English 12H Mr. B
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English 12H Mr. B

I Can’t Believe It’s Not An Effective Environmental Policy!

Why banning single-use plastics is performative environmental politics and not an equivalent to or substitution for the real thing

Photo by Christopher Vega on Unsplash

Environmental impact has become an integral part of the public image of most entities operating in the modern age. With public awareness and concern on environmental issues on the rise, this is especially important for governments because of their positions of power and influence. Under this pressure, though, governments may enact policies that mean to make them seem more environmentally conscious without creating meaningful change. An increasingly common example of this is the restriction or banning of single-use plastics, with grocery bags and drinking straws being the most common targets. These policies are problematic and ineffective because they are not backed by solid evidence, do not directly or effectively address the problem they mean to solve, and divert attention and resources away from meaningful change.

Different iterations of the plastic grocery bag and straw restrictions have been gaining popularity for some time. They are hypothetically well-intentioned policies meant to reduce the amount of plastic consumed but in actuality no very successful in their goal. An article “Are Plastic Bag Bans Garbage?” by Greg Rosalsky, a reporter for NPR’s Planet Money, that was largely based on a study published in 2019 by University of Sydney economist, Rebecca Taylor, finds that they are not. Taylor found that although plastic bag bans were successful at limiting grocery store plastic bag use, they were not actually better for the environment. They are responsible for “about 80 million pounds of extra paper trash per year” according to her estimates. A few factors go into this including increased use of plastic garbage bags, and the environmental footprint of their alternatives, paper bags, and reusable shopping bags.

Plastic straw bans also have little meaningful impact on plastic consumption. In an interview with Stanford Report on the topic, Jim Leape, a co-director of the Stanford Center for Ocean Solutions, stated that plastic straws only make up less than 1% of the issue. He also expressed some concern that plastic straw bans “may confer ‘moral license’ — allowing companies and their customers to feel they have done their part.” This is the real issue with performative environmental politics, the risk that this sort of policy is taken as a final step rather than as part of a long road towards a more sustainable society. Leap describes this sort of policy as “low hanging fruit.” They are easier to implement than more extensive changes, have some impact, and bring public attention to the issues they focus on. Still, it is important to consider how much of an effect they actually have and whether they fulfill their purposes.

It could be argued that this sort of policy is actually important for bringing public attention to environmentalism. While it is true that this sort of ban creates public awareness, this attention could be better placed on policies that have more evidence to back them up. In the case of plastic bag bans, Rebecca Taylor actually concluded that there was a more effective way to reduce plastic use, placing a fee, rather than a ban, on grocery bags, both paper and plastic. This incentivized the use of reusable bags while reducing the use of single-use bags. A more effective solution was found to the problem and hopefully, and it should be brought to the attention of policymakers.

In “When Environmentalism Clashes with Science” an article for Skeptical Inquirer Dibakar Das, a senior Ph.D. student in agricultural plant sciences at BCKV in West Bengal stresses the importance of both listening to scientists and being wary of environmental claims not based on science. Environmental policies are especially difficult to understand because of their often complex and interdisciplinary natures. However, this does not mean complacency is a necessary evil. Das reminds his readers at the end of his article “not [to] move forward with ideas before clearly understanding them and their implications… [and] certainly not [to] believe every environmental narrative popular in the media.” This is a useful train of thought that is applicable in many situations, but especially environmental policy. The destruction of the environment is a pressing issue, every action taken should be calculated and supported by reliable evidence. As time passes there’s less time for action, so the actions taken need to count.

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A collection of articles on various social issues written by senior students at BHS between Dec ‘20 & Jan ‘21. These inquisitive and critical students independently researched topics, selected angles and created multimodal research-based articles based on what they found.

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