Michael Eriksson's Blog

A Swede in Germany

Follow-up III: Plastic bags, the environment, and dishonest companies

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Recently, I encountered a number of interesting articles on topics like plastic bags vs. paper bags, which has been of some prior interest to me (cf. at least [1], [2], [3]).

Below, I will go into some of these articles. First, however, I owe an update to an earlier claim (cf. [3]):

The intended-for-multiple-use bags are, paradoxically, inferior in this regard: they do last even longer [than the old bags], but are a much worse fit for a pocket and I doubt that they are better on e.g. a uses-per-quantity-of-plastic* basis. Moreover, of the two bags that I have so far tried to use for a prolonged time, one fell out of my pocket and was lost within less than a dozen uses, the other developed a tear within a dozen uses, which grew to the point that I did not dare use the bag within a total of two dozen uses.

*To illustrate the principle: If a regular bag can be used a dozen times and an intended-for-multiple-use bag uses ten times as much plastic, it would take 120 uses to reach the same level.

It has been a little more than 21 months since [3], and I have managed to use a single “intended-for-multiple-use bag” through the entire time interval, excepting only several occasions where I either forget to bring it or deliberately went for a paper bag to ease paper recycling.* A few times, it has fallen out of my pocket (but I have always noticed in time); a few times, I have forgotten it; and the greater bulk in my pocket often impedes my arm swing during walks. However, chances are that the “uses-per-quantity-of-plastic” metric has been much more favorable than anticipated, even when adjusting for the additional plastic needed for garbage bags (which tend to be quite thin). The old system was better, I still contend (cf. the older texts), but the specific “uses-per-quantity-of-plastic” argument is weakened by my experiences during these 20 months.

*Putting various papers and cartoons in a paper bag and putting the entire bag in the recycling is easier than filling and then emptying a plastic bag.

A complication that I have overlooked is the potential need to wash the bag (cf. below), which I have so far only done once, after some yoghurt leaked into the bag. It might be that this is unwise and/or that keeping proper hygiene might shorten the life-span of a bag below the life-span of my current bag, which would worsen the “uses-per-quantity-of-plastic” metric and/or add time, effort, and a negative environmental effect through washing.

(As a minor secondary update: To the best of my recollection, I have not been inside a Netto store since writing [3], where I say “Considering various other issues (cf. excursion), I will stay away from Netto indefinitely.”.)

On to selected quotes from and comments on the new encounters, most by one John Tierney:*

*In all cases, I stress that I do not vouch for the correctness of claims made. Some formatting might have been lost or altered through copy-and-paste or for technical reasons.

  1. On Second Thought, Just Throw Plastic Away:

    Even Greenpeace has finally acknowledged the truth: recycling plastic makes no sense.

    The Greenpeace report offers a wealth of statistics and an admirably succinct diagnosis: “Mechanical and chemical recycling of plastic waste has largely failed and will always fail because plastic waste is: (1) extremely difficult to collect, (2) virtually impossible to sort for recycling, (3) environmentally harmful to reprocess, (4) often made of and contaminated by toxic materials, and (5) not economical to recycle.” Greenpeace could have added a sixth reason: forcing people to sort and rinse their plastic garbage is a waste of everyone’s time. But then, making life more pleasant for humans has never been high on the green agenda.

    This might seem as a strong argument to avoid plastic, to begin with, but there are also factors like energy efficiency to consider. Cf. other parts of these articles. Moreover, 2–5 in the Greenpeace report are things that have a fair chance of being resolved with future technology. (The author’s case is not against plastic but recycling of plastics.)

    In New York City, recycling a ton of plastic costs at least six times more than sending it to a landfill, according to a 2020 Manhattan Institute study, which estimated that the city could save $340 million annually by sending all its trash to landfills.

    I am not enthusiastic about landfills, myself, and would like to see more information about the environmental impact and whatnot. I am certainly open to the possibility that it is better to pay more to keep a cleaner environment. However, as a counterpoint, the aforementioned 2–5 and improvements might, as with nuclear waste, make this a temporary storage solution with a happy ending, even should short-term problems exist.

    Virtually all the consumer plastics polluting the world’s oceans comes from “mismanaged waste” in developing countries. There’d be less plastic polluting the seas if Americans tossed their yogurt containers and water bottles into the trash, so that the plastic could be safely buried at the nearest landfill.

    As I have noted in the past, much of the ocean problem is a matter of incorrect treatment of, e.g., plastics—not of plastics per se.

    Banning single-use plastic grocery bags has added carbon to the atmosphere by forcing shoppers to use heavier paper bags and tote bags that require much more energy to manufacture and transport. The paper and cotton bags also take up more space in landfills and produce more greenhouse emissions as they decompose. The tote bags aren’t reused nearly often enough to offset their initial carbon footprint, and they’re breeding grounds for bacteria and viruses because they’re rarely washed properly.

    More indications that the switch from “single-use” (but, really, easily multiple use) plastic bags to other forms was a bad idea.

    Environmentalists’ zeal to ban plastic is far more destructive than their former passion to recycle it; it’s also harder to explain. […] Why ban products that are cheaper, sturdier, lighter, cleaner, healthier, and better for the environment? One reason: the plastic scare helps Greenpeace activists raise money and keep their jobs. Environmentalists need something to replace their failed recycling campaign.

    This fits well with how much of the world of politics and the Left works, especially with regard to the environment. Also note older texts on noble causes and noble distractions.

  2. Greening Our Way to Infection:

    The Covid-19 outbreak is giving new meaning to those “sustainable” shopping bags that politicians and environmentalists have been so eager to impose on the public. These reusable tote bags can sustain the Covid-19 and flu viruses—and spread the viruses throughout the store.

    This (and most of the below) is a longer version of an above paragraph, but is interesting in as far as COVID trumps other concerns—even concerns that seemed beyond trumping before COVID. (The fact that both COVID and many of the environmental concerns are misguided, and that the methods use to “solve” a problem often do more harm than good, makes the matter the more interesting.)

    Researchers have been warning for years about the risks of these bags spreading deadly viral and bacterial diseases, but public officials have ignored their concerns, determined to eliminate single-use bags and other plastic products despite their obvious advantages in reducing the spread of pathogens. […]

    Another example of the failure to perform e.g. cost–benefit analyses and to weigh advantages and disadvantages against each other.

    The Covid-19 virus is just one of many pathogens that shoppers can spread unless they wash the bags regularly, which few people bother to do. Viruses and bacteria can survive in the tote bags up to nine days, according to one study of coronaviruses.

    In a 2012 study, researchers analyzed the effects of San Francisco’s ban on single-use plastic grocery bags […] [researchers] reported a 25 percent increase in bacteria-related illnesses and deaths in San Francisco relative to the other counties.

    The [New York Department of Health] advises grocery shoppers to segregate different foods in different bags; to package meat and fish and poultry in small disposable plastic bags inside their tote bags; to wash and dry their tote bags carefully; to store the tote bags in a cool, dry place; and never to reuse the grocery tote bags for anything but food.

    So, in order to use the re-usable bags properly, we still need disposable bags? Then we have the massive manual effort involved, which is an example of another very common phenomenon—time spent, especially customer/citizen time spent, is not considered in cost–benefit analyses (if they take place at all). Indeed, it is often the case that time spent exceeds the other costs in a fair calculation, and certainly the extra effort involved here will vastly exceed both the price of a re-usable bag and of repeated “single-use” bags. (A text on disrespect for the time of others is in my backlog, but I do not know when I will get around to it. I have touched on the topic in the past, e.g. concerning delivery services.)

  3. Let’s Hold On to the Throwaway Society

    For half a century, it’s been a term of disdain: the “throwaway society,” uttered with disgust by the environmentally enlightened. But now that their reusable tote bags are taboo at grocery stores and Starbucks is refusing to refill their ceramic mugs, they’ve had to face some unpleasant realities. Disposable products aren’t merely more convenient than the alternative; they’re also safer, particularly during a pandemic but also at any other time. And they have other virtues: the throwaway society is healthier, cleaner, more economical, less wasteful, less environmentally damaging—and yes, more “sustainable” than the green vision of utopia.

    These are not new truths, even if it took the Covid-19 pandemic to reveal them again. The throwaway age began because of public-health campaigns a century ago to control the spread of pathogens. Disposable products were celebrated for decades for promoting hygiene and saving everyone time and money. It wasn’t until the 1970s that they became symbols of decadent excess, and then only because of economic and ecological fallacies repeated so often that they became conventional wisdom.

    (The rest of the article is mostly an expansion on this, including some historical background.)

    This is a very interesting perspective, although the forced restrictions through COVID are not something that I recognize from Germany.

    To look more in detail at forever- vs. single-use products and factors like “saving everyone time and money”, one of the main errors that e.g. the “death to plastic bags” movement has made is to assume that a single-use or just several-uses product is automatically* less environmentally friendly than other products. I have used plenty of alleged single-use products myself, like paper tellers, which are excellent for e.g. carrying a few pieces of bread on, and which can be used for several weeks (!) each for such purposes.** Compare this with habits that I have seen with others: take a porcelain teller from a cupboard, put the bread on it, eat the bread, put the teller in the dish-washer, and (at some later time, post-washing) put the teller back in the cupboard. My paper teller, in contrast, only goes back and forth between a counter and where ever I bring it, until, these several weeks later, it goes into the trash. Who comes out ahead environmentally? Who fares better on costs? Who has less effort? I suspect that I do on all counts. Then we have factors like what happens if a paper resp. porcelain teller is dropped on the floor.

    *It might or might not be, on closer inspection. The problem is the automatic and unreflecting conclusion, including the common failure to consider the possibility of multiple uses and to stubbornly count costs based on that single use.

    **In all fairness, this approach is a lot easier for someone living alone, but a very large proportion of the modern Western population does.

    As to costs and environmental impact, I first heard the, then unexpected to me, claim that even true single-use cups (?) were environmentally superior to ceramic machine-washed ones around 1990. The idea is not new. (But there is no guarantee that the same calculation holds today, as technology has improved on both sides of the comparison. I do not remember whether a comparison with hand-washing took place.)

  4. The Perverse Panic over Plastic

    Why do our political leaders want to take away our plastic bags and straws? This question is even more puzzling than a related one that I’ve been studying for decades: Why do they want us to recycle our garbage?

    The two obsessions have some common roots, but the moral panic over plastic is especially perverse. The recycling movement had a superficial logic, at least at the outset. 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.

    To add some own experiences/observations:

    One of my first contacts (late 1980s or early 1990s) with recycling was an article about a bright new future where machines would take our trash, sort it into various categories, recycle what could be recycled, and proceed sensibly with the remainder. Even in today’s Germany, thirty or more years later, the actual processes are based on a primary manual sorting by the consumers, which increases effort, requires more bags and garbage receptacles, etc.* Even so, about half of the allegedly to-be-recycled materials (glass and the like aside) are actually just burnt, for cost reasons, making most of the effort a waste of time (and a waste of waste).

    *A secondary sorting might take place by machine at a later stage, but not in a manner that reduces the existing burden on the consumers or avoids the extra costs through having multiple types of garbage containers, needing multiple bags, and whatnot.

    Another early contact was at Swedish McDonald’s, where everything should be separated according to type of garbage. We customers did, but for nothing: according to a newspaper article, a few months after the introduction of this system, the sorted garbage would be immediately thrown together into one category by the garbage company… In other words, there was a three-fold effect: more effort for the customers, more costs for the customers to pay for new receptacles and whatnot, and an image improvement for McDonald’s as “environmentally friendly”. Any actual effect on the environment is likely to have been negligible or, due to the pointless overheads, very slightly negative. (Whether McDonald’s or the garbage company was ultimately too blame, I leave unstated.)

    (The article continues with the history of the anti-plastic movement and its dubious and changing justifications, etc.)

    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.

    Your plastic straws and grocery bags are polluting the planet and killing marine animals. The growing amount of plastic debris in the seas is a genuine problem, but it’s not caused by our “throwaway society.” Environmental groups cite a statistic that 80 percent of the plastic debris in the oceans comes from land-based sources, but good evidence has never supported that estimate, and recent research paints a different picture.

    […] 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. […] More than 80 percent of the bottles came from China and must have been tossed off boats from Asia traversing the Atlantic.

    (With further discussion and examples.)

    Here we see yet another example of how environmentalists and/or Leftists engage in distortions,* of how decisions by politicians are based on poor reasons and lack in cost-effectiveness, and of how Noble Causes and Distractions abound.

    *The overlap between the two groups is, of course, very large.

    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. Though they’re called single-use, surveys show that most people reuse them, typically as trash-can liners.


    Every other grocery bag has a bigger environmental impact, as repeatedly demonstrated by environmental life-cycle analyses of the bags and by surveys of consumer behavior. […] 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. […]

    (With more on tote bags, etc.)

    This is the money section from my point of view—that abandoning these plastic bags might have been a grave mistake, even from an environmental point of view. (Never mind the additional costs and efforts for the consumers.)

    […] when consumers are deprived of the bags they were using as bin liners, they start buying plastic substitutes that are thicker than the banned grocery bags—and thus have a bigger carbon footprint.

    Here there might or might not be a difference to Germany, but my replacement bin liners and whatnots are considerably thinner than the old grocery bags. (This also raises some concerns that other parts of the discussion does not apply in full to Germany.)

    If our goals are to reduce carbon emissions and plastic pollution, we can take some obvious steps. Stop forcing consumers to use [presumably, the new types of] grocery bags and other products that increase emissions. Stop exporting plastic waste to countries that allow it to leak into the ocean. Help those countries establish modern systems for collecting and processing their own plastic waste. Send plastic waste straight to landfills and incinerators. Step up the enforcement of laws and treaties that restrict nations from polluting the ocean and that prohibit mariners from littering the seas.

    Hear, hear.

    (The article continues with other ideas from politicians and environmentalists and why these are misguided, methods of environmentalists, etc. For reasons of time, I will not discuss the, still long, remainder.)

  5. Customers are stealing shopping baskets instead of buying bags, N.J. supermarkets say

    Shortly after New Jersey enacted a strict plastic bag ban three months ago,* employees at the Aberdeen ShopRite noticed something unusual — the store’s handheld plastic shopping baskets were vanishing.

    They soon realized brazen shoppers who didn’t bring their own bags and didn’t want to buy 33-cent** reusable bags were simply leaving the store with their groceries stuffed in the shopping baskets.

    *The article is “Published: Aug. 05, 2022, 7:31 a.m.”.

    **This is an interesting difference in price levels. In Germany, before abolishment, even the allegedly single-use bags went for around 20 (Euro-)cent, while the reusable ones are usually above one Euro. This might be a sign that German stores were more into ripping customers off to begin with, but might also be another indication that bags in different countries are not entirely comparable. (Pre-ban, free bags were often available, and these tended to be thinner, but they had not been available in specifically grocery stores for many years prior to the ban.)

    ShopRite isn’t the only grocer dealing with the thefts.

    An employee at the Midland Park Acme in Bergen County said her store didn’t have any shopping baskets in stock this week because people were taking them. When asked if baskets were available at an Acme in Woodbury in Gloucester County, an employee said “right now, no, because everybody steals them.”

    Over at the Bloomfield Stop and Shop, assistant manager Dan Adams said the Essex County store’s baskets have consistently been stolen since the store eliminated free plastic bags.

    Here we see a massive unintended consequence, which will (a) decrease shopping comfort and/or drive up costs*, (b) likely easily outweigh the intended environmental gains from removing bags—compare the amount of plastic in a bag with that in a shopping basket, consider the energy requirements, etc. In a next step, the question is what the long-term consequences will be and what effects this will have. Say, for instance, that a long-term switch is made to metal baskets, which are heavier and less attractive to carry home, but also less comfortable for shopping and might be worse than plastic in terms of environmental effects. (I am not aware of a similar issue in Germany, but this might relate to the great dominance of shopping carts over shopping baskets.)

    *Further than already is the case. Also note that these costs come at a time of already high inflation and when many stores are already hurt by the COVID-countermeasure era.

    We also see the danger of the typical everything-at-once (everyone-, everywhere-) approach of politicians. They want something done and they decree that it shall be done in one fell swoop, which makes it harder to catch side-effects in time, to adapt to side-effects, to see what actually works and what not, etc. A business might run a pilot project, see what happens, and then make adjustments and/or decide on whether to proceed on a larger scale. The government? Just pushes it through and expects everything to work as intended in a first attempt. (In all fairness, there is often a lengthy and expensive committee phase before that, but whether that does more good than harm is debatable.)

  6. The Declining Case for Municipal Recycling

    (Note: I limit myself to parts of the executive summary. The remainder is recommended, however.)

    […]Recycling has long been considered environmentally and financially beneficial. The materials would be reprocessed and used as newsprint, bottles, or cans, while the markets for such materials would make it possible to cover the costs of collection and reprocessing, or even to realize income. Even in periods of slack demand, the cost to dispose of recyclables was lower than that of mixed garbage—allowing cities to reap an economic benefit by paying less to get rid of some of their trash.

    This mostly to set the stage; however, I am far from certain that the claims hold true, when we look at somewhat generic garbage: that e.g. glass bottles can be profitably recycled seems plausible, but is this a representative case? A potential issue could be diminishing returns, that some recycling was profitable but that more was not.

    (In an interesting potential parallel, I once heard someone lament how paper recycling had changed for businesses: In the early days, they were paid to hand over their used paper; then payments ceased, but at least the used paper was collected free-of-charge; today, they have to pay for the collection.)

    This apparent win-win situation has changed dramatically. China, which was importing several billion dollars’ worth of U.S. recyclables in 2017, announced a new policy, Operation National Sword, under which it would no longer permit the import of what it called “foreign trash.” The government stopped taking in other nations’ garbage partly because much of the material was not recyclable, and this was partly because of contamination. […] As a result, much of the garbage that China imported was not recycled and ended up in landfills or incinerated. […]

    Which raises the question: What changed? Is today’s garbage worse than yesterday’s? (Unlikely.) Did the profitability within China change? (Hard for me to judge, but I doubt it.) Did the Chinese originally overestimate the profitability, which in turn led them to accept too much garbage and made recycling seem more profitable in the West than it actually was? (More likely.)

    (Of course, yet other explanations might exist, say, that the Chinese had some hidden agenda, which is now off the table.)

    Since then, newspapers and other materials that municipal sanitation departments (or private firms) had picked up from city residents, who had dutifully sorted the materials and placed them in blue boxes, have increasingly piled up in warehouses or have been sent to landfills.

    Here we again see the issue that manual effort, pushed onto the residents, is wasted.

    Meanwhile, the economics of municipal recycling has been turned upside down. Those city departments responsible for trash pickup now incur significant costs, over and above what they would have to pay in the absence of recycling.

    As a counterpoint, the purpose of recycling is not necessarily to be profitable. An actual environmental benefit, should one exist, might be worth some extra cost.

    This paper examines the financial impact of separately collecting waste materials for recycling in five jurisdictions: […] It finds that the cost-benefit trade-off is unfavorable and that suspending or adjusting recycling services could lead to significant budget savings. These savings are particularly relevant in the wake of the Covid-19 pandemic, which is expected to reduce tax revenues and lead to pressure to reduce public services.*

    *The paper is dated “June 23, 2020”, at a comparatively early stage of the pandemic, and work presumably started well before that date.


Written by michaeleriksson

November 28, 2022 at 9:33 am

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