Wednesday, 30 May 2012

Bag Ban Manifesto


“Single use” plastic retail bags are banned in Fort McMurray.  This is the result of a passionate 2 year crusade by 16 year old Sean Graham who watched a documentary at his school and got a 2000 person petition and brought it to city council.  Reasons for the ban are somewhat vague.  Melissa Blake implied on the RMWB website that it is to reach the RMWB’s goal of reducing waste in the landfill by 50% by 2012.  Sean’s reasons seem to be based on the environment and seems to focus on the landfill and the manufacturing process used to create the bags.  There was very little opposition to the ban made to council, save for one fellow who made some seemingly feeble arguments that the law would unjustly impact the poor in the community who relied on public transportation, or walking to and from the grocery stores as well as concerns about shoplifting.  So the ban passed with politicians and environmentally minded citizens feeling good that they are doing there part to green up the community, and those that may not like the ban keeping there yaps shut afraid to be painted as an anti-environmental.  After-all the evidence that a bag ban is good for the environment is overwhelming…isn’t it?

I’m going to present the contrarian side of this issue.  I don’t buy that this ban is helping the environment…in fact I think I think its causing more damage to the environment, so I’ll present some arguments from pragmatism.  I’ll also argue from a moral position that the use of force is not a legitimate way to solve social or environmental problems.  Finally I will offer up some viable solutions that might actually make a real impact on decreasing waste and therefore reducing environmental impact.

A Pragmatic Argument

Anytime a law is passed there are unintended consequences.  For example drug laws are aimed at decreasing problems associated with drugs, but, we all clearly see that these laws only create violence, more dangerous drugs and victimize drug addicts and users.  I will try and highlight a few obvious unintended consequences based on some very basic research and logic.

First this bylaw outlaws ‘single use bags’ like the light plastic bags used at grocery stores.  Implied is that false assumption that these bags are only ever only used once.  How many people use them to line small garbage bins or pick up dog-doo etc.  Ireland recently banned these types of bags and found a 400% increase in sales on thicker less environmentally friendly plastic garbage bags presumably because consumers no longer had light grocery bags at their disposal to recycle as poop bags and garbage liners. 

I couldn’t find any information on how much of our landfill is taken up with these plastic bags, however, they represent 0.4% of California’s landfill volume.  That’s all plastic bags mind you including heavy garbage bags, which, I imagine make up the bulk of the 0.4%.  Even if council banned all plastic bags from the city it would make a pretty dismal dent in our landfill usage.  So as a method to reduce our landfill usage by 50% (Mayor Blakes implied suggestion for the efficacy of this regulation) it seems a terrible waste of time and effort. There doesn’t appear to have been any pre or post regulation audit of the landfill to see whether the ban is making any impact in landfill usage.

It’s also interesting to note that plastic mining technologies are starting to take off.  There are currently plastic mining companies that are scouring landfills and collecting plastic to convert into petroleum products.*  They do this because it is economically feasible…they can make money at it as oil becomes scarce and oil prices go up. This fact alone should put to bed a lot of the critics of plastic bags in landfills.  The fact that they don’t break down is a positive because they can eventually be mined out of landfills and reused. Could it be that landfills are the best place for plastic bags…I mean they are all there in one convenient location.

It could be that the ban’s goal is to reduce litter in the community and it certainly seems like there are less bags blowing around town. Studies I came across showed that plastic retail bags make up a miniscule amount of litter in communities as well and litter audit in San Fransisco before they banned plastic bags showed that retail plastic bags made up 0.6% of all litter.  In Toronto it was 0.1% and in Florida it was 0.7%. In a recent Edmonton litter audit retail plastic bags made up 1.3% of litter.** So in terms of litter reduction it seems to be a small impact as well. If we were serious about curbing litter we would ban all paper and fiber products in the region as this comprises about 50% of litter in audit studies I found in other cities. Banning paper would probably be considered ridiculous by most people and it should be, the sale and use of paper is not the problem and it would be silly to punish people who use paper responsibly. Perhaps rather than punishing the people responsibly using these materials the litterbugs should be targeted.

Now I want to turn my attention to these reusable bags that people are forced to use.  The assumption is that they are more environmentally friendly because you can use them over and over again.  Is this really the case?  Do we know what environmental impact these bags have? We do not. Nobody appears to be measuring. Here are some of the things we would need to measure, compare and contrast to determine whether the environment is receiving a net benefit from using these bags:

·        Green house gas emissions from
o       Manufacturing bags
o       Transportation and distribution
o       Manufacturing technology and factories to make these bags
·        Emission of pollutants/toxins in manufacturing processes
·        Amount of energy and resources required in manufacture
·        Litter and waste produced in the manufacture of these bags
·        Litter Audit
·        Landfill Audit
·        Bag Reuse Rate
·        Energy, soap, and waste produced by bag washing

Measuring these things directly would be difficult if not impossible and may not account for every unintended effect of this regulation. Luckily price tells us all sorts of information about the amount of energy, resources, labor and infrastructure required to bring the product to market because it is a direct reflection of these things in aggregate. We are paying $1-$1.50 for these bags which is anywhere from 20-100 times more than we were paying for the plastic bags before. A Wall Street Journal article cited that the most common reusable bags shipped from China take up to 28X more energy to produce than regular plastic.  Wrap your head around that.  Even if the bag is made up of recycled materials all sorts of virgin resources had to go into the making of that bag…at least 28X as much in fact.***  This doesn’t even include the cost to ship it.  These bags are generally about 10 times heavier and have a greater volume than the thin plastic bags and so you can tack on increased energy to ship them as well. 

Cursory math says that I would have to use the bag at least 20-100 times before it has a net benefit to the environment. So another necessary metric would be how many times the bag is reused. My experience has been that I don’t always have a reusable bag with me when I need one and so I am continually buying new ones and throwing out the growing surplus I accumulate…sorry bout that environment, maybe the RMWB can pass some more laws and hire more enforcers as these unintended consequences pile up. This population is very transient with up to 20,000 people staying in camps. I often see these people purchasing bags, what do they do with them? Take them back to Newfoundland when they leave to make sure they get at least 28 uses out them? Do they squirrel them away in a safe place or give them away to friends or even give them a seconds thought in their busy lives? An interesting metric to me would be to see how many customers are buying bags during a day in a grocery store if its more than 1 in 28 or 3.5% of customers (its probably closer to 1 in 60 or <2%) then we have a problem…the environment is taking a shit kicking.

Lets suppose you are a good conscientious citizen that thinks this is a fantastic initiative despite everything I’ve presented. Once you have the bag the energy consumption does not stop.  Anybody who has bought meat at the grocery store knows that those lovely juices usually spill out of their packaging. In fact the RMWB’s web-site itself encourages frequent washing of these bags as if treating and heating water, running a wash cycle, using soap and draining water doesn’t have an environmental impact itself.  Suddenly these bags don’t seem to be all that environmentally friendly. 

I wonder if anybody bothered to tabulate the human cost to this endeavor as well.  How many man hours was spent on this campaign….this is not an insignificant thing.  Time is one of our most precious and scarce resources on this planet, and to think of all of that resource of time wasted on an endeavor that may well do the exact opposite of it intended purpose is a shame. Municipal employees spending time on useless endeavors aren’t just wasting time and money, they are paying an opportunity cost in lines of work that could be productive and make a real positive impact.

But, maybe it wasn’t all a waste.  I’ve noticed that I feel better when I recycle…even though I know that rationally I’m probably not benefiting the environment.  At the end of the day it seems that much of environmental activism is emotionally driven.  What we’ve done here with this law is provide our community with a much needed injection of self-esteem.  After all our community has taken its brunt of environmental criticism…this ought to help alleviate our environmental guilt and make us feel like we are making some real environmental contributions. At the end of the day the only metric that matters in politics is popular opinion. This is why a recent public review of the bag ban was aimed at measuring opinions not any measure of actual effectiveness at reducing harm.

A Moral Argument

Its important that we remember that anytime a law is passed it is backed by lethal force.  This sounds crazy and shocking, but think about it. What are the logical implications of a store owner disobeying and resisting this law. According to the bylaw he can be fined $1000 a day.  This means money that he has earned rightfully through voluntary exchange with customers can be taken from him by force, this is called theft.  If he refuses to allow his property to be taken from him eventually people with guns will come (aka Peace Officers).  If he defends his property from being taken, or his business from being interfered with he will be met with equal or greater force.  Of course it would be ludicrous to try and defend against this initiation of force. The path of least resistance is to just comply with the overwhelming force, just like it would be silly to try and resist a knife wielding bandit who demands $5 from you… it’s best to comply with threats of violence.

It would be extraordinary to claim that the initiation of force is moral, because this is a principle that cannot be universalized.  This means that it is immoral to initiate force against anybody else.  Politicians and police officers are supposed to get their right to govern and enforce laws from the people.  The act of voting supposedly delegates a citizens authority to the people in government.  So how is it that the people in government end up with authority that no man has…in fact doing so is always a violation of self-evident human rights. In this case it’s the right for men to engage in voluntary exchange with each other. If I do not have the right to point a gun at a store owner and tell him to cease and desist what he is doing with his bags, then neither does government.

While I’m arguing that its immoral to initiate force against others, I’m also saying that a person has the self-evident right to defend themselves and by extension their property…especially to the degree to which that property is used to allow them to provide a means to live and flourish…no other man has a right to destroy or take that property because it interferes with an individuals ability to live and flourish.  So lets see how we can apply these principles to effectively solve this environmental problem without resorting to violence.


If I had a problem with plastic bags littering my property from other people dumping them or carelessly littering I would have every right to hold them accountable and have my property restored.  So at a minimum I would have the right to have the litter bug come and clean-up my property and restore it to its original state.  I would not have the right to go to the bag manufacturer and get restitution, they didn’t litter on my property, I wouldn’t have the right to go to the store and ban them from selling the bag.  My beef is with the person who owned the bag and littered it.  So it seems crazy to me that merchants and consumers are automatically paying the price for criminal litterbugs.  If it’s a litter issue the litterers should be targeted, if it’s a landfill issue the landfill users should be targeted.

How do you target the landfill users.  Well to start with you stop funding the landfill with extorted money (aka taxes).  You allow it to become a private enterprise where competition can come up with cost effective and environmentally effective ways of disposing or recycling waste.  You allow landfill users to bear the actual cost of disposing of garbage. People are accountable for their own decisions and actions and therefore should bear the cost of them. According to the RMWB budget the unaudited Landfill Operating Budget was over $18,000,000 in 2008.  If this is accurate it represents between $500-900 per household of funding. The landfill expansion is costing us $24,000,000 which represents over $1000 per household.   I imagine industry pays a huge portion of this cost, because the landfill is only a fraction of the municipalities operating budget.  If it really costs that much per household to run a landfill, we are seriously generating garbage. Right now people who generate small amounts of garbage are funding people who generate large amounts of garbage…and industry is subsidizing all of our garbage disposal with their higher tax rates.  The costs of dumping are not born by the individual landfill user, oh sure we pay a small $10 fee when we bring a load to the dump (the last 2 times I went it was actually free), but, this does not accurately reflect the actual cost of disposing of garbage.  If we had to bear the cost as individuals of the garbage we generate and dispose of…as we rightly should…we may find new motivation to reduce and reuse things.

I also want to take some time to address the guilt many of us in this community have. You can see hints of this guilt in one of our RMWB council members quotes in a national paper, “As a community we're very strongly environmentally conscious. Frankly, we get a bad rap. Fort McMurray is associated almost singularly with oil sands and the external media tends to focus on the negative rather than what is being done and what is positive. Right from industry right down to the mother who's doing the shopping, we're always looking at ways at improving our environmental footprint.”  Clearly he echoes the sensitivity our community has about our status in the world.
Common in environmental activism rhetoric is that humans are sinful creatures and extreme environmentalists seem to advocate a world without humans. One environmentally conscious friend of mind suggested in a blog that Gaia was showing signs of eliminating its human parasites. It strikes me as self-hatred being projected outwards onto others, this is what humans do, we unconsciously project our inner world and anxieties on others. There is something wrong with feeling the need to defend ourselves against the mischaracterizations and lies of people who are selling their ideology and not interested in hearing what we have to say anyways. We shouldn’t feel the need to respond to bad press and lies, we should be telling the good news about the natural resource we have under our feet and how it is benefiting the world.

I think we should feel proud to be up here and in this economy.  We do this world a major service by producing the lifeblood of an economy. Energy consumption is required for all life to survive and flourish. Until alternatives come along, oil is needed in developing countries to bring them out of stone-age poverty, it is needed for human life to flourish.  Human life is not innately sinful, we are not the scourge of this planet, we are its caretakers, we are its greatest achievement, we are by virtue of having prefrontal cortexes its consciousness…we are the culmination of billions of years of simple systems becoming more complex and developing self-awareness.  Eventually we will kick our need for oil, and will continue to find new and better ways to steward the eco-system we rely on to survive, but right now oil is needed for our species to survive and pick itself up out of dirt  and squalor and we ought to be proud that we are helping our fellow humans out through the production of oil products.  The ramifications of stopping so-called “environmentally unfriendly” practices are that many millions of people suffer.  By some peoples definition this is environmentally friendly…not by mine, people are a legitimate part of the environment and this is definitely unfriendly to them.

Like garbage and litter, drug addiction is also bad. Common sense would say that passing laws banning these substances would be a good way of preventing their negative social effects, but decades of drug prohibition tell a different story, these laws actually contribute and add to the problem. Portugal legalized all drugs a decade ago and has seen a decline in addiction rates ever since. Instead of using guns to get people to change their behaviour Portugal is treating it as a health problem and connecting with the hearts and minds of the individuals to create sustainable change from within. The lesson here is the sustainable environmental and social change comes from first letting people be free to change, then connecting with them, hearing their needs first so that you can be heard and being open to learning…now put down your guns and lets talk.


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