Michael Eriksson's Blog

A Swede in Germany

Posts Tagged ‘environment

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.

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Written by michaeleriksson

November 28, 2022 at 9:33 am

Governments and energy

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The energy policy of many current governments is puzzling, to say the least. Looking at developments over time, it is as if they deliberately wanted to ruin the energy supply and/or drive up energy prices.* A great example is the German “Energiewende”, which over the last fifteen-or-so years has driven up energy prices artificially in order to finance “green” energy sources like solar panels and wind turbines. So far, so good. (Well, excepting that these “green” energy sources are now known to be far from ideal.) The gains in energy production, however, were not spent where it made sense, namely to reduce the use of fossil fuels—no, they were focused on diminishing the use of nuclear power! Nuclear power, which should, almost must, be the backbone of any environmentally friendly energy supply, instead became the first sacrifice.**/***

*Indeed, some debaters on the Internet have suggested this very thing, e.g. as part of some WEF scheme. I do not say that they are correct, but the suspicion is, at a minimum, very understandable.

**One of the reasons that I cannot take the environmentalist movements seriously is their absurd hatred of and propaganda against nuclear power, which demonstrates a great ignorance of the relative costs, risks, pros, cons, and whatnots of various energy forms. Also see excursion.

***At least for the foreseeable future. A few decades from now, this might or might not be different, but today nuclear power is a near-necessity.

This is the more absurd as cheap and plentiful energy is the key to a blossoming modern society. Not only are and were energy costs, even before the current, politician created, energy crisis, a major factor in household budgets,* but energy enables us to do almost anything in the long term: The mixture of new technologies and energy can move mountains—if the energy actually is available. If the energy is too scarce or too expensive, well, then we have a problem. (Also see excursion.)

*Directly, in an obvious manner; indirectly, through how energy costs affect the prices of other products.

One of the highest priorities of any serious government should correspondingly be to make energy as cheap and plentiful as possible. (Within some reasonable parameters, e.g. that the long term use of fossil fuels is reduced; and in as far as the government involves it self at all.*) Actual governments? They do the exact opposite.

*Government involvement tends to be for the worse. If a sound policy of cheap and plentiful energy is followed, this might or might not be different, but current involvement has definitely made matters worse even in the energy field (cf. above and below).

In fact, to do the exact opposite of what a rational and well-informed government would do seems to be the guiding star of actual governments. Consider the abolishment of nuclear power; the entire German “Energiewende”;* the creation of dependencies on Russia (and OPEC) followed by sanctions against and boycotts of Russia and Russian energy; Biden’s arbitrary block of the Alaskan pipeline; attempts to force the Brits onto heat pumps that are too expensive and often require even more expensive alterations of buildings, or Californians (and many others) onto electric cars that are too expensive, too impractical, and come with a too large hidden** environmental impact. (Bans on fracking might be another example. Here I would need to do more research to say for certain with regard to the overall effects, but the effects on prices and the dependency on Russia are certainly negatives.)

*A topic worthy of its own analysis, but I have too little time for the research needed. (I did skim a few pages on German Wikipedia, but the editors seemed hellbent on giving a one-sided “green” propaganda view of the matters.) I note, however and for example, that enormous amounts of money were spent on supporting the German solar panel industry, which is now borderline bankrupt after being exposed to cheaper Chinese competitors.

**It is not just a matter of how much or little pollution is caused while driving. There is also the matter of the overall life cycle impact of the vehicles, batteries, and infrastructure needed. Moreover, the charge of the batteries has to come from somewhere, and this “somewhere” will often amount to something causing pollution.

Excursion on the benefits of energy:
To take just one example of what can be done with enough energy and good enough technology, consider growing food. There are already small-scale examples of food grown on shelves under artificial lights, instead of under the sun. Get the lights (and, m.m., other conditions) sufficiently close to sunlight in its characteristics and a large enough supply of energy could make the supply of food almost arbitrarily large. (We need more soil to grow the food in? More energy and better technology can solve that. We need robots to handle plant care, harvest, whatnot? More energy and better technology can solve that. We need large buildings or underground halls to house the shelves? More energy and better technology can solve that. Etc.)

From another angle, major historical developments in productivity, living standards, whatnot usually resulted from some combination of better technology, more energy, better or different energy use, or similar. Consider the steam engine and its enormous effects or electricity and its even larger effects.

Excursion on nuclear power:
This is not the place for an in-depth discussion, but I do note that the main argument against nuclear power, the risk of accidents and associated damage, is ridiculously overblown. The Chernobyl accident took place in an already outdated and known-to-be-risky design type (and we are closing onto forty years on top of that) and included gross human negligence—and it was still massively outweighed by the environmental and health damage, including premature deaths, caused by fossil fuels in a single year. The Fukushima event only happened due to an enormous natural disaster that caused far more damage than the nuclear event. Some say that the ensuing evacuation caused more deaths than the Fukushima event would have, had the evacuation not taken place; and that the ensuing, very expensive, clean-ups were mostly unnecessary. At any rate, the Fukushima event was much smaller than the Chernobyl accident and even the sum of the two remains dwarfed by the yearly damage done by fossil fuels.

As a personal example: When I was 4–6 years old, my family lived near* one of Sweden’s nuclear plants. My mother worried about this and explained her worries to me by how a nuclear accident would mean death to us all with no chance of escape. Experiences from Chernobyl prove this claim to be ridiculously wrong (as would some informed thought have), but it is very possible that large swaths of the population still hold similarly incorrect beliefs. (And more than forty years later, this accident of my mother’s fears has still not taken place.)

*I do not know how near, but probably no more than a few miles.

Excursion on doing the opposite:
Unfortunately, the world is full of other examples of governments doing the exact opposite of what they should. For instance, any educated and reasoning person should know that current taxes are too high; that current government is too big; that the key to good schooling* is individualization; that incentives matter for the economy; that we need equal opportunity, not outcome; that we need better protection of rights like free speech; and that own IQ and other largely inborn characteristics matter more than e.g. “parental SES” for life outcomes. (In all cases with some reservations for the country at hand. However, this matches the situation in e.g. Germany, Sweden, and the U.S.) What do governments almost invariably do? They raise taxes even higher; they make government even bigger; they force an increasingly uniform and one-size-fits-all schooling in the name of “social justice”; they kill incentives and/or create perverse incentives; they scream for equality of outcome; they try to reduce the rights of the individual, in particular free speech, in favor of governmental control; and they subscribe to absurd and outdated “tabula rasa” thinking, and put all credit of success and blame for failure to levels of “privilege”, claimed “structural racism” or “sexism”, “structures”, and whatnot.

*Education is what truly matters and schooling is not a good way to get an education. This, too, the educated and reasoning person should know; however, replacing schooling with something better would be a long-term project. But, true, here too governments fail by insisting on more and more schooling, while leaving actual education a mere nice to have.

Oh, and then there is the entire COVID thing, where most governments did virtually everything wrong that they could do wrong.

Written by michaeleriksson

September 19, 2022 at 5:55 pm

Sabotage and criticize/abolish/whatnot

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Trying to keep myself distracted during construction noise:

I have long contemplated the possibility that some groups, especially Leftist politicians and decision makers, could follow a strategy of “sabotage and X”, where X can be “criticize”, “abolish”, “use as an excuse to get funding”, etc. Two unfortunate hitches is that plain incompetence is often a reasonable alternate explanation and that the planning horizon often would need to be decades into the future.*

*Which does not rule out after-the-fact opportunism, e.g. with nuclear power below, or with the many, many cases of governmental incompetence causing a problem that the government then tries to solve—and takes credit even for attempts that ultimately fail.

Consider the following potential examples:

  1. Recently, the nit-wits around Joe Biden have pushed through an (almost) global regulation of a 15-percent minimum corporate tax. The true reason for this is almost certainly to remove the ability for other countries to compete over tax rates—and the result will be a (further) distortion of markets and market forces, which will reduce growth and, I suspect, is more likely to hit poor countries the harder.

    In a next bonus step, capitalism* and globalization** (the two things sabotaged), or even imperialism and old colonialism, can be used as scape-goats for the lack of growth and the “inequitable” distribution of international wealth—you must vote Left, so that we noble knights of the Left can fight these problems caused by the evil capitalists on the Right (except that we on the Left are really to blame, but you stupid voters are not supposed to understand that).

    *It might be better to speak of “free markets”, here and elsewhere, but I stick with “capitalism” as this is the term typically used in Leftist attacks.

    **With some reservations for what country we discuss. In the current U.S., the Democrats might be keener on globalization than the Republicans, but in e.g. my native Sweden “globalization is evil” and “globalization exploits poor countries” have been long standing Leftist mantras. (A similar, but weaker, U.S. drift seems to apply to capitalism too.)

    Generally, most modern Western nations contain absurd market distortions that cost virtually everyone in the long term, through preventing growth and wealth creation. Some are on the international level, like the above or the EU-wide minimum VAT of 15 percent; some on the national, like overly* high minimum wages, artificial monopolies, subsidies for unprofitable businesses, etc.

    *Any minimum wage is an example, but a sufficiently low minimum wage might be acceptable in the big picture. Even the > 8 Euro German one is too high, however; and the suggested 15 (?) Dollar U.S. one is a complete insanity.

  2. COVID is a potential source of multiple examples, e.g. that the lockdowns and other countermeasures cause immense damage, which is then blamed on COVID (instead of the decision makers and their countermeasures), which is then used to argue how bad COVID is and how vital continued countermeasures are. A very good potential example, depending on future developments, is the risk that lockdowns and leaky vaccines lead to more dangerous versions of COVID, where a more relaxed approach would have led to less dangerous versions. (See [1] and an outgoing link for a little more information.)
  3. Various aptitude tests, especially for academic entry, usually profit from having a high “g loading”. This in particular when we compare with school grades as a predictor of college success, because school knowledge, literacy, and similar are already reflected in the school grades (even if less so today than in the past).

    However, again and again, there is fiddling with e.g. the U.S. SATs or the Swedish Högskoleprovet to remove unpopular (but usually fair) differences in outcome between groups. This leads to a continual lowering of the g loading, because the correlation with g is what causes most of the group differences. With the lowering of the g loading, the tests become worse predictors, and the additional predictive capability over school grades is reduced.

    But now that the additional predictive capability is reduced, the tests can safely be maligned for bringing little value, which makes it easier to abolish them. (This often combined with claims like grades being a “fairer” criterion, which is dubious even today and outright idiotic when a strongly g-loaded test is allowed.)

  4. Let us say that we do have a problem with too much greenhouse gases and whatnots. Why is that? Largely, because nuclear power has been unfairly maligned, to the point that nuclear capacity has been reduced instead of increased. Who has done the maligning? Mostly various “green” parties (notably, in Germany). Who do now, with success, cry for more votes so that they can combat the greenhouse gases? The very same “green” parties!

    (Here we see the problem of the planning horizon: This maligning has been going on since at least the 1970s, while greenhouse gases might have grown into a non-trivial topic in the 1980s or 1990s, and has only taken off as that single, all-important, nothing else matters environmental question in, possibly, the last ten years.)

Of course, this could extend into many other areas, e.g. that a company that wishes to get rid of a certain product (possibly, in favor of one with a higher markup) could drop quality artificially, so that sales numbers will decrease over time, after which the lower sales numbers can be used as an excuse.

Excursion on game theory and the Left:
A partial explanation for idiocies like e.g. a minimum 15 percent tax is that the Leftist leaders and/or their voters do not understand how a changing situation leads to changes in behavior. A common attitude seems to be that “if we raise corporate taxes, corporate profits will grow smaller, and no-one else will be hurt”. In reality, chances are that corporate profits will not change very much, while prices rise, low-level workers are replaced by automation, wage increases are held back, quality compromises are made, etc. (Of course, not all of this is negative to a Leftist politician, as e.g. reduced employment can be used as a welcome argument for why the Leftist should be re-elected, so that they can fight the unemployment they caused the last time around. From Biden’s point of view, rising prices in other countries might be a very good thing, as it would increase U.S. competitiveness relative them. Etc.)

Then again, if profits do sink, this could lead to bankruptcies or investors moving their money somewhere else, as well as a drop in the stock market. Would the country at hand and its citizens truly be better off, compared to unchanged taxes?

Excursion on trade restrictions:
Trade restrictions, as suggested by e.g. Trump, are an interesting example of market disturbances in two regards. Firstly, they are themselves such disturbances. Secondly, the many other disturbances might imply that they are a good idea in at least some situations. (But not as good an idea as removing the other disturbances!) For instance, if two countries (A and B) manufacture and trade a certain product, then (all other factors equal) the one (A) with the lower minimum wages, lower taxes, weaker unions, less pointless or excessive regulation,* whatnot, will have a competitive advantage. The industry of country A will then tend to out-compete the industry of country B, country B will need to import more, will see unemployment rise, and likely a move of e.g. manufacturing plants to country A. If country B sets up an import tax on the products in question, this might well be to the net-benefit of country B (but not country A).

*Which is not to say that all regulation is either of the two. However, such problems are very common and can be very detrimental. Interestingly, areas where more regulation might make sense are usually absent or for show, as e.g. with consumer protection and “truth in advertising”.

Excursion on global taxes and self-serving politicians:
A strongly contributing reason why so many countries have fallen for this nonsense is the self-interest of the politicians: If the tax rate was already above 15 percent, it costs them nothing to agree, while they reap the benefits of other countries weakening their competitiveness. If the tax rate was lower, they now have an excuse to raise the taxes, which politicians seem to love. (Even be it through a naive or absent understanding of economics.)

Excursion on global taxes and democracy:
This looks like a major democracy fail to me. Effectively, the current rulers of this-or-that country make a bargain, while by-passing normal democratic procedures, and knowing that they will very often get a rubber-stamp later because voiding the agreement would look bad. (Similarly, there are rumors that many governments have entered legal agreements with COVID-vaccine makers to even institute new laws, should it become necessary to protect the makers from legal risks. While I do not vouch for this being true, such actions could also subvert democracy—and an already three-quarters dead democracy at that.)

Written by michaeleriksson

October 13, 2021 at 6:47 pm

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

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To revisit the topic of plastic bags vs. paper bags (cf. at least [1], [2]), especially with an eye on irrational and environmentally counterproductive policies:

For quite some time, most grocery stores have offered only paper bags and/or only sturdy plastic bags intended for multiple use. The chain Netto has been a pleasant exception, offering “regular” plastic bags until quite recently.

Now, these regular plastic bags, the misleadingly called “one-time” or “disposable” bags, have been quite good for multiple use: they fit well in the pocket of a jacket; are sturdy enough to use half-a-dozen to a dozen times;* and when they are too worn out, they can be used for garbage.

*Possibly more, as the limiting factor in my case has been the need for garbage bags …

The intended-for-multiple-use bags are, paradoxically, inferior in this regard: they do last even longer, 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.

The paper bags are near useless for repeated use: (a) they do not take folding well; (b) they easily tear, often on first use (and once torn, they are exceptionally weak); (c) a simple rain, and Wuppertal is very rainy, can kill them even on a first use. Moreover, even on a first use, they are sufficiently much weaker than a plastic bag that care must be taken to not load them too heavily and to not have e.g. the corner of a carton in a position to poke a hole. (d) they are less useful for other purposes too, e.g. as garbage bags (vulnerable to moisture, not closeable in the manner of a plastic bag).

Looking at Netto, the first sign of trouble was in January: I visit(ed) Netto almost exclusively for the plastic bags (cf. excursion), typically loading up enough on groceries to justify two bags, which I then used while visiting other stores until the bags were re-purposed as garbage bags, after which I went back for a rare Netto visit, lather-rinse-repeat. My January visit was a disappointment, as no plastic bags were available. I had to resort to a big paper bag, which was highly impractical for repeated use, even if somewhat sturdier than most other paper bags. I was highly annoyed upon discovering the almost taunting presence of ten check-boxes on the bag, where the proud and environmentally friendly owner was supposed to mark off how many times he had used this unsuitable-for-multiple-use paper bag! Not only was this a virtual taunt, but it also displayed a customer despising attitude where the customer is considered an idiot and/or a pathological virtue signaler and/or is to be used to shame other customers into repeated use.

I gave Netto a second chance a little later, and indeed found plastic bags again.

But: Today, I was out of plastic bags again. I went to Netto—and again found only paper bags. I restricted myself to one bag’s worth of groceries, packed up and left. Barely out of the store, the bag tears to such a degree that I had to carry the remains, barely covering my groceries, in my arms. So much for the quasi-prescribed ten uses!

Considering various other issues (cf. excursion), I will stay away from Netto indefinitely.

Now, about pockets: Should it not be obvious that pockets make the regular plastic bags the preferred version? Apart from human stupidity and irrationality as an explanation why this is not the case, there seems to be a wide-spread assumption that grocery store visits are done by car. Certainly, someone traveling by car need be less concerned over what fits or does not fit well into his pockets, what might fit but fall out (cf. above), and similar. But would it not be better to remain with regular plastic bags and discourage car travel instead?

Excursion on the impact of German reductions:
In the time since my last text on the topic, I have encountered claims (but not kept references) that the number of plastic bags ending up in nature from Europe is dwarfed by the African and/or Asian numbers (to some part, because the recycling quota is much higher in Europe). If so, the bans become the more absurd, as the your-plastic-bag-is-polluting-the-oceans argument is weakened considerably, and as the first lesson of optimization is to optimize where the effect is the largest. Moreover, I have encountered claims that, contrary to propaganda, the overall environmental cost is dominated by the pre-purchase effects. If this is true, the emotional manipulation through claims about suffering animals becomes the harder to justify and the use of e.g. paper bags becomes the more disputable as they, in my understanding, have a higher pre-purchase impact on the environment than plastic bags do. As with e.g. the disgraceful attempts to banish nuclear power, even at the cost of increased use of fossil fuels, the environment might then be harmed by the very attempts to protect it.

Excursion on Netto and my reluctance to buy there:
Visiting Netto is often highly annoying, especially through a repeatedly displayed customer-despising attitude. The three most notable issues:

Firstly, advertising statements that go on ad nauseam. Where other stores, gratifyingly, appear to slowly move away from this annoying intrusion, Netto has begun to use them comparatively recently.* Indeed, I have no recollection of them occurring, or occurring more than rarely, before the first COVID-lockdown, about a year ago, when Netto began to blast the customers with ever-repeating, patronizing, and redundant messages that the customers should keep their distance, and so on, and so forth. I suspect that Netto abused the situation to push advertising through the same channel, after the COVID-related messages were phased out. This especially with an eye on the ad nauseam, which applied to the COVID messages and now applies to the advertising: other stores might play a pop song** over the loud speakers, broadcast one or two ads, play a pop song, etc. Netto has a period of silence** followed by an ad, followed by an ad, followed by an ad, followed by an ad, on and on and on for minutes at a time, before the next period of silence begins.

*Reservation: their presence or absence sometimes vary from store to store, even within the same chain. My local impressions need not reflect the German-wide situation.

**Whether pop songs or silence is preferable, I leave unstated, as these songs are often poor or even annoying in their own right. However, with music there is at least a nominal trade similar to the one of most radio stations—we give you music and in return you listen to our advertising.

Secondly, the particularly annoying and patronizing COVID statements. The aforementioned loudspeaker announcements have been largely phased out; however, the store is still plastered with signs, including the absurd message “Heute trägt man Verantwortung”—“Today one wears [or carries] responsibility”. (Presumably, as a failed joke on the wearing of masks.) The view of the customers that shines through is inexcusable, as are the attempts at cheap manipulation, shaming tactics, etc. (In contrast, a legitimate message would have been e.g. “Per city [or whatnot] ordinance, we must enforce the wearing of N95-masks. We ask for your understanding and cooperation.”.

Thirdly, there is usually only a single check-out line open, even during “rush hour”, which leads to a disproportionate risk of queuing, with the associated delays and, I strongly suspect, an increased risk of COVID spread. (Which makes the aforementioned COVID messages even more absurd.)

Written by michaeleriksson

March 18, 2021 at 5:12 pm

Some links on paper vs. plastic bags, and similar

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Looking at some old open browser tabs, I found a few interesting reads on topics like paper vs. plastic for bags, the effects of charging for bags, and related topics: [1], [2], [3], [4].

While I do not vouch for the correctness of the claims made, which might e.g. be partisan or outdated, they broadly support my skeptic stance towards “for the sake of the environment—honestly!” changes in German stores. (Cf. [5], [6], and possibly minor mentions elsewhere.)

Written by michaeleriksson

May 29, 2019 at 10:18 am

The environment vs. the climate

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Looking back over the last few decades, I have the impression that the sub-topic of climate and climate change (in particular, global warming) has gone from being a marginal issue to dominating the environmental debate, e.g. in that the damage done by a certain technology, behavior, whatnot is primarily measured in terms of effect on global warming, “green house” gases, and similar, while more direct environmental effects are given less and less weight. My recollections of the 1980s include extensive debate around forest death, thinning of egg shells due to DDT, acid rain, local city pollution, and similar. Today, it is quite often just global warming this and global warming that… For instance, reading up a little on means of transportation for an example in a text on shallow knowledge, I found comparisons that focused almost exclusively on C02 emissions and other ways* that the different means might affect global warming—but aspects like local pollution, use of heavy metals, and whatnot were not or only tangentially mentioned.

*E.g. whether it was better or worse to have emissions high in the air, specifically with an eye on global warming.

I find this highly unfortunate for at least two reasons:

Firstly, there are many valuable environmental-but-non-climate topics that are not given their due weight in terms of political debate, public awareness, and actual counter-measures.

Secondly, considerable doubts has to be raised as to whether global warming is that bad a thing. This even under the assumptions that it does exist and is man-made.*

*I believe both assumptions to be true, but I have not personally looked into the research sufficiently deeply to have a definite opinion—in part because I consider the question secondary for the very reasons discussed here. (As for “personally”: I have learned the hard way that what politicians, journalists, and the like claim is not always correct—and very, very often simplistic or exaggerated. Correspondingly, I postpone final judgment until I have “seen for myself”.)

Reading this second point, half the readers and almost all the environmentalist readers might not believe their eyes, but there are (again) at least two reasons for this statement:

Firstly, we are in an era of the Earth’s history which is quite cold. In fact, we are in (an inter-glacial* phase of) an ice age… Looking at most of the known record, it has been warmer or considerably warmer.** If the temperature rises further, we will only be leaving an atypical cold period—not entering an atypical warm period. (Unless the trends get entirely out of hand.) We might bring the Earth to a certain new temperature range earlier or faster*** than what the non-human processes would have managed, but it would have gotten there anyway, sooner or later.**** Moreover, it is conceivable that the global warming is counter-acting a further fall of temperature that might otherwise already have started (or, if not, would likely start within some thousands of years). Such a fall of temperature, leading into a glacial phase, would be as bad or worse as a rise for non-human species—and almost certainly much worse for us humans.

*Ice ages are divided into glacial and inter-glacial phases, depending on the spread of ice. Sloppy language often misuses “ice age” to refer specifically to a glacial phase.

**Cf. e.g. Wikipedia’s Timeline of glaciation article. Note that common journalist claims like “the hottest July of all times” are outrageously wrong, and might well contribute to the common misconceptions discussed below. In reality, it is merely the hottest July since the beginning of measurements—with measurements usually going back to some point in the 19th century. (The exact time depends on the country in question.)

***A faster change, obviously, increases the risk that some species will be unable to adapt in time. This aspect should not be neglected (but also see below).

****And continued to alternately grow warmer and colder again and again and again, long after humanity has become extinct.

Secondly, of the human made changes that occur, such a warming would be a comparatively small issue in a longer perspective. While even the sum of all human activities are dwarfed by various mass extinctions, specifically global warming is almost negligible in destructive* impact on a geological scale. (In contrast, a further-going destruction of the ozone layer could have had far worse consequences before sufficient adaptions occurred. Or consider the many extinctions that humanity has caused or could in the future cause through over-hunting/fishing, farming, introduction of foreign species, …—all on a time-scale that makes adaption hard.)

*This restriction is important, because it could lead to extensive changes that are not destructive, e.g. because they allow for various species to relocate or adapt.

The hitch is that too many fail to realize that the world we live in is ever-changing, was so before humans arose, and will continue to be so after we are gone. Temperatures change, coast-lines change, the positions of land-masses change, ocean streams change, … Even the position of the Earth’s magnetic poles change. If someone takes a human life-span, or even the life-span of some nations, as the scale of comparison, it might seem that higher temperatures, less ice, a higher sea-level, whatnot, are drastic changes. Using time-scales of a few thousand, often even few hundred, years, gives a very different perspective—and applying a time scale of millions of years makes it seem almost ridiculous. As a variation of the same theme, assume that most of New York were to be lost due to rising water—cataclysmic, disastrous, uprooting millions of people, causing billions upon billions of dollars of damage, … Or? Another perspective is that most of the current buildings and almost all of the population have been there for less than a hundred years. On a scale of two hundred years, the citizens of today and of yore would be hard-pressed to even recognize the respective other version of the city as New York—starting with the population of yore being a fraction of what it is today. A “New New York”, further inland, might exceed the old New York within decades, and certainly* within a hundred years. Moreover: if the change was slow enough, the negative effects might be largely counter-acted by minor changes to independent events, e.g. that people have a decreased tendency to move there and an increased tendency to move away, that newly founded companies are less likely to head-quarter there, and similar.

*Barring other developments and complications, many of which would have impacted New York too, and assuming that a corresponding re-founding took place (other choices are possible).

Realistically speaking, the destructive effects of climate changes (of the currently projected size) could hit current human society hard, but when we look at the long-term prospects of humanity, human society, or most non-human species, the effects will be smaller and/or transient. Of course, such threats to current human society are of great importance, but not for “environmental” reasons and it is dubious to frame the debate mainly as an environmental or a “save nature from humans” one.

Excursion on reasons for the shift in focus:
Apart from the use of inappropriate time scales, I suspect three factors behind the shift in focus: Firstly, many of the “old” threats have been averted, turned out to have been exaggerated (notably, forest death), or have lost their appeal to the masses (e.g. because a threat of extinction has been present for decades without the point of extinction actually being reached). This has lead both to these specific threats fading from the discussion and to similar other threats appearing less dire. Secondly, the scope of climate changes make them a very useful noble cause for politicians looking for voters, movements looking for followers, and similar. Thirdly, climate issues might well have been under-discussed at earlier times, because the awareness of their existence was not there. (More generally, the history of environmental protection contains a long series of discoveries that what-we-thought-was-harmless-might-actually-be-harmful, e.g. with CFCs and the ozone layer.)

Excursion on other damage vs. natural changes:
To some degree, other types of environmental damage, extinctions, whatnot, can be vulnerable to similar counter-arguments. For instance, sooner or later any given species will either go extinct or develop into another species—if humans do not exterminate the black rhino it will still go disappear at some later time, following the footsteps of e.g. the triceratops. I would, however, not use this type of reasoning to declare human-caused extinctions harmless: human intervention reduces species diversity, intra-species genetic diversity, and causes “unnatural selection”, all with a much deeper impact than global warming. If it had been “just” the black rhino, I might have let the argument hold—but the number of species concerned is much larger. Indeed, if we look at e.g. mammals in Europe, there are few, if any, species that have not been impacted by humans, be it through hunting of the species, hunting of the species’ predators or prey, shrinking biotopes, pollution, commensualism with humans, … True, if humans were to go extinct today, nature would ultimately bounce back; and true, the impact is still much smaller than that of the presumed dinosaur-killing asteroid. However, it is also much larger than impact from gradual global warming.

Written by michaeleriksson

April 26, 2019 at 2:57 am

Aldi screws up / Follow-up: That noble cause / Follow-up: Plastic bags, the environment, and dishonest companies

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Shortly after finishing my last post, I went to buy some groceries—and promptly encountered another cases of a misguided noble cause:

The Aldi Nord store that I visited had decided to discontinue disposable bags entirely, with the pretext or under the misguided opinion that this would benefit the environment. (See a previous article on a closely related topic for a skeptical discussion of this idea.) The result was that I was forced to buy a 49 (!) cent bag for frozen goods that used several times as much plastic as a normal bag, would pose a far greater threat to nature if ever left outside, and which I am unlikely to ever be able to re-use without considerable extra effort: The walls are very thick and there is a stiff handle over the width of the entire bag, making it impossible to e.g. fold it and carry it in a jacket pocket. There were other alternatives that might or might not have been more suitable for re-use; however, they were even more expensive. This included textile bags for roughly EUR 1.50 that optically seemed to be of the same quality as textile bags I have bought elsewhere for twenty cents… (Please refer to the earlier post and my suspicion that the true drive is money-making—not environmental protection.)

Well done: The environment has just been harmed in the name of the environment.

The highly dubious pro-environment arguments aside, what are the effects of the discontinuation of disposable bags? More costs and efforts for the consumers!* For instance, in the past, I could just go by the store on my way between work and home—no preparation needed. Now, I have to either bring a bag with me to work (must remember to do so in the morning or even carry a bag as a matter of course); go home, collect a bag, and then go back to the store (or to another store not on my way); or visit the store as normally and pay a severe markup for an even more anti-environmental bag. Well, there is one other alternative, at least for now: Just avoid Aldi in favor of more customer friendly stores…

*A common issue with “causes” is that extra costs and efforts are put on third-parties that have little or no practical say in the matter at hand, making the cause cheaper to implement for the decision makers, but still costly to society as a whole. Cf. e.g. the smoke alarm discussion in the post on noble causes.

Trying to find some information on the topic I encountered one (German) article* that compares the new situation to the old GDR (in this one aspect). It also makes several good points, including that the new policy is mostly a symbolic, feel-good action—not something that truly benefits the environment.

*While the article is dated in July, it remains current. The process from first announcement to final implementation has apparently taken quite some time.

Fortunately, at least for the time being, most other chains still provide disposable bags, but I fear that the writing is on the wall. For one, there is an opportunity to earn* more money; for another, the other chains will suffer in image among the environmental naive, should they not follow suit.

*Or at a minimum having a higher ROI, depending on how high or low the old net profit was and how customers adapt to the new situation.

Written by michaeleriksson

December 11, 2017 at 11:20 pm

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