Forget everything you think you know about single-use plastic

If we really cared about the environment, and knew the actual facts about plastic bags, we would revert to their use on a continuing basis.

With air and car traffic reduced so dramatically during the Covid-19 crisis, the salutary knock-on effect of lowered carbon emissions and pollution must be a solace to locked-down eco-warriors.

But their mellow from that outcome is likely harshed a bit by the return to the use of plastic bags in supermarkets for the sake of virus-inspired hyper-hygiene. The once-ubiquitous plastic bag is a stand-in for everything the environmental movement loathes in its pilgrimage away from our "throw-away society" and toward a world of perfect sustainability.

If you are feeling a bit guilty about your pleasure in the renewal of this great shopping convenience (the cotton bag you brought is never quite adequate to the contents of your shopping cart, is it), you can easily clear your conscience by reading investigative journalist and contributing editor John Tierney’s fascinating article in the Winter 2020 edition of City Journal, "The Perverse Panic over Plastic."

Plastic is a good wrap that suffers from a bad rap. The Greens damn it because, they inform us, its non-biodegradability is a serious problem; it clogs sewers; it contributes to global warming; and it kills all manner of innocent sea creatures. More than 100 countries now restrict single-use plastic bags. The European Union not only bans plastic bags, but its parliament has voted to end the use of plastic straws, plates and cutlery across the continent in the coming year (unless the pandemic crisis retards that plan).

But it turns out that if we really cared about the environment, and knew the actual facts about plastic bags, we would revert to their use on a continuing basis. Tierney's article deconstructs all the major “myths” about plastic that have been created by environmentalists and dutifully promoted by credulous media minions.

It is true that plastic debris in the oceans—especially "the Great Pacific Garbage Patch"—is a serious problem. The Greens say it mostly comes from land-based sources, and they imply that Americans are guilty parties to this crime. But it doesn’t. It mostly comes from fishing boats and mainly consists of nets and fishing gear. It’s the nets that entangle and kill sea animals, not the plastic bags. Moreover, most of the plastic bottles don’t come from North America. They mostly come from China and are in the water because they have been tossed off boats.

In fact, none of the land-sourced plastic that constitutes those disgusting islands of debris comes directly from North America. A 2017 study in Nature Communications concludes that 86 percent of the debris is “mismanaged waste” coming out of Asia, with Africa and South America accounting for virtually all the rest.

As for clogged sewers, sewers do get clogged with all kinds of debris, including plastics, and also cardboard and paper products, biodegradable as they are. But plastic bags account for less than 2 percent of litter, so are not the main culprits in this dilemma.

Recycling plastics was supposed to be a win-win solution, in which a "circular economy" would help the environment by making recycling profitable. That has not happened. Separating garbage from recycling materials is onerous and time-consuming, and the materials are of so little value that "recycling plastic is hopelessly unprofitable in the United States and Europe." Municipalities have to pay to get rid of it, or ship it to Asian countries like Malaysia and Indonesia where labour is cheap. These are also countries where “mismanaged waste” is prevalent, so some of that North American plastic is ending up in the ocean. Sending it all to landfills would save time, useless expense and damage to the environment.

Lest you imagine that landfills are themselves an environmental horror story, you really must read Tierney’s June 30, 1996 feature article for the New York Times Magazine, "Recycling is Garbage." It was one of the single most influential articles I have ever read in my life. Tierney says the piece “set a record for hate mail,” and I have no doubt why. Citing irrefutable data and evidence, it upends everything we have been taught to believe about garbage and its management.

Tierney reports that waste managers in America and Europe "lament that their warehouses are overflowing with bales of plastic recyclables that nobody will take off their hands, and that they’ve been forced to send the bales to local landfills and incinerators." Well, at least they’re not polluting the oceans and killing animals.

Greens rail against single-use products, but Tierney insists they are the best choice. Plastic bags are gossamer thin, and light as a feather, yet strong enough to hold many pounds of produce. They are cheap and energy-efficient, using little water or other natural resources to manufacture, and obviously easy to transport in mass quantities.

And they are not really "single use," since they are used again and again for other purposes. Paper bags incur a bigger manufacture/transport carbon footprint and are rarely used more than once, while taking up 12 times more landfill space than plastic bags. By contrast, plastic grocery bags are useful for many purposes. Most often they are used to line waste bins. If consumers don’t have the grocery bags, they buy dedicated-purpose bin liners, which are of a heavier plastic, carrying a bigger carbon footprint.

But they aren’t biodegradable, you lament! Turns out it’s actually a good thing plastic bags aren’t biodegradable. To begin with, they take up only a tiny proportionate space in landfills. And they don’t⁠—unlike decomposing cotton and paper bags—release methane or other greenhouse gases. The pittance of carbon used in their manufacture, extracted from natural gas, can be safely sequestered in modern landfills, which⁠—now highly regulated⁠—are carefully lined to prevent any leakage of noxious gases into the surrounding earth.

Still, isn’t it more virtuous to use a cotton bag to cut back on waste? If you remember to bring it, that is (Tierney says surveys show customers forget to about half the time) and if it lasted forever, I suppose it can’t hurt. But as it turns out, according to Tierney’s data, you would have to reuse the cotton bag 173 times to offset its manufacturing carbon footprint.

But typical totes are only used about 15 times. And many of them are crawling with bacteria. A University of Arizona study of reusable bags in California and Arizona found bacteria in almost all the bags. You might object that washing these bags is a habit that could become ingrained over time with strong messaging, but then you would have to factor in the carbon expended in the washing.

The shift back to plastic bags in supermarkets is a reminder that the enthusiasm with which we greeted plastic bags in the first place was because of their contribution to sanitation. Gradually, our obsession with sustainability pushed that objective aside, and the focus fell on recycling and resource conservation. But in the paradigm shift, other problems emerged. Here Tierney quotes Mikko Paunio, an epidemiologist in Finland who has studied public-health programs in rich and poor countries around the world and recommends stopping the recycling of plastics to save the oceans:

Ideologically motivated environmentalists in the 1980s and their dreams of recycling and a "circular economy" are the ultimate cause of the marine waste problem, because they have discouraged development of municipal waste schemes in Asia and Africa, and because they have encouraged developed nations to use management schemes that make it hard or expensive to deal with waste and therefore tend to "leak" to the environment, sometimes catastrophically so.

If we really want to help the environment, Tierney says⁠—and he seems prescient in that his article was published before the coronavirus changed our shopping habits so dramatically⁠—then we should order our groceries online, as two car trips to the supermarket vitiate a year’s worth of conscientious tote-bag use, even if you washed your bag using energy derived from solar panels!

It will be interesting to see if the practice of online shopping, begun out of necessity, will continue out of actual virtue. If it doesn’t, then we will know that the whole fetish with plastic bags was never about virtue in the first place; it was just another example of virtue-signalling by eco-elites, quite a different phenomenon altogether.