible Island, an uninhabited landmass in the middle of the southern Atlantic Ocean. More than 80 percent of the bottles came from China and must have been tossed off boats from Asia traversing the Atlantic.
Some plastic discarded on land does end up in the ocean, but very little of it comes from consumers in the United States or Europe.
Developing countries don’t yet have good systems for collecting and processing waste, so some of it is simply dumped into or near rivers, and these countries’ primitive processing facilities let plastic leak into waterways.
Waste managers in America and Europe lament that their warehouses are overflowing with bales of plastic recyclables that nobody will take off their hands, and they’ve been forced to send the bales to local landfills and incinerators.
Single-use plastic bags are the worst environmental choice at the supermarket. Wrong: they’re the best choice. These high-density polyethylene bags are a marvel of economic, engineering, and environmental efficiency: cheap and convenient, waterproof, strong enough to hold groceries but so thin and light that they require scant energy, water, or other natural resources to manufacture and transport.
Paper bags and reusable tote bags require more water to manufacture and more energy to produce and transport, which means a bigger carbon footprint. To compensate for that bigger initial footprint of a paper bag, according to the United Kingdom’s environmental agency, you’d have to reuse it at least four times, which virtually no one does. The typical paper grocery bag is used just once (and takes up 12 times more landfill space than a plastic one).
So the net effect of banning plastic grocery bags is more global warming.