Thursday, January 10, 2008

The Story of stuff

I was originally going to leave a comment on Ben's post about China's plastic bags, but it ended being so long i thought i would just make a brand new post.

For anyone who didn't read the article i should mention that China actually banned FREE plastic bags (not plastic bags in general). The Chinese government is ordering customers to be charged for any plastic bags they use in order to deter a littering problem.

First, i'm skeptical about whether public education would fix the problem. in China's case the issue is one of littering. maybe the government could run more commercials about how to put garbage in a trash can, but i think the deeper issue (and i believe the one san francisco was responding to) is that even the plastic bags that are thrown away usually end up in a landfill (which some might consider concentrated littering). and then even if we educate people on recycling, some people argue that the cost of recycling the cheap plastic used in grocery bags isn't worth the effort.

So maybe our education would include a suggestion for consumers to use reusable bags. Not a bad idea, but then have threats of global warming and instability in the middle east resulted in consumers purchasing more fuel efficient cars? Nope.

it's an issue i'm a little torn over. on the one hand i think plastic grocery bags are ridiculously wasteful and on the other i'm opposed to the government interfering in our lives more than is necessary. However i think the distinction between "banning plastic bags" and "banning free plastic bags" is an important one. If i want to put my groceries in a plastic bag, i think i should be able to, but i also think that the cost of that bag should reflect the environmental impact of it's production and disposal. China's ban on free plastic bags is similar to Irelands "plastax", which i think is a great idea.

regardless of what you think the best solution is, consumer waste a broad issue that needs to dealt with. Even if China's ban isn't the best action i for one think it's better than inaction.


Ben said...

Yeah that was kind of a typo on my part. I meant to have the word "free" in there. I think my objection is more political than anything. I'm against almost all government interference especially when it's telling people what they cannot do.

Also, if you don't mind adam, I'm going to edit your post so the "continue reading" link works.

Flavin said...

But the government here bans, and governments everywhere ban, unsafe or harmful products all the time.

Was there an outcry when they banned leaded paint? ...Well, I don't actually know the answer to that question because I wasn't alive. But, still. Product safety is, and has been, one of the government's key roles, because it is in the public good but the all mighty free market would never take care of the problem.

I could see how—assuming the number of plastic bags I get at stores is average across our population and scaling that population up by, say, three to four times—China could have a major problem on their hands.

Pollution has been a major focus of the Chinese government lately, especially leading up to the Olympics (which are this year, I think). I think the decision may have been a bit rash, but I bet it'll work how they intended it: fewer bags littering streets.

Prazzie said...

The South African ban on free bags was instituted in an attempt to curb litter. I haven't noticed a difference.

I've not been affected by it at all, since bags are so cheap (about (ZAR) 25 cents, negligible in US dollar terms) that I don't even feel it. They should make it expensive enough for me to want to bring my own bags, or give us the option of paper bags. The "bring your own bags" thing never really caught on.

I've also noticed that often the cashiers just ignore the law out of kindness, for example when they forget to ask me if I would like a bag and I've already paid, they'll give me a free bag.

The ban has given rise to a popular observation on South African social decline: during the previous regime plastic bags were free and you had to pay for condoms, whereas nowadays you have to pay for plastic bags and condoms are free.

adam said...

prazzie, that's interesting you haven't noticed a difference. how long has the ban been in effect? People in Ireland claim that the tax on plastic bags introduced there has resulted in a 95 percent reduction in their use and that "It's been an extraordinary success".

i think the issue is a little more subtle than that of banning harmful products (though i have heard that there are toxins going into production of the plastic). for one it's not immediately clear to me why, if the goal is to deter littering, the government would take such an indirect method as to place a ban on the bags themselves. why not enforce harsher penalties on the people who litter? if the goal is to reduce the number of bags that go to landfills then a tax should be placed on the bags that's proportional to the space they'll take up in the landfill, the time it will take for them to be broken down, and any other environmentally relevant impacts they'll have. My point is that if i really want a disposable bag at the grocery store, i should be able to get one, but it's cost should reflect not just how much it cost to make it, but also how much it costs to get rid of it. I think flavin's right. Free market won't take care of the disposal end of things.

adam said...

one more comment for prazzie.

are you serious about giving away free condoms being part of a social decline (maybe you meant charging for plastic bags was part of the social decline?). I'm assuming the free condom thing is an attempt to curb the spread of AIDS. This seems like not a bad idea.

Prazzie said...

The ban in South Africa has been in effect since May 2003. Thin plastic bags are no longer being manufactured, only bags thicker than 30 microns are allowed.

The original plan was for the plastic bag tax to be used in a recycling program, but nothing has come of that.

I still maintain that our problem is that the bags are too cheap. Paying an additional 25 cents per bag when your groceries add up to several hundred rands really makes no difference.

I saw plastic bags fluttering in the streets before 2003 and I see them today, just a couple of microns thicker.

As for the condom thing, it's supposed to be a tongue in cheek observation: Good Old Christian Times - Plastic free, have to pay for you dirty sex habits/Bad New South Africa - pay for plastic, but nasty dirty sex everywhere!

Making free condoms available would be a great help if a) Our government (President) believed that AIDS is spread through sex (or that it even exists) and can be prevented to some extent through condom use and b) the free condoms weren't distributed STAPLED to an information leaflet...

Ben said...

Wait...they are stapled? That made my brain misfire a little.

Prazzie said...

They were. Stapled through the latex itself. We've had some trouble over here with the whole concept of prophylactics.