More than a half-century ago, in one of the most famous movie lines of all time, Dustin Hoffman character Benjamin Braddock, fresh out of college, received some unsolicited career advice.
“I want to say one word to you. Just one word,” Mr. McGuire told young Benjamin. “Plastics. There’s a great future in plastics.”
Today, the future in California looks a lot like the past. More than a half-century after “The Graduate,” plastophobia has overtaken plastics. The state, the Los Angeles Times recently reported, is building a “non-plastic future” in which modern conveniences are forbidden.
Prohibited in one form or another are single-use plastic bags, which had long been customarily handed out by retailers; plastic drinking straws; and plastic cutlery. Next up: unattached caps on plastic bottles; plastic detergent bottles; those polystyrene containers that hold restaurant take-out orders, which have already been banned by more than 100 California cities; and the complementary bottles of shampoo, conditioner, and soap provided by hotels.
Consequently, Golden State consumers are living in an age gone by, where the products of progress are outlawed.
Of course, the bans provide lawmakers, activists, and status-seeking supporters among the consumer class an interlude of self-indulgent, California-style feel-good time. But do plastic bans accomplish anything? That’s not so clear.
Proscribing single-use plastic bags, the initial target of the plastophobics, is more than an inconvenience to consumers who must juggle multiple loose items or haul reusable bags into the store with them. Some of the negative effects are environmental.
“A 2011 study by the U.K. government found a person would have to reuse a cotton tote bag 131 times before it was better for climate change than using a plastic grocery bag once,” National Public Radio reported in April. “The Danish government recently did a study that took into account environmental impacts beyond simply greenhouse gas emissions, including water use, damage to ecosystems and air pollution. These factors make cloth bags even worse.”
Plastic reusable bags are more environmentally friendly than those made of cloth, says NPR. Yet they pose a risk to personal environments. They’ve been known to harbor disease-carrying bacteria. A study conducted by University of Arizona, Tucson and Loma Linda University researchers “found that reusable bags are seldom if ever washed,” which is why they found bacteria in 99 percent of reusable bags tested. More than half the bags were laced with coliform, which the Environmental Protection Agency considers “a useful indicator of other pathogens for drinking water,” and 8 percent were contaminated with E. coli, a bacteria that can cause serious illnesses and sometimes death.
Plastic-ban activists will point out that the study also said washing bags cuts bacteria presence by 99.99 percent. Left unsaid is that taking the time to clean them creates its own set of issues.
“If each household spends an additional five minutes per week washing, drying and organizing its reusable bags, the average ‘opportunity cost’ (i.e., the value of time spent undertaking these activities) is approximately $2.56 per week per household,” or more than $130 a year, one study found.
Multiply those opportunity costs across California and the loss adds up to “approximately $1.66 billion per year.”
Plastic bag prohibitionists might be further frustrated to learn that while bans have cut the weight of single-use plastic bags in our garbage stream, the reduction has been offset by an increase in the presence of another type of heavier, thicker plastic (which is responsible for more greenhouse gas emissions than the thinner-gauge grocery bags). University of Sydney economist Rebecca Taylor, who looked at “bag leakage,” told NPR she found “sales of garbage bags actually skyrocketed after plastic grocery bags were banned” in the California cities and counties she studied.
The biggest increase has been in sales of small, four-gallon bags — they soared by 120 percent after bans were enacted.
Taylor also concluded it’s wrong to refer to disposable carryout bags as “single-use” items, since consumers repurposed between 12.4 percent and 21.6 percent of the bags they were given at grocery stores.
“People who used to reuse their shopping bags for other purposes, like picking up dog poop or lining trash bins, still needed bags,” NPR reported.
Of course, Sacramento considered none of these outcomes as possibilities when it imposed a statewide plastic bag ban in 2014. Nor did 53 percent of voters when they ratified the ban in a 2016 referendum. They were all too eager to signal their environmental virtue, California-style.