The Health Costs of Plastic Grocery Bag Bans

Many jurisdictions have implemented bans or taxes on plastic grocery bags based on environmental concerns. In 2007, San Francisco enacted a county-wide ban that included large grocery stores and drugstores. Los Angeles, Palo Alto, and other cities in California have followed suit.

In research carried out at PERC this summer, Jonathan Klick, a PERC Lone Mountain Fellow, argues that reusable grocery bags contain potentially harmful bacteria, especially coliform bacteria such as E. coli. Klick finds that, in the wake of San Francisco’s ban, deaths and ER visits related to these bacteria spiked as soon as the ban went into effect. For more on this ongoing research, watch our interview with Klick above.


Planned Obsolescence: The Good and the Bad

by Addison Del Mastro

Just like good and bad cholesterol, there is good and bad planned obsolescence – the business practice of consciously limiting a product’s lifespan. This may come as a surprise to many people, since planned obsolescence usually has a negative connotation. As with cholesterol, it’s important that we understand what planned obsolescence is, how it can be good and bad, and what we can do to fight the bad kind.

The good types of planned obsolescence are “value engineering” and “functional obsolescence.” Value engineering is a design process that seeks to use as little material as possible in a product while still delivering an acceptable lifespan. It also suggests that all the parts in a product should fail at about the same time, so that none are “overbuilt” relative to the rest. Functional obsolescence is when a genuinely superior product is introduced, making the old one comparatively less desirable.

The bad kind of planned obsolescence consists of the introduction of superfluous changes in a product that don’t improve utility or performance. This might best be described as “pseudo-functional obsolescence.”

Value engineering

Cell phones don’t last for 20 years. If they wanted to, cell phone manufacturers could make phones much more durable than they currently are. Is this bad planned obsolescence? No. This is value engineering.

The useful life of a cell phone is limited to only a few years due to the rapid rate of technological improvement in the field. This means that it’s wasteful to build a cell phone with a physical lifespan much longer than its useful life. It makes sense that cell phones are built out of inexpensive plastic parts; this ensures a more affordable product. If a cell phone were not value engineered – if it were made out of titanium, for example – it would last longer than anyone would want it to, would cost more, and would use up more resources.

Designing certain products to be less durable than they could be actually conserves resources and delivers a more affordable product to the consumer.

Functional obsolescence

Functional obsolescence occurs when an innovation is introduced into the marketplace, making an older product obsolete. A classic example is the automobile replacing the horse and buggy, or the transition from simple cell phones to more functional smartphones. Functional obsolescence creates waste, but the trade-off is that consumers get a superior product. In many cases functional obsolescence takes place because the new product requires less time and work, meaning an increase in the resource of human time.  [Read more…]


Recycling: Is it the right thing to do?

Recycling, “it’s the right thing to do,” right? We hear that line in Montana a lot. And the people that use it gain the moral high ground against skeptics, like me. I have been accused of being an anti-environmentalist as a result. Environmentalist or not, I do believe in conservation. And recycling more to meet an arbitrary mandate does not necessarily make environmental sense.

Montana State University, like many others across the nation, has a goal to increase recycling. The stated goal is to cut waste by 25 percent by 2020. I am not sure where the 25 percent figure came from. It is a nice figure, divisible by five, sounds good.

The purpose is to reduce waste by recycling more because it saves money and is good for the environment. And, we are told, it reduces our carbon footprint. The argument is that recycling more means less garbage is sent to the landfill, so less money is spent in tipping fees. But the costs expended to do that extra recycling are not fully accounted for. The university may “save” money by sending less to the local landfill, but money is spent collecting and delivering the recyclables. A lot of that is done by individuals using their own time and resources to get the material to a common location. That energy and effort expended is hard to tabulate, so providing a fair analysis can be difficult.

Those recyclables then need to be delivered to the manufacturing plant where they are actually transformed. That can be a long way. That transportation takes energy, and more energy is used to remanufacture them. The additional transportation and remanufacturing have their own environmental impact.

Finally, by reducing the waste in the landfill there is less methane produced which can reduce greenhouse gas emissions. Many new landfills actually collect methane, however, and use it to power homes and industry nearby. The local landfill here does not have that capability. But all that additional transport of recyclables and the remanufacturing increases carbon emissions. Whether those emissions are better or worse than the methane that would otherwise be emitted from the landfill has not been determined.

The bottom line is that recycling can be more or less environmentally friendly than the alternatives. It depends upon the materials being recycled, the location of recycling, or distance from remanufacturing, and who is doing the recycling. Recycling at the industry level, for example, often makes more environmental sense because the recyclable materials are already in one common location.

For more, see Dan Benjamin’s study on the myths of recycling.

Originally posted at Environmental Trends.


The Double Standard of Environmental Enforcement

One of the hypocrisies of modern environmental law is its double standard of enforcement: strict application to small entrepreneurs, and exemptions for politically powerful players like large industry and municipalities. This pattern can be seen in Canada as well as the United States. Kerry Freek, editor of Water Canada magazine, tells the story of one entrepreneur whose business is at risk because of Environment Canada’s double standard, in Deconstructing “Deleterious”:

Located near the mouth of Rivers Inlet, north of Port Hardy on the central coast of British Columbia, the floating Rivers Lodge is one of several that host sports fishing vacations. For six weeks each year, Pat Ardley and her two kids run the lodge, but it’s not an easy business. The economic downturn has forced at least nine nearby lodges to close, and Ardley fears that her lodge might be next. Despite financial turmoil, eager buyers are still on the market. Recently, Ardley received an offer to purchase her lodge, but the deal hangs in the balance for one major reason: wastewater.

Two years ago, Ardley and several of her colleagues received Environment Canada (EC) directives to treat their wastewater effluent to the standards required by Section 36.(3) of the Fisheries Act. Simple in theory, the section states that “no person shall deposit or permit the deposit of a deleterious substance of any type in water frequented by fish.” In short, it means that nobody has the right to pollute water.

In reality, not polluting is a near-impossible feat and that’s why regulations can exempt some parties from the rule. Over the years, a variety of industries, including pulp and paper and mining, have lobbied for and received federal exemptions that allow them to continue to do business, provided they adhere to specific effluent limits and monitoring practices.  Meanwhile, operations that do not fall under exemption, such as Ardley’s lodge, are fair game for Environment Canada inspectors.

The tale is yet one more example of the inevitable politicization of centralized environmental management regimes.  Read the rest of the story here.


It’s Garbage: What’s the Problem?

Readers, writers, students, and teachers still confess to believing that there is a garbage problem. “We have too much garbage,” they claim. In a reply to a previous blog I was queried, “Shouldn’t we start training those who will inherit the waste problem?”  What waste problem, I ask?

The market generates landfill space as it is needed. The market works by responding to changing demand.  Landfills, like proved gas reserves, continue to grow as demand rises. Wait, you say, gas is a finite resource, how could gas reserves possibly increase?

Measuring gas in the ground is complex and costly. Therefore, we only invest resources to measure the gas that is believed to be economically efficient to remove. We measure the gas we think we are going to remove from the ground; that is “proved reserves.” The total quantity of gas that actually exists underground is unknown.  This means that as technology increases, which lowers the cost of gas removal, and the price of gas rises (in real, inflation adjusted terms) so does research and development and, hence proved reserves increase. This is true even though we continue to pump more and more gas out of the ground.

If gas is a finite resource, it then follows that at some point we may see a decline in proved gas reserves. If that happens the market-determined price for gas will rise indicating its scarcity. A higher gas price motivates producers to seek more and consumers to conserve and use less. It also motivates a switch to alternatives, or substitutes, which can compete at that price. At the end of the day (year, decade, century, or millennium) we will not run out of gas. Rather, we will shift into the alternative fuels that are cost competitive. So it will go with landfills.

Landfill capacity is commensurate with its demand. We will not see an enormous amount of landfill space being created until it is needed; that would be a waste of resources. Regardless, we are not running out of landfill space. It is a NIMBY (not in my backyard) problem, if anything. And that may change as more landfills provide neighbors with relatively inexpensive energy. Landfill gas is a gas substitute.

Originally posted on Environmental Trends.