Michael Eriksson's Blog

A Swede in Germany

Posts Tagged ‘environment

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.)

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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