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To ban the bag, or not to ban the bag

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Matthew Lau: Bans on Styrofoam containers and plastic bags may seem like steps in the right direction – but does the evidence support it?

Vancouver rang in the new year with an effort to crack down on plastic, as the city’s ban on Styrofoam cups and take-out food containers came into effect on January 1, 2020. Next year, the city will do it again, with a ban on plastic grocery bags. But are such bans a good way to clean the environment, or are they just an inconvenience?

In order to justify bans, two criteria must be met. First, the environmental benefits must outweigh the economic costs. Second, for a ban to make sense, it must be the least costly way to achieve those environmental benefits.

Put another way, the plastic bans should pass a cost-benefit test, and should produce a higher net benefit than alternative policies.

To deal first with the less stringent criterion, it is unlikely that the environmental benefits exceed the economic costs. A study in 2018 from the California-based Independent Institute, for example, found the costs of banning Styrofoam take-out containers to be significant.

It concluded, based on other research on a proposed ban on Styrofoam containers in New York City, that the cheapest alternative to Styrofoam for food service vendors would cost nearly double, while being “not as effective in rigidity, insulation, reliability, and sanitation.”

Meanwhile, the environmental benefits are minimal or perhaps even negative.

According to the Independent Institute researchers, bans on Styrofoam take-out containers “actually can have negative impacts on the environment” because paper alternatives “often create more waste (by volume and energy use) and cause more air and water pollution. Paper manufacturing, for instance, has significantly more of an environmental impact than foam manufacturing.”

Similarly, a ban on disposable plastic grocery bags would also bring economic costs and questionable environmental benefits. Disposable plastic bags are cheaper, more convenient, more effective, or for other reasons preferred by many consumers and businesses to the alternatives, such as paper bags and reusable plastic or cloth bags. That’s why they are in such widespread use.

Meanwhile, it is uncertain that banning them would help the environment. Economist E. Frank Stephenson notes in a book chapter for the Mercatus Center, a university think tank, that substituting paper bags for plastic bags might not improve the environment because “compared to paper grocery bags, plastic grocery bags consume 40 per cent less energy, generate 80 per cent less solid waste, produce 70 per cent fewer atmospheric emissions, and release up to 94 per cent fewer waterborne wastes.”

Switching to reusable cloth bags would also likely result in more carbon emissions than the disposable plastic bags. Manufacturing a reusable cloth bag results in 130 times more emissions than a plastic bag, Stephenson reported, and the carbon footprint of reusable cloth bags is even higher, after accounting for the fact that they have to be washed constantly. (Studies have found increased sickness from E. coli and other bacteria when plastic bags are banned because many people do not wash their cloth grocery bags frequently enough).

The evidence suggests that bans on Styrofoam containers and plastic bags do not pass a cost-benefit test. The economic costs are significant, while the environmental benefits are minimal or non-existent. But even if the benefits exceeded the costs, the bans would still not be justified – they go much too far.

If there is an environmental cost, for example of 5 cents for each plastic bag, a reasonable policy would be to tax the plastic bags at 5 cents each. In that way, consumers and businesses will still be able to access the bags when the economic benefits are higher than 5 cents – in other words, when the economic benefits of plastic bags outweigh the environmental costs. If they choose to use the plastic bags, they will pay for the environmental costs through the tax.

Vancouver’s ban on plastics, the evidence shows, does more harm than good. The harm suffered by consumers and businesses is real and excessive compared to alternative policies (such as a tax), and there is little in the way of compensating environmental benefit to make the policy worthwhile.

Matthew Lau is an economics writer. His columns have appeared in newspapers and online publications across Canada.

SWIM ON:

  • Matthew Lau last wrote about UBC and other post-secondary institutions divesting from fossil fuels – they can do what they want, but should know it almost certainly means diminished returns.
  • Maclean Kay’s year-end interview with outgoing Green leader Andrew Weaver was no less informative and revealing than you expect.
  • Revisit Rick Cluff’s sitdown interview with Bill Tieleman – who was directing what turned out to be the wildly successful campaign to keep First Past the Post in the referendum on electoral reform.
SWIM ON