On plastic bag bans, and the failure to realize economic growth cannot be green

(Updated 2019-01-12.)

Despite the surge of interest in plastic bag bans, the environmental sustainability numbers haven’t been run. For example, it makes no sense to trade using paper bags instead of plastic ones, even if the paper is recycled, because paper is a nasty product to make, and more emissions are involved shipping paper bags than plastic ones. Paper bags are heavier, get wet, and cost towns and residents to recycle or dispose.

The City of Cambridge, Massachusetts, put fees on all retail bags, but did that after studying the matter for seven years. Reports on their study are available at the City of Cambridge Web site.

Even reusable bags have an impact to be made, and, if used, must be reused one or two hundred times to offset their own upstream environmental impacts in comparison with plastic bags, downstream impacts and all. The biggest problem people have with reusable bags is remembering to bring them along.

We don’t really know what happens to plastic bags in oceans, apart from anecdotal evidence of harm to macroscale creatures. Cigarette filters and microplastics seem to persist.

See the podcast from BBC’s “Costing the Earth”

for some of the complexities.

Wishful environmentalism can be damaging: It consumes policy good will, energy on the part of activists, and misses addressing substantial problems, like expansive development, which cause far greater harm to the natural world. And, worse, the “feel good” of not using plastic bags, or helping to ban them tends to justify personal behaviors which are more damaging, such as taking another aircraft flight for fun that hasn’t been properly offset in its emissions (*). Air travel is a huge contributor, and has, thus far, never been successfully penalized for its contributions to human emissions. The last round on that was fought during the Obama administration which fiercely negotiated with Europe not to have to pay extra fees for landing in EU airports.

The hard fact is economic growth cannot be green. Quoting:

Study after study shows the same thing. Scientists are beginning to realize that there are physical limits to how efficiently we can use resources. Sure, we might be able to produce cars and iPhones and skyscrapers more efficiently, but we can’t produce them out of thin air. We might shift the economy to services such as education and yoga, but even universities and workout studios require material inputs. Once we reach the limits of efficiency, pursuing any degree of economic growth drives resource use back up.

These problems throw the entire concept of green growth into doubt and necessitate some radical rethinking. Remember that each of the three studies used highly optimistic assumptions. We are nowhere near imposing a global carbon tax today, much less one of nearly $600 per metric ton, and resource efficiency is currently getting worse, not better. Yet the studies suggest that even if we do everything right, decoupling economic growth with resource use will remain elusive and our environmental problems will continue to worsen.

This sounds discouraging, but I am not discouraged. The natural world has repeatedly dealt with species which were resource hogs. That it ends poorly for the species who do is a salutary lesson for those which can observe it, assuming they learn.

Claire bought me a wonderful book for the holidays. It’s Theory-based Ecology by Pásztor, Botta-Dukát, Magyar, Czárán, and Meszéna, and I got it for my Kindle Oasis. It has a number of themes but two major ones are (1) exponential growth of unstructured populations, and (2) the inevitability of population regulation. By the latter they mean organism deaths due to insufficient resources, or, in other words, growth beyond the carrying capacity.

In our case, that kind of collapse or growth is mediated by an economic system, one which suffers its own periodic collapses. Accordingly, the choice is whether to keep hands off and allow such a collapse via a Minsky moment occur on its own, or, instead, intervene and have a controlled descent. We are not as self-sustaining as we collectively think, and developed countries, although wealthier and replete with resources, also have a greater cross section for impact and harm.

Our choice.

Update, 2019-01-12

From The Hill, “Will a market crash get the action we need on climate change?”:

So, what’s the good news? The end of denial by financial markets and government leaders is nearly at hand. For most investors, the risks of climate change loom beyond their investment horizon. It’s been easy for investors to operate in a speculative carbon bubble, acting as though there are no impending costs to earnings-per-share or to liabilities in their portfolios from the buildup of carbon in the atmosphere. But these costs may increasingly look real, and when investors start taking these costs into account, markets will revalue: not just oil and gas stock, but all stocks.

Companies have facilities that will be flooded or be without needed water for production; supply chains will need to be rebuilt; costs of transportation will increase. What about the costs to financial institutions as communities need to be abandoned because of flood or drought? What are the fiscal consequences to governments of rebuilding airports, roads and other critical infrastructure? What will happen to consumer spending?

There will be winners and losers in this revaluation, but as past speculative bubbles have shown us, when they burst, markets move very quickly.

Government leaders have likewise largely operated in a bubble. It is the rare leader who can spend political (or taxpayer) capital on addressing an over-the-horizon problem. When the bubble bursts, government leaders will need to address the real concerns of rebuilding infrastructure, food and water security, and public health threats that will be seen by voters as imminent.

(*) This is actually pretty straightforward to do. Here’s our formula.

There is something called the New England Wind Fund. Essentially, contributions are used to buy WRECs, and one WREC prevents 842 pounds of CO2 emissions on the electric grid. Thecarbonfootprint.com offers a CO2 travel calculator. It tells how much CO2-equivalents are produced from a flight. (They offer calculators for other modes of travel, too.) They also offer you a vehicle for offsetting right on the spot, but I do not recommend using it. They do also make available a check box for additional forcing effects, which I always check. This is because emissions at typical aircraft altitudes are worse than at sea level or on the ground.

The result is in metric tonnes, where 1 metric ton is 1000 kilograms. There are 2.2 lbs per kilogram. So 1 WREC prevents 383 metric tonnes of CO2 emissions.

For a trip, calculate how much emissions you will make in units of WRECs, and then go to the New England Wind Fund site and contribute US$40 for each WREC.


I don’t recommend using the carbonfootprint.com offset because, while they could be fine, Carbon offsetting programs need constant auditing and checking, and there are some unscrupulous operators out there who use these for greenwashing purposes only. I know New England Wind, though, and these really do get converted into WRECs.

About ecoquant

See https://wordpress.com/view/667-per-cm.net/ Retired data scientist and statistician. Now working projects in quantitative ecology and, specifically, phenology of Bryophyta and technical methods for their study.
This entry was posted in adaptation, an ignorant American public, an uncaring American public, Anthropocene, development as anti-ecology, E. O. Wilson, environment, evidence, evolution, exponential growth, fragmentation of ecosystems, global warming, greenwashing, Humans have a lot to answer for, Hyper Anthropocene, local self reliance, plastics, population biology, quantitative biology, quantitative ecology, supply chains, sustainability, sustainable landscaping, The Demon Haunted World, the right to be and act stupid, the right to know, the tragedy of our present civilization, the value of financial assets, tragedy of the horizon. Bookmark the permalink.

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