Michael Eriksson's Blog

A Swede in Germany

Archive for June 2016

Plastic bags, the environment, and dishonest companies

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There are many bad things in the world. Some large, some small. Some that we can ignore easily ignore, others that drive us up the wall—and it is not always the objectively large things that annoy or anger us the most.

One of my pet peeves is how store chain after store chain (in Germany) has started to charge for previously free plastic bags using the claim that it is “for the good of the environment”.

Now, I am very much in favour of “the environment” and if I actually believed these claims, I would possibly even welcome these charges. As is, considering developments, they are at best an attempt to protect businesses from a possible government intervention (it self based on dubious reasoning). More likely, they are an opportunity to earn another 20 cents on each purchase—while gaining in image among those to stupid to see through the charade. These customer-despising lies are what really tick me off.* How hollow the claims actually are is proved by my recent experiences with clothing retailer C&A: The charge came with a replacement of the earlier voluminous and thin-walled bags with smaller and far thicker bags, containing considerably more plastic and increasing the number of bags needed for a larger purchase. The environment is worse off, because in this manner more plastic is needed and (I strongly suspect) the new bags will be harder for trapped animals to escape from and take longer before they degrade in nature. At the same time, the increase in the number of sold bags drives the winnings up*. The redesign, if anything, is geared at giving an impression of higher quality (more bang for the buck) making it easier for the customers to swallow the extra cost—a public relations thing.

*I am not a friend of paying for plastic bags in general, due to the advertising issue discussed below. However, this much can be said in favour of those chains who have always charged for their bags, not just started doing so in the last one or two years: They have never pretended that they would be doing a public service. They have clearly portrayed the charge as a groat for tote—you give us a small amount of money for our benefit and we give you a disposable plastic bag for your benefit.

**Keep in mind that the cost of making one of these bags is extremely low. The main cost factors are in transportation and handling, and many of these will remain constant or vary sublinearly with the number of bags.

Let us look closer at some aspects of the general issue:

  1. Not one single of these chains has made any claims along the lines of “we give the proceeds to environmental organization X”. If they did give the money away, they would sure as hell brag about it. Since they don’t brag, I conclude that every single additional cent earned is kept by the respective chain.
  2. These bags are invariably (now and before) filled with advertising, with the company logo and colours being the absolute minimum. This alone makes the charge unethical: No-one should ever have to pay for walking around with advertising. If they want to charge for bags, they have to remove the advertising. End of discussion.
  3. The immediate effect of the bags (amount of plastic needed, energy costs, etc.) are a drop in the ocean compared to many other things and should not be a main priority when fighting for the environment. Even when factoring in the later recycling cost for properly recycled (cf. below) bags, we remain at a somewhat larger drop in the ocean. Basic rule of optimization: Optimize where it has the largest effects first. We do not even have to look at the big industrial and chemical companies to find worse problems—consider the cost and waste from sending out company prospects and other types of advertising, of the employees of these chains driving their cars to and from work every day, or the considerably greater amounts of packing material, much of it redundant, that is used for the individual items sold in a grocery store…
  4. If we focus on plastic bags, there are better ways to help the environment, through attacking the underlying problems. What about biodegradable bags? What about increased focus on bags that are reusable in the long term, instead of being disposable or only intended for two or three trips to the store? What about some form of deposit–refund system (give the chain two Euros for the bag, get them back when returning the bag, and the bag then being expertly recycled)? (Hint: While these would all have the potential to be better for the environment, there is also less profitability in them.)
  5. In my understanding, the main environmental problem of plastic bags results from incorrectly disposed bags that land in nature, the oceans, kill wild-life, slowly emit various substances, … Then we should not (necessarily) reduce the number of plastic bags—we should reduce the number of plastic bags that land in nature instead of the recycling plant. This should also be carefully born in mind when looking at naive environmental statistics. For instance, a commonly circulated number in Germany, including from several chains I have complained to, is an average of 71 plastic bags per year and person. Now we are supposed to have an image of 71 plastic bags per year and person lying around on the beach, in the forest, or floating in the ocean. This is simply not the case. Take me for instance: I use my plastic bags as garbage bags, saving the environmental impact of additional bags bought for that ad hoc purpose. If I have a surplus, I eventually through it away with the rest of my garbage, and (provided that other involved parties do their duties…) the bags end up in recycling. If there was a dedicated recycling canister for plastic (but there is not…), making the recycling more efficient, I would be more than happy to use it, even were it in a store instead of my back-yard.

    I stress that the above is not in anyway to deny that these incorrectly disposed plastic bags is an environmental issue worth addressing—that they are is well-established. It is a matter of intellectual honesty and presenting the facts as they actually are—not how they best fit a particular agenda. If something is bad, by all means present it as bad and do so in all its “glory”—but do not try to paint a picture that it is even worse by a magnitude. Either the true facts presented in a non-misleading manner gives sufficient support (and no manipulation is needed) or they do not (and manipulation is both unethical and harmful).

  6. Will a charge for plastic bags help with preventing bags from getting into nature? Not very much: The people who take their bags to the beach, to a pick-nick, whatnot, and then just leave them lying around (or otherwise are poor disposers), will keep doing so anyway. A pick-nick (and so on) is something sufficiently rare and different that the overall number of bags getting into nature through pick-nicks will decrease by far less than the overall number of bags, making all this a largely wasted effort. For that matter, I doubt that the impact on even the overall number of bags will be that impressive. For instance, if we take the 71 bags per year and person and a hypothetical 20 cent a bag, we have 14.20 Euro a year—not something that will be a true influence on decision making for most people in a country as rich as Germany. (At the same time, this is well over a billion Euro to be divided up among the chains, and here, in the profit making department, there is a very noticeable effect.)

Let me conclude by emphasizing that I have nothing against people simply prioritizing the environment higher or lower than I do, nor do I have anything against people prioritizing profit making higher or lower than I do. What I do have something against includes both dishonest claims and thinking that the man on the street is so utterly stupid that he will fall for any claim made assertively enough or repeated often enough. This type of contempt (and contempt relating to the rights of the individual) is extremely wide-spread among commercial companies, politicians, governmental institutions, and the like, and is not merely offensive but also increasingly a genuine pragmatic problem for society.

Written by michaeleriksson

June 29, 2016 at 9:51 pm