Wednesday, January 06, 2010

Trying to Help the Environment, But with Unintended Consequences?

One of the wasteful and environmentally harmful everyday items is the disposable plastic grocery bag. I completely understand and agree that it is a wasteful use of scarce resources, that they last forever whether in a landfill or disposed of in an even less environmentally-sensitive way, and that it is dangerous to wildlife.

One solution that has been bruited about, and with which we often try to comply, is the non-disposable, reusable grocery bag. My only concern is that this solution has the potential to make things worse, not better. The primary issue is that the reusable bag itself is a consumer of many of the same resources that would otherwise go into making the disposable bags, and it certainly requires significantly more resources than the disposable bags.

Question #1 therefore is: how many times must a reusable bag be used instead of a disposable bag in order to break-even from a resource point of view, i.e., that the resources consumed from manufacturing one reusable bag is equal to or less than those consumed from the manufacture of the disposable bag it replaces? If, for example, a reusable bag requires 20 times the manufacturing resources as a disposable bag, then it needs to be used at least 20 times in order to have benefited the environment, manufacturing-wise.

If the bags, on average, are being used to that extent, that would be terrific, both for the environment and for helping change our mindset toward reuse instead of disposal. If, as I fear, that is not happening, then our good intentions of assisting the environment are resulting in negative consequences as we are causing net harm to the environment through the manufacture of the reusable (but insufficiently-used) grocery bags.

If that is indeed the case, that brings us to Question #2, which is: could we achieve much of the originally-desired objective simply by reusing the disposable bags. Granted, these bags have a much shorter life than the reusable bags, being less sturdy and more prone to ripping, tearing, etc. On the other hand, if we can reduce the usage of these bags by reusing otherwise disposable items, we can still provide a benefit to the environment.

Alternatively, we can mandate the use of reusable bags and prohibit the use of disposable bags, which some local governments have apparently done. That’s a good step, but I would certainly prefer to see a bottoms-up groundswell from the populace than a top-down imposed solution. After all, since the problem belongs to all of us, so should the solution. It’s similar to the reduction in smoking – I believe that the general societal disapproval of smoking has done more to reduce its incidence than the various legislative prohibitions, which seem to be following the public mood rather than leading it. Let’s take that approach here as well.