Brookline’s ban on Styrofoam and plastic bags took effect Sunday, warranting the question: Are bans more symbolic than environmentally productive?
By disrupting consumer supply and demand found in a free-market economy, Brookline’s “feel-good” bans may actually have a negative effect on the environment, as they push consumers to paper products. That leads to the felling of more trees — nature’s greenhouse gas and pollution filters — to accommodate increased paper production and consumption. It also increases water consumption needed to make paper. Banning plastic bags forces a mass consumer shift to paper grocery bags, which delivers a one-two punch to Mother Earth. Seems to me, Brookline is just trading one environmental problem for another.
Reusable bags may be no better. As TreeHugger.com states, “A reusable canvas tote bag needs to be used more than 171 times to break even with the environmental impact of plastic bags.” Unless consumers are truly dedicated, it will be very difficult to accomplish any noteworthy environmental impact. And let’s not forget reusable bags must be sanitized after every use to prevent dangerous bacteria from residing in the bag, which can cross-contaminate other food items.
With respect to Styrofoam, it’s a better insulator than paper so it doesn’t require coffee sleeves, most of which are thrown away, ending up in landfills. Considering Starbucks sells 4 billion cups of coffee globally in disposable non-recyclable paper cups, which come with billions of cardboard sleeves, one can’t help but wonder what the eco benefit is to banning Styrofoam.
Despite myths, Styrofoam is recyclable. In Brookline, they collect it throughout the year, compress it into bricks, and ship it to China or India, where it’s recycled into many other products sold in the marketplace. It’s not so easy to recycle that paper cup when it’s been wax- or plastic-lined, or that cardboard sleeve. Looking at the full picture, the net benefit to nature appears negligible, resulting in a “smoke and mirrors” game in which the banner can feel good for reducing one “wasteful” resource without realizing the environmental impact of increasing consumption of other equally damaging products in its place.
Evidence the government should stop interfering in the marketplace.
Adriana Cohen is co-host of “Trending Now” on Boston Herald Radio. Visit her website at adrianacohen.com or follow her on Twitter @AdrianaCohen16.