Californians regard themselves as members of the environmentally aware aristocracy. Polls consistently show that large numbers of Golden Staters agonize over Gaia’s plight. An SFGate headline last year that declared “Californians put high priority on environment” was news to no one. But have they been misled by a political left pursuing an extreme agenda.
Consider the following examples and decide:
In 2016, more than 53 percent of voters said that the state was obliged to ban the single-use plastic — and paper — bags that had traditionally been provided to customers by grocers and other retailers. The premise of Proposition 67 was that plastics bags are an environmental hazard.
“Single-use plastic shopping bags create some of the most visible litter that blows into our parks, trees and neighborhoods, and washes into our rivers, lakes and ocean,” said the “official argument” in the voter guide.
Julie Packard, executive director of the Monterey Bay Aquarium, argues that “plastic bags harm wildlife every day. Sea turtles, sea otters, seals, fish and birds are tangled by plastic bags; some mistake bags for food, fill their stomachs with plastics and die of starvation. Voting “yes” on 67,” she said during the campaign, “is a common-sense solution to reduce plastic in our ocean, lakes and streams, and protect wildlife.”
Meanwhile, Dan Jacobson of Environment California railed about “out-of-state polluters” “dumping millions of pounds of plastic into our ocean.”
The plastophobia rhetoric, however, fails to line up with the truth about plastic bags. For instance, the Hemholtz Centre for Environmental Research in Germany found that roughly 90 percent of the plastic in the oceans is carried by “the top 10 rivers with the highest loads” of plastic debris. None of them is in the U.S., none of them is in California. Eight are in Asia, two in Africa. In fact, only about 1 percent of all ocean plastic comes from the U.S. California’s bag ban will have virtually zero impact on plastic pollution in the oceans.
As for plastic bags creating “some of the most visible litter,” it’s clear that some people are seeing only what they want to see. In 2013, a study found that plastic bags made up only 0.6 percent of all visible litter. The same report further found that in the two California cities studied, San Jose and San Francisco, plastic bags were only 0.4 percent and 0.6 percent, respectively, of total visible litter. Bear in mind that these portions were reported even before those cities began restricting plastic bag use.
Meanwhile, plastic grocery bags accounted for only 1.73 percent of all the litter picked up on 2016’s California Coastal Cleanup Day, which was held about six weeks before the state ban was in effect. Other plastic bags accounted for 1.5 percent of total litter. A year later, the portions were 1.5 percent and 1.62 percent even with the prohibition in effect.
The claim that plastic bags are an extreme threat to ocean life is another reach. The study this tale is based on “had nothing to do with plastic bags at all,” Reason’s Katherine Mangu-Ward reported in 2015. Greenpeace, which rarely passes on an opportunity to whip up environmental hysteria, has acknowledged that it’s “very unlikely that many animals are killed by plastic bags. The evidence shows just the opposite.”
The evidence also shows that if it’s greenhouse gas emissions the plastic bag opponents are concerned with, then they are again ignorant of yet another important truth. The alternative bags that many customers have chosen to replace the prohibited single-use bags are not carbon-free. The reusable plastics bags are thicker and require more carbon to manufacture, and therefore each one must be used at least 11 times before there’s a net reduction in emissions, according to a British government study. Cotton bags are even worse. They must “be used an amazing 131 times to do the same,” said Mangu-Ward.
Having “bagged” plastic bags for a trophy to be mounted on the walls of Tom Steyer’s drawing room, California environmentalists also want to ban plastic straws. But yet again, we have virtue signaling without the virtue.
As we said just a few months back, “the campaign to demonize and eradicate plastic straws is based on the ‘work’ of a 9-year-old boy who called straw manufacturers in 2011 and concluded that Americans use 500 million plastic straws a day.” Possibly, but probably not. That would mean that each American uses roughly 1.5 plastic straws a day. A more reasonable figure is the 170 million to 175 million estimated by Technomic, a food service consulting firm.
But no matter which number is correct, there is still a large gap between “use” and litter. The California Coastal Commission has acknowledged that over the last 30 years of its Coastal Cleanup Day, it has collected only 835,425 straws and stirrers, which amounts to roughly 4.1 percent of the debris that has been rounded up.
While a plastic straw ban will feed some smug feelings, it might not cut the volume of demon plastic used to produce consumer items. Caffeine cartel Starbucks says it plans to eliminate single-use plastic straws from all of its stores — roughly 2,000 of which are in California — by 2020 by topping “all its cold drinks with fancy new strawless lids that the company currently serves with its cold brew nitro coffees,” says Reason’s Christian Britschgi. Though it was widely celebrated for its gesture, Starbucks’ cultural-political decision “will actually be increasing its plastic use,” because, “as it turns out, the new nitro lids that Starbucks is leaning on to replace straws are made up of more plastic than the company’s current lid/straw combination.”
Finally, a brief look at recycling, which to many in California is a religious ceremony too sacred to question. But where there’s religion, there is also heresy. Progressive columnist George Skelton of the Los Angeles Times strayed from the orthodoxy when he recently declared that the state’s recycling “program itself needs recycling.”
“Californians dutifully load up their recycling bins and feel good about themselves. They’re helping the environment and being good citizens,” Skelton wrote shortly after Independence Day. “But their glow might turn to gloom if they realized that much of the stuff is headed to a landfill.
“That’s because there’s no longer a recycling market for a lot of the paper, cardboard, plastic and other junk that’s left curbside.”
Skelton noted that earlier this year, China began to refuse some of the garbage the U.S. had been sending it because our garbage is now regularly considered “contaminated” by food and liquids in bottles and boxes, tape on cardboard, and other impurities. So instead of being recycled, it is deposited in landfills.
“Recyclable” trash bypassing the recycling center isn’t a new problem. In 1996, John Tierney wrote in a lengthy New York Times essay that “recycling may be the most wasteful activity in modern America: a waste of time and money, a waste of human and natural resources.” Though he acknowledges that sometimes recycling “makes sense,” “simplest and cheapest option is usually to bury garbage in an environmentally safe landfill.”
While recycling might meet an “emotional need” in some, and is in many instances performed as “a rite of atonement for the sin of excess,” Tierney said, mandatory programs “aren’t good for posterity.”
“They offer mainly short-term benefits to a few groups — politicians, public relations consultants, environmental organizations, waste-handling corporations — while diverting money from genuine social and environmental problems.”
Recycling’s biggest drawback is that quite often it costs more to turn a used product into a consumer good made from recycled material than it does to manufacture an entirely new product from raw material. As Tom Szaky, founder and CEO of TerraCycle, wrote last year in the Huffington Post, only when “collection and processing costs are less than the value of the recycled end-product, recycling makes economic sense.” Tierney made this point more than two decades ago. Yet here we are in 2018, forced to support California’s Beverage Container Recycling Program through an additional point-of-sale tax on glass, plastic, and aluminum containers because the recycling process can’t survive without subsidies.
Recycling not only fails economically, it isn’t necessarily a friend of the environment. Depending on what is being recycled, centers use a variety of acids, bleaches, and other harsh cleaning chemicals; create toxic sludge and release heavy metals; and can use more energy, and produce more emissions, than the manufacture of products from virgin material. It’s a nasty business.
So would the “green” among us be so fanatical about cracking down on plastic-bag and plastic-straw ownership, and mandating recycling if they knew that their campaigns were, at best, useless, and at worst, damaging to their “cause”? It seems unlikely that many would moderate their positions upon discovering the realities. The addiction to virtue signaling is too strong an opiate to walk away from, the devotion to a new religion too consuming to surrender.
Kerry Jackson is a fellow with the Center for California Reform at the Pacific Research Institute.