Better than a ban

I struggle with whether cities should be banning particular products because they’re deemed environmentally unfriendly.

Plastic bags, for instance.

On the one hand, they represent just about everything bad about a disposable consumer culture. Made of petroleum, given out by the dozen, ordinarily used once — maybe twice if they don’t already have holes in them by the time you get them home — and then deposited in landfills for archeologists to find 10,000 years hence.

On the other hand, lots of things are bad and we don’t actually forbid them.

I like to believe that two pricing innovations would make a difference. First, wadded-up plastic bags take up lots of room in trash cans, so maybe if cities charged residents directly for garbage disposal, more of use would realize the plastic bags aren’t worth. Second, a price for carbon might push up the price of the bags just enough that they’re no longer worth using. If a plastic bag cost even a penny, it would be too much.

Plastic bags are entirely the product of economic externalities, I think — I hope. Styrofoam’s the same way, a product that works only if the real costs are passed on to others.

If you’re buying soup, the cafeteria where I work offers you the choice of a Styrofoam bowl or one made of china, which you can take back to your desk or wherever else you’re eating as long as you promise to bring it back. Normally, that’s what I do. But today I wasn’t paying attention, and the fellow at the counter put my lunch in Styrofoam. Not what I’d ask for, but no big deal this once. Except that apparently they’ve got a batch of bowls in the wrong size. They don’t hold as much as the cafeteria insists is one serving. So over my protests and with the best of intentions, the fellow dumped the chili from the Styrofoam into a china bowl, topped it up, and threw the Styrofoam away.

The worst of all possible worlds: a discarded Styrofoam bowl and a china bowl I had to bring back to be cleaned and sterilized.

As part of an inane conversational gambit, I mentioned this to the woman at the next desk. She, it turns out, is always struggling with servers in coffee shops when she brings in a reusable travel mug — they’re constantly using disposable cups to make drinks in, pouring them into her mug, throwing out the disposables, and handing her mug to her.

Somebody’s doing a bad job explaining the marketing strategy to the front-liners. It’s costing the customers aggravation and the companies money.

Today at Green Options, Gavin Hudson offers up some generally useful tips for greener dining, which includes a call for political lobbying:

Here’s the good news: increasingly, a number of large cities are passing legislation that bans the use of Styrofoam containers in restaurants. Many other cities are considering similar action. Legislation like this is important because Styrofoam is not recyclable in most places and does not quickly decompose so sits in landfills. The more Styrofoam we prevent, the fewer open spaces will need to be converted to landfills to hold this Trash (with a capital T). And not all of trash ends up at the dump: quite a lot finds its way into ocean ecosystems as well. Here‘s a visual. Chemicals in styrene products are also harmful to human health because they attack the central nervous system.

You can encourage your city to pass a similar ban on Styrofoam by contacting your city council. Also, talk to restaurants and stores that use plastic cutlery or bags about biodegradable plastics. If you already live in one of those forward-thinking cities with a ban on Styrofoam, you can help restaurants by letting them know how much you appreciate them following this eco-friendly policy. Supporting restaurants and companies that are doing things right flexes your power as a consumer to make a difference. You can also help the city by letting them know if you come across a restaurant using Styrofoam.

This is what happens when the underlying economic rules are wrong. City councils ban things, business operators violate the rules, nosy citizens snitch on them, inspectors come out, tickets are written …  Surely investing in fixing the underlying economics makes both more financial and more moral sense.

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One response to “Better than a ban

  1. This used to happen to me all the time! I was trying to be environmentally conscious and it was ending up worse than had I done nothing. I stopped going to coffee shops for that very reason until I found one that not only made it in the cup I brought, but also charged me 25 cents less. That’s got to eat into profits as a single paper cup could not possibly cost 25 cents, but it’s their way of encouraging a cleaner environment. Good thing I found them too, cuz I’m much nicer after a morning cup o’ joe!

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