Despite the rapid spread of COVID-19, New York City is still waging its war on water bottles and plastic bags. Early last month NYC’s mayor, Bill de Blasio, signed an executive order banning the sale of water bottles at city facilities. On top of that, NYC moved to ban plastic bags at the end of February.
The first major flaw in continuing the war on plastic is that it undoubtedly makes the COVID-19 pandemic worse. For weeks, residents have been using these publicly owned facilities without the option of being able to purchase a water bottle, and have been shopping without the option of getting a plastic bag.
Both reusable bottles and reusable tote bags present a huge risk in terms of COVID-19 because eliminating them exponentially increases the number of source points for virus exposure. An exposed filling station at a community facility could rapidly spread the virus to hundreds, while it is already known that reusable bags carry significant risks for cross-contamination.
These bans are also misguided when we evaluate them in terms of environmental effect. First off, water bottles are 100 percent recyclable. All the city has to do to ensure that these bottles are disposed of properly is not wave the white flag and give up. It doesn’t make any sense to try to curb the sale of products that can be fully recycled, especially when the city has a recycling program in place.
In regards to plastic bags, conventional thinking suggests that banning plastic bags will result in people using reusable bags and that this reduction in plastic use will have a positive effect on the environment. Research from Denmark’s Ministry of the Environment actually challenged that conventional wisdom when it sought to compare the total effect of plastic bags to their reusable counterparts.
The Danish government found that alternatives to plastic bags came with significant negative environmental effects. For example, common paper bag replacements need to be reused 43 times to have the same total impact as a plastic bag. A conventional cotton bag alternative needs to be used more than 7,100 times to equal a plastic bag, while an organic cotton bag has to be reused more than 20,000 times.
We know from consumer usage patterns that the likelihood of paper or cotton alternatives being used in such a way is incredibly unlikely. These results were also confirmed with the United Kingdom’s own life-cycle assessment, which concluded that these alternatives have a significantly higher total effect on the environment.
On top of all that, these bans will ultimately do little to solve the serious problem of plastic waste in the world’s oceans and rivers. The United States as a whole contributes less than 1 percent of the world’s mismanaged plastic waste. Up to 95 percent of all plastic found in the world’s oceans comes from just 10 source rivers, which are all in the developing world.
In contrast, countries like Indonesia and the Philippines contribute 10.1 percent and 5.9 percent of the world’s mismanaged plastic. China, the world’s largest plastics polluter, accounts for 27.7 percent of the world’s mismanaged plastic.
Plastic bans might sound productive to stem plastic pollution, but the evidence doesn’t suggest that the United States is a significant contributor for mismanaged plastic, which means that a New York City ban will do little to actually reduce plastic pollution.
Good public policy should be measured on its outcomes. Banning water bottles and plastic bags makes COVID-19 exposure worse in the middle of a global pandemic, promotes alternatives that have serious negative environmental externalities, and does little to solve the issue of mismanaged plastic.
For the sake of everyone involved, Mayor de Blasio should end his war on plastics.