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Would a single-use plastic ban be counterproductive?

petition filed by a number of environmental organizations calls on the General Services Administration to halt the acquisition of single-use plastics across the entire federal government. According to these groups, plastic packaging harms the environment, and with the U.S government being the largest consumer of goods and services in the world (spending more than $650 billion on products and services each year), it should uphold a standard of abandoning plastic.

However, contrary to the idealism of the campaigners, banning the federal government from using single-use plastic goods would not benefit the environment. In fact, life-cycle assessments on items such as single-use plastic bags have shown that there is a discrepancy between actual re-use rates of alternative bags and the re-use rate to break even on environmental grounds. Paper bags need to be re-used four times, LDPE bags five times, non-woven PP bags 14 times and cotton bags 173 times. Their actual re-use rates are about half that, making them less sustainable than single-use plastic bags, which may also be used by consumers as bin liners. A 2020 study by University of Michigan Professor Shelie Miller displayed how alternatives to single-use plastic items are dependent on high re-use rates. Those rates are often not achieved.

The same effects appear when we compare glass bottles to plastic bottles. As glass bottles are much heavier, their carbon footprint for transport is also higher. Whoever substitutes a plastic straw with a bamboo straw should also probably be aware of their significant carbon footprint.

Further than that, the federal government doesn’t only purchase plastic straws or plastic-bottled water. In fact, a ban on plastic would impact a plethora of products the government acquires for vital services, ranging from national parks and wildlife to construction and shipping logistics. If the GSA were to consider a ban, the least it should do is conduct an impact assessment on the effect it would have on sustaining those services. However, as a general measure, a ban is no strategy for transition: It prevents government departments from using plastic where necessary and does not guarantee a path forward for substitution. For instance, the GSA is transitioning to electrify its fleet of vehicles, yet without banning gasoline-powered vehicles. 

A lot of the animosity toward plastic is derived from the idea that all single-use plastics are just used once and then burned in a pit or thrown in the ocean. This outdated perception drives a lot of the imagery we see used by campaigners.

In fact, the concept of “single-use” becomes redundant after we consider how far we’ve come with recycling. Over 90 percent of Americans living in cities with a population of over 125,000 people, already have access to recycling of single-use plastic bags. According to the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), the U.S recycling rate for what’s known as PET plastics (polyethylene terephthalate) increased from 2 percent in the 1980s to more than 24 percent in 2018. Over time, an increasing amount of plastics will end up being endlessly recycled.

A ban on single-use plastics through the General Services Administration would undermine the immense progress that has been made in the field of plastics over the past decades. The divestment from plastic would prevent manufacturers from developing new products and increase prices for everyday consumer goods. Most of all, it would be counterproductive to the goals that the environmental activists claim they support. In fact, it’s another one of those examples where supporters of single-use plastic can say to environmentalists: I’m on your side, but you’re not.

Originally published here

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