Thursday, January 5, 2012

Sao Paulo’s plastic bag war and its discontents

Brazil’s biggest city is jumping on the plastic-bag-banning-bandwagon. We’ll, actually it’s trying to. The municipal government of the 20 million strong city of Sao Paulo last year issued a decree blocking supermarkets from passing out plastic bags for free, a move backed by the state’s environment ministry. That follows bans and taxes in cities around America including Seattle and Washington D.C. and much more comprehensive efforts in European countries such as Italy and Ireland.

The country’s plastics industry association isn’t having any of it, and has won a court injunction blocking the measure from taking effect. In the meantime, both sides have launched a ferocious campaign plugging themselves as the true defenders of sustainability, leaving consumers under an advertising assault of contradicting claims.

Unlike the lobbying efforts to halt the D.C. plastic bag tax that was centered around protecting the poor from higher costs, the Sao Paulo plastics industry is instead arguing the measure doesn’t actually have an environmental impact.

“Bags are not disposable, they’re reusable, mostly as a trash bag,” the group says in a radio ad being played on Sao Paulo airwaves. “You’d have to buy a lot more trash bags, so it doesn’t make a difference for the environment. Don’t prohibit plastic bags, use them wisely.”

Marc Gunther, one of my favorite sustainability bloggers, makes much the same point here – plastic bag bans miss the point that they often used for other things. I also agree that the absurd proliferation of nylon shopping bags is creating many of the same problems that they’re supposed to be resolving – they’re made from oil, require a lot of energy to produce, and take up a lot of landfill space. Paper bags can be equally problematic, and unfortunately carry the stigma of being “natural” and therefore more environmentally friendly, when in fact the pulp and paper industry is horridly pollution and is actually responsible for more greenhouse gas emissions than the airline industry.

I do, however, think that plastic bag taxes are not necessarily a bad idea simply because put a cost on something that we have mistakenly come to believe is free. Plastic bags in the United States on average cost about $0.03 each for retailers, a cost which is either incorporated back into the prices of the rest of the products in the supermarket or comes out of the store’s bottom line. Then there are the indirect costs associated with plastic bags, like their accumulation in landfills and their tendency to block storm drains and cause flooding. The city of Sao Paulo last year suffered days of flooding, which put hundreds out of their homes, that authorities said were worsened by the abundance of plastic trash.  In DC the revenues from the plastic bag tax have gone to cleaning up the highly polluted Anacostia River.

I think it’s a mistake to ban people from something as obviously useful as a plastic bag, for the same reason I don’t think people should be banned from driving fossil-fuel powered cars, heating their homes with natural gas, or using electricity derived from coal.

The point is they should pay for it – the whole cost of it. When things are free, people tend not to use them in proportion to the impact they have on society. My mom has to open her apartment windows in the winter because the her building has central heating – not only does she have no incentive to save on heating, she had to dump energy out the window. The cost of plastic bags, like the other things mentioned above, should reflect the cost – including the messes they make during production and disposal. To put it in fancy economics talk, the price should reflect not only the marginal cost of production but also the negative environmental and social externalities that they create.

Sao Paulo’s grocers’ association apparently agrees and is backing the campaign. I’ll be curious to see whether they in out – and how paulistas change their behavior in response.

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