OAKLAND, CAAs cities across America evaluate bans on polystyrene packaging and other plastic products in the hope of reducing environmental impacts, a new report finds that plastic prohibition may cause more ecological and economic trouble than its worth.
A better way to deal with the plastic-waste problem, the report explains, is to enable and encourage innovation in the recycling of plastic debris, instead of discouraging innovation with costly and detrimental bans and restrictions.
Private-sector entrepreneurship, not government regulation, will eventually solve the plastic-waste problem, conclude the authors of Plastic Pollution: Bans vs. Recycling Solutions, a new report from the Oakland-based Independent Institute.
The reports key findings include the following:
- Plastic products face growing restrictions. More than one hundred U.S. cities and counties in 11 states have adopted local ordinances that restrict or ban the use of plastic foam containers, utensils, and packaging materials.
- Plastic bans come with heavy economic costs. New York Citys ban on food-service foam products could eliminate 2,000 jobs and $400 million in economic activity. In California, an estimated 8,000 jobs would disappear. Small businesses operating on thin margins are particularly harmed by plastic bans.
- Paper alternatives to polystyrene products often create more waste (by volume and energy) and cause more air and water pollution. Compared to a 16 oz. Styrofoam cup, one paper cup with a corrugated sleeve yields more emissions from petroleum, steam electric power, cooling water, wastewater, and landfill mass.
- Biodegradable plastics are not yet a feasible alternative to polystyrene. Nationwide, there are only 113 recycling plants for composting biodegradable plastics and only about 28 accept municipal food scraps. In California, half of all major cities have access to Styrofoam recycling, but only 15 percent have access to recycling programs for alternatives.
- Bans can stifle innovation by reducing opportunities for recycling. Recycling opportunities create incentives for companies to develop new technologies. Titus MRF Services and Agilyx are two companies innovating in the waste recycling market.
- Some large retailersDunkin Donuts, Target, McDonalds, Crate and Barrel, and othershave already announced or implemented phaseouts of polystyrene packaging. Starbucks recently announced a $10 million grant to encourage the development of a coffee cup with less environmental impact.
- Market incentives and strong private-property rights are necessary stepping stones on the path of sustainable, cost-effective environmental protection. The main lesson is that poor countries and those without well-developed market institutions (often the same) are the worlds biggest plastic polluters, the report states.
Plastic Pollution: Bans vs. Recycling Solutions, by Independent Institute Policy Fellows Katie Colton, Camille Harmer, Brian Isom, and Senior Fellow William F. Shughart II, is the latest Briefing from the Independent Institute. Published throughout the year, Independent Briefings provide easy-to-read, peer-reviewed examinations of critical social and economy, public-policy issues and offer common-sense solutions to important problems.
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