Last week, news broke that Colorado state legislators intend to introduce legislation that would ban single-use plastic bags and Styrofoam takeout containers. The goal of the bill is to reduce consumer reliance on single-use plastics, protect the environment, and chip away at the issue of microplastics in the ecosystem.
It’s not the time first that the General Assembly has tried to pass a plastic bag ban as similar efforts have failed in the past.
Unfortunately, a plastic bag ban doesn’t necessarily result in better outcomes for the environment because alternatives to many single use products come with significantly higher environmental costs. In fact, when Denmark’s Environment Ministry sought to evaluate the issue of single-use plastic bags, they came to the stark conclusion that such bags are often the environmentally conscious choice. How is that possible?
In evaluating the total environmental impact of plastic bags versus their alternatives, using 15 benchmarks ranging from climate change to resource depletion, Danish researchers concluded that paper bags would need to be reused 43 times to have the same total impact as a plastic bag. The figures for cotton bags were even worse, which would need 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. When consumer usage patterns are factored in, forcing consumers to paper or cotton alternatives is a significant net negative from an environmental protection standpoint.
Now, this does not mean that Colorado needs to waive the white flag and give up on its pursuit to curb mismanaged plastic waste. Plastic ending up in the environment is problematic, and no one appreciates unwanted waste ending up in our rivers, parks, and lakes. In fact, the state should do a lot more in its efforts to reclaim plastic.
First and foremost, Colorado should expand upon advanced recycling technologies such as chemical depolymerization. This is the process where plastic is broken down and repurposed into new products. There are innovative projects underway across North America led by scientists and entrepreneurs, taking these problematic plastics, altering their chemical bonds, and repurposing them into resin pellets, tiles for your home, and even road asphalt. This approach empowers innovators to solve plastic waste, creates jobs, and does it with minimal environmental impact.
Most importantly, by keeping plastic in the economy rather than the environment, this approach also helps curb the issue of microplastics, which are tiny plastic particles that often end up in water systems2019 report showed that 90% of all water samples in Colorado contained microplastics. Seriously focusing on reclaiming and repurposing plastic would allow for Colorado to embrace the environmental benefits of plastic products, without the negatives of mismanaged waste.
Beyond the environmental repercussions of alternatives, and the benefits of reclaiming plastic, a ban also ignores new and innovative products that are being brought to market to address plastic waste. There are new single use polyhydroxyalkanoate (PHA) product classes of cups, takeout containers, and straws that are almost entirely biodegradable, solving the issue of mismanaged plastic waste taking decades, or centuries, to decompose.
And of course, the impact a ban would have on Colorado’s food service industry can’t be ignored either. It is an understatement to say that the sector has been hard hit by the pandemic. Upwards of 94,000 restaurant workers in the state have lost their job, and approximately 40% of the sector is currently furloughed. More than ever these businesses have relied on these single use plastic products to ensure safety, and convenience for takeout and delivery orders. Adding additional input costs to these struggling businesses while they chart the long road to recovery seems misguided at best, and cruel at its worst.
At the end of the day, plastic waste is a serious problem, one that requires serious solutions. Can Colorado tackle plastic waste without a ban? Of course, it can. The serious solution to this problem is focusing on reclamation and advanced recycling, which avoids the pitfalls of high-impact alternatives, and avoids kicking the food service sector while its down and out.
David Clement is the North American affairs manager with the Consumer Choice Center, which advocates for consumers in more than 100 countries, and is based in the United States.
Originally published here.