The Perverse Panic over Plastic
The campaign against disposable bags and other products is harming the planet and the public.
by John Tierney, City Journal, Winter 2020
Why do our political leaders want to take away our plastic bags and straws? This question is even more puzzling than a related one that I’ve been studying for decades: Why do they want us to recycle our garbage?
The two obsessions have some common roots, but the moral panic over plastic is especially perverse. The recycling movement had a superficial logic, at least at the outset. Municipal officials expected to save money by recycling trash instead of burying or burning it. Now that recycling has turned out to be ruinously expensive while achieving little or no environmental benefit, some local officials—the pragmatic ones, anyway—are once again sending trash straight to landfills and incinerators.
The plastic panic has never made any sense, and it’s intensifying even as evidence mounts that it’s not only a waste of money but also harmful to the environment, not to mention humans. It’s been a movement in search of a rationale for half a century. During the 1970s, environmentalists like Barry Commoner wanted the government to restrict the use of plastic because it was made from petroleum, which we needed to hoard because we would soon run out of it. When the “energy crisis” proved a false alarm, environmentalists looked for new reasons to panic.
They denounced plastic for not being biodegradable in landfills. They blamed it for littering the landscape, clogging sewer drains, and contributing to global warming. Plastic from our “throwaway society” was killing vast numbers of sea creatures, according to Blue Planet II, a 2017 BBC documentary series that became an international hit. Its depictions of sea turtles, dolphins, and whales in jeopardy prompted Queen Elizabeth II to ban plastic straws and bottles from the royal estates, and the documentary has galvanized so many other leaders that greens celebrate the “Blue Planet Effect.”
More than 100 countries now restrict single-use plastic bags, and Pope Francis has called for the global regulation of plastic. The European Union parliament has voted to ban single-use plastic straws, plates, and cutlery across the continent next year. In the United States, hundreds of municipalities and eight states have outlawed or regulated single-use plastic bags. New York and other cities have banned plastic-foam food containers, and more sweeping edicts are in the works. Greens in California are pushing a referendum to require all plastic packaging and single-use foodware in the state to be recyclable, and the EU has unveiled a similar plan. Celebrities and politicians photographed with the wrong beverage container or straw now endure online “plastic-shaming.” ….
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