David R. Henderson  

Plastic Logic

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In coastal California, where I live, various cities have weekly publications that are distributed at a zero price, have a cutting-edge, vaguely (sometimes explicitly) leftist slant, and almost always are uncritically "environmentalist." They rarely take on any policy that most leftist environmentalists favor.

Which makes this article all the more amazing. Written by staffer Joe Eskenazi, it gives chapter and verse on the effects of San Francisco's city government ban on plastic bags. Three great grafs:

The argument that biodegradability is paper bags' saving grace is extremely problematic. Firstly, biodegrading paper represents a significant source of greenhouse gas emissions. Secondly, in a properly run landfill, paper doesn't really biodegrade. In fact, nothing much really does.
Professor William Rathje, currently on leave from Stanford's archaeology department, has excavated 21 landfills in the United States and Canada. Among other things, he's discovered that we greatly overstate the amount of vegetables we eat while heavily understating the amount of alcohol we drink. But he has also pulled "mummified," readable newspapers of the "Dewey Defeats Truman" era out of landfills, along with intact vegetables, hot dogs, and paper sacks sturdy enough to tote them in. Digging through the dirt, Rathje has found that while Americans are using more and more plastic goods, they occupy less and less volume in our landfills due to "lightweighting." Between 1976 and 1992, plastic grocery bags' thickness was reduced by half; today, they are thinner still. While paper products now often incorporate more recycled content, they haven't grown thinner -- if anything, it's the opposite. So even if, as the city's Department of the Environment claims, half of San Francisco's paper grocery bags are recycled, that still means millions are going into landfill, where they occupy scads more space than the plastic bags they replaced -- and will, for a long time.
"Plastic bags, especially in landfills, take up so much less volume than paper bags," Rathje says. "If you're worried about the amount of space in landfills taken up by plastic bags -- don't."

HT to Jeff Hummel



COMMENTS (12 to date)
ed writes:

Plus, Rathje's been saying this kind of thing for decades, including in a well known book for general readers. So there is really no excuse for the ignorance.

I was thinking about this just the other day when I saw "Wall-E" for the first time.

OneEyedMan writes:

"biodegrading paper represents a significant source of greenhouse gas emissions. Secondly, in a properly run landfill, paper doesn't really biodegrade. In fact, nothing much really does."
How can both of these be a problem? If they biodegrade they don't take up landfill and if they don't degrade then they don't produce greenhouse gases.

Growing trees to make paper bags which we bury and never degrade might be a decent carbon sink.

I never understood why people cared so much about dumps. Given how valuable coastal land is, I'm surprised we don't have a systematic project to create more coastal land though landfill.

Mark Seecof writes:

Paper products are thicker now precisely because they contain more recycled paper. When paper is recycled the longer fibers which give it strength get broken down. So the greater its "recycled content" the weaker the paper by volume/weight. To make a strong thin bag you must use virgin paper.

Actually, the chief rationale for paper recycling is to make envirohysterics happy. Paper recycling only sometimes saves money and almost never "saves" the environment. Collecting paper for recycling, shipping it (repeatedly), and disposing of bulkier/heavier recycled-paper products burns more fossil fuel and takes up more landfill space than just using virgin paper would.

Sohaib writes:

It would be nice to now the ratio of inches takes up by say 100 plastic bags vs. 100 paper bags. As we all know, every argument is exponentially more convincing when there are numbers in it, no matter how trivial. Good article; good blog post. Dr. Henderson, you are an excellent addition to this great team of bloggers. Don't go anywhere.

petoskystone writes:

i prefer not to use plastic (rips too easily) or paper (because of the landfill issue). i use cloth bags--last much longer & are easier to use.

David R. Henderson writes:

Thank you, Sohaib. And I agree with your point about numeracy.
Also, I agree with OneEyedMan's point that it can't be the case that both biodegrading and not biodegrading are problems.

rpl writes:
Also, I agree with OneEyedMan's point that it can't be the case that both biodegrading and not biodegrading are problems.
Is this really so hard to understand? A paper bag either decomposes and releases greenhouse gas, or it remains intact and takes up landfill space. Both are undesirable; therefore, of the two possible end states for paper bags, both have negative side effects. Plastic bags, on the other hand, remain intact in landfills, but at least they don't take up so much space.

The conclusion is that if you value reduced greenhouse gas emission over reduced landfill usage, you should opt for plastic. Moreover, even if you value reduced landfill usage over reduced emissions, using paper might still produce more landfill because paper often fails to decompose in landfills.

RWard writes:

"Given how valuable coastal land is, I'm surprised we don't have a systematic project to create more coastal land though landfill."

The Babylon Project? Well, I'd love an Ingram, so sounds good to me.

Matthew Gunn writes:

Interesting, but I'm not sure reducing landfill volume is an important issue.

From John Tierney's, "Recycling is Garbage"
"A. Clark Wiseman, an economist at Gonzaga University in Spokane, Wash., has calculated that if Americans keep generating garbage at current rates for 1,000 years, and if all their garbage is put in a landfill 100 yards deep, by the year 3000 this national garbage heap will fill a square piece of land 35 miles on each side. This doesn't seem a huge imposition in a country the size of America."

guthrie writes:

@ OneEyedMan...

Your idea is good, except you forget that most 'leftist environmentalists' (to use Dr. Henderson's phrase), would oppose any development of a 'wetlands' be it costal, estuary, or otherwise... especially if it means a profit of some kind to some individual/company/companies.

floccina writes:

Matthew Gunn I agree with your comments ("Recycling is Garbage") and add that as technology improves and or resources prices rise we may be able to profitably mine our land fills. Gathering garbage together in land fills might be the best thing to do with it.

Bob Knaus writes:

A year or so ago I did a calculation on the amount of petroleum required to make plastic bags. All of the numbers were easily available from Wikipedia. As I recall, if you used one plastic bag grocery bag per day for one year, that would take about the same amount of petroleum required to make one quart of gasoline. So, it behooves you not to make any special trips to pick up your cloth grocery bag, or to drop off the paper ones at the recycling station.

Alas, I seem to have lost my notes! You'll have to trust me on the math for this one :)

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