In early January, Democratic Florida lawmakers Linda Stewart and Mike Grieco introduced a bill to greenlight local plastic bans, previously prohibited by state statute. While the desire to keep plastic waste out of the environment is understandable, the fact is that plastic bans often do more harm for the environment than good.
Banning single-use plastic products can be more environmentally damaging because alternatives are even more wasteful.
When Denmark considered a ban on single-use plastic grocery bags, their studies found that they were far superior in comparison to alternatives. The Danes came to that conclusion based on 15 environmental benchmarks, including climate change, toxicity, ozone depletion, resource depletion and ecosystem impact. They calculated that paper bags would need to be reused 43 times to have the same total impact as a plastic bag. For cotton, the figures were even worse. A cotton bag has to be reused 7,000 times, while an organic version would need to be used 20,000 times to be on par with a single-use plastic bag.
Clearly, consumers do not reuse plastic alternatives anywhere near the number of times necessary to make a positive difference. Given the energy expended to make these alternatives, forcing consumers to use them because of a ban on plastic is a net negative if we care about the environment.
Beyond that, prospective local bans miss the mark on how we can actually deal with plastic waste. When we are talking about plastic waste in our environment, we are really talking about mismanaged litter. If plastics are ending up in Florida’s parks or on its beaches, that is a serious problem that needs to be dealt with. Luckily, there are a variety of innovative ways that plastic can be responsibly handled, that doesn’t involve banning entire product categories.
Rather than clearing a path for future bans, legislators should be narrowing their sights on better processes to reclaim plastic waste and investing in recycling through chemical depolymerization. Through depolymerization, virtually all plastic products can be broken down into their original building blocks and repurposed into other products. This means that traditionally single-use plastic products can have their lifespan extended indefinitely. This isn’t hypothetical — there are countless examples across North America where innovators take plastic waste, especially single-use products, and turn them into everything from resin pellets, tiles for your home and even road asphalt.
Of course, the timing of prospective bans shouldn’t be ignored either. The pandemic has been devastating for bars and restaurants. Local bans on single-use items would force them to switch to costlier alternatives at the most inopportune time. Bans on plastic bags, cutlery, take-out containers or even bottles would be kicking these business owners right as they are trying to get back on their feet. The bans also impact consumers, not just by limiting consumer choice, but also by inflating business costs, which are more often than not passed on to consumers via higher prices.
Outside of restaurants, the prospect of a patchwork of local bans could be incredibly disruptive for supply chains in Florida. Different cities with vastly different rules could mean that manufacturers have to repurpose production lines based on Zip code, which, of course, is incredibly costly and time-consuming. Those costs are again, often passed on to consumers.
Florida’s communities can’t afford to wage a war on plastic with local bans. Instead, state government should show leadership on proper waste management. Leaning on innovative processes to deal with plastic waste ensures that plastics stay in the economy rather than ending up in the environment and avoids the trap of pushing consumers to high cost, and high impact, alternative products.
David Clement is the North American Affairs Manager with the Consumer Choice Center.