What do plastic bag bans do?

What do plastic bag bans actually achieve?  There are a couple California ballot initiatives about a potential statewide ban (I’ll be sharing more research on CA ballot initiatives soon), so I have a pressing reason for curiosity.

I don’t want to contribute to the giant plastic island in the ocean or to the amount of plastic in animals’ stomachs.  And I’d love to decrease local litter while reducing energy & pollution usage (which supporters of bans claim come from making plastic bags).  Do plastic bag bans have these effects (as claimed by supporters) without causing worse side effects?

Short answer: plastic bag bans are very good at one of the things they set out to do (dramatically reducing plastic bag litter), and they mostly get replaced not by paper but by either reusable bags or no bag.  There are predicted substantial energy savings from this shift, but from what I can tell there’s not enough data to be sure of that.  And some of the side effects/potential downsides are not as well quantified.

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Effective health research

I’m still trying to figure out when, where, and how it’s most effective to donate to health research. Here’s a link & data roundup while I start to try to make sense of the research.

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Recommendations for donations: 2015-16 edition

Sorry this post arrives so late in the year, probably after most of you have already made your charitable year end donations.  However, I’m following my own advice — see my final point below.  

Are you fortunate enough to be able to donate resources to others this year?  If so, here are some ideas for how to maximize the effects of your donation.  Some of these are suggestions for specific charities.  But whatever causes and charities are most important to you, there are ways to make your giving more effective — and some of these suggestions apply to all donations.

Do you want your donation to have a large, empirically proven impact?

I’ve talked before about how much I admire GiveWell and Innovations for Poverty Action, which are effectivist organizations to the core — both organizations do empirical, in-depth evaluations of the impact of charities.  This year, the press is taking notice as well; Vox and Wall Street Journal columnist Jason Zweig both wrote about how these organizations help your charity dollars go farther.

GiveWell once again has published their annual top charities list, with the four charities that they’ve determined give the most impact per donation. I recommend following GiveWell’s donation allocation suggestion:

For those seeking our recommended allocation, we simply recommend giving to the top-ranked charity on the list, which is AMF.

Another organization, The Life You Can Save, has an overlapping top charities list — along with a very useful Impact Calculator that lets you see the impact of a donation to each charity.  I don’t endorse this organization as strongly as the others, because I don’t know as much about it (it was founded by ethicist Peter Singer; I don’t believe it does the same degree of rigorous evaluations as the two sites above, but it does depend on some outside evaluations), but a number of these charities have been endorsed by the other two sites, and the Impact Calculator is great.

For instance, if you’re considering donating $500, you can see the impact on GiveWell’s top-rated Against Malaria Foundation:


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Why I’m not donating to the American Red Cross this year

As the end of the year approaches, I’m revisiting my old strategies for donating money, and deciding where to donate this time around. This year, I’m starting with where not to donate, starting with the American Red Cross.

ProPublica and NPR recently teamed up to produce a troubling expose about the American Red Cross’s lack of effectiveness during Superstorm Sandy and Hurricane Isaac.  (Here’s a podcast with the report’s author.) A few particularly outrageous details about their use of emergency supplies for PR:

During Isaac, Red Cross supervisors ordered dozens of trucks usually deployed to deliver aid to be driven around nearly empty instead, “just to be seen,” one of the drivers, Jim Dunham, recalls….

During Sandy,emergency vehicles were taken away from relief work and assigned to serve as backdrops for press conferences, angering disaster responders on the ground.

(Note: The Red Cross responds that these claims are inaccurate.)

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Link roundup: direct charitable giving, energy efficiency, and TSA opt-outs

I was just trying to help — This American Life and Planet Money recently did an episode about a charity that gives money directly to people.  I haven’t actually had a chance to listen yet, but am looking forward to it and will hopefully post more about it once I do.

Why bad environmentalism is such an easy sell — A recent Freakonomics episode that I did listen to.  It was mostly useful as a reminder that evaluating environmental impact can be more difficult than you think; e.g., increasing the amount of development in cities (which are relatively energy efficient due to factors like shared transit, short distances to travel to get resources, etc.) may be better for the environment than more rural development.  Also, if everyone switched to more fuel efficient cars, and the cost of fuel to travel a given distance goes down, that could potentially cause people to drive a lot more.  The conversation was generally more speculative than data-driven (and Freakonomics has been sloppy about some of their claims in the past), but it made me want to dig into the work of Ed Glaeser — the Harvard economics professor interviewed here — and related work in more detail.

CHARTS: US carbon emissions are dropping:  Historically, I’ve mostly blogged here about quantifying the effects of individual choices we make in our lives.  But it’s great to get more systemic evidence that our individual actions can add up.   Among the factors that have made a significant impact are household energy reduction and more fuel efficient vehicles.  More people and businesses have been using renewable energy, too. Of course, it’s not all that clear-cut: the biggest factor is the increase in use of natural gas in place of coal — a change which is thanks mostly to fracking.  This American Life and many others have covered some of the potential worries surrounding fracking.  Still, it’s heartening to see some large scale good news, which reduced carbon emissions are.

Scanning the scanners — millimeter wave vs. X-ray TSA scanners: A good comparison of the types of TSA body scanners currently in use.  I’ve been meaning to post for some time about whether opting out of TSA body scans does anything to change the system.  There are personal reasons in terms of personal safety and privacy — and a lack of outside auditing — to consider opting out of scans for at least the X-ray machines (arguably there may be privacy concerns for both).  And there is evidence that the machines are not nearly as effective as one would hope, both missing actual weapons and having high rates of false alarms.

But if one of your primary objectives in opting out is registering a complaint with the government and encouraging systemic changes, is opting out at all effective?  I suspect it probably isn’t very effective, but I don’t have any evidence yet.  I’ll continue to look for evidence as to how effective this and other methods of TSA protest are.   In the meantime, I’d love to hear from people who currently opt-out about why they do so, especially if they opt out of the millimeter wave machines.

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IPA Live: maximizing holiday giving impact (Dec 3)

Members of Innovations for Poverty Action (one of the organizations I donated money to last year and discussed here) are going to talk online on Dec. 3 about how to maximize the impact of holiday donations:

“IPA Founder and Professor Dean Karlan (Yale University) and IPA Executive Director Annie Duflo discuss how to maximize the impact of your philanthropic dollars during the holidays.”

I’m going to try to attend this online event and cover any new info for this blog (I’m hoping to do an updated giving guide this year), but it will depend on my schedule that day.  I encourage others to attend if interested!

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updates on donating money

Thanks to everyone who’s given feedback on the previous post!  A few updates on donating criteria, literacy, and global family planning:

1. One reader wrote:

I like a lot of what you wrote, but here’s a criterion I didn’t see there, but which makes sense to me: if huge funding sources are already available to a project (e.g. Gates Foundation) I’m pretty sure my impact will not be that significant. It might make more sense to focus on organizations that do not (or do not yet) have such resources available to them.

I think this is a very good point.  I think it’s likely that a lot of organizations without funding from large foundations may not have funding because they don’t have much evidence of effectiveness.  But that’s surely not always true, and all other things being equal, your contribution will go much further in an organization that doesn’t have huge grants.

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where should I donate money?

As the year draws to a close, I am trying to decide where to donate money, and feeling grateful that my company is generous enough to match my donations.

There are lots of guides for how to give wisely out there: (e.g., GiveWell’s basic, advanced, and now vs. later analysis; GivingWhatWeCan’s tipsCharityNavigator — caveat: why effectiveness, not efficiency, should be the focus of donations).  Many experts and evaluative organizations have also made  endorsements for where to give (e.g., GiveWell’s top three charities, Coalition for Evidence-Based Policy’s list of social programs that workPhilanthropedia’s top charities in many categories).  Effectivism has also covered methods for evaluating charities multiple times. Despite these tips, I’ve spent probably around 30 hours in the past few months trying to decide where and how to donate money this year.

I decided to show my work in case it’s useful for anyone else who’s trying to prioritize.  I’m not saying anyone else should have the same principles or choose the same charities.  But perhaps my thinking will help you with your own.

First, my criteria for choosing causes: » Continue reading “where should I donate money?”

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getting rid of junk mail: follow up

After my last post, I spent a couple months using the PaperKarma app, and saw depressingly little reduction in junk mail.  It’s a neat idea, and it definitely had some effect, but a lot of catalogs just ignored it, as did all the circulars.  US Airways took me off their mailing list — and sent me a nice snail mail letter to confirm.  :)  I think a number of charities have taken me off their mailing list, but so many charities solicit me (and sell my address to yet new charities, or to the old ones who had me off their list for a while) that it’s hard to tell.  The app is too much effort to use given this.  Okay, you basically just have to take a photo of each piece of mail using your smartphone, but I get a lot of mail.  You also have to check that it recognized the mail correctly.

After giving PaperKarma a few months, I tried getting rid of circulars directly: Valpak, Pennysaver, and Redplum.  Sure enough — after about 6 weeks — I stopped getting their bulky ads.  This was excellent news!

I just used YellowPagesOptOut to opt out of 6 local phonebooks (theoretically — not confirmed yet).  I also opted out of credit cards for 5 years at OptOutPrescreen (as recommended by the FTC) — they also offer a permanent opt-out for people who want to print and mail a form, but I’m hoping that by the time 5 years are up, I’ll be able to do it online.  ;)  I tried DMAchoice (for catalogs, magazines, and other mail offers), but found it too onerous — they give you (sometimes inaccurate) contact info for each company.

Next, I’m going to try 41pounds, which costs $35 for 5 years.  Although I wanted to first evaluate the free options on behalf of everyone who would rather spend time than money, I have run out of patience with bad websites, and also with killing trees.  $7/year is definitely worth it to me if effective — and their self-reported impact is large.  I’m going to have to list all the catalogs and charities who solicit me — fortunately, PaperKarma keeps a record of my requests which will help me remember.  I’ll report back.

I’m still curious to hear the results of anyone else who has tried any of the measures I suggested — or anyone who knows of other good resources!

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Green cleaning

My bathroom drain is getting a bit slow, and I was wondering whether I could avoid using caustic chemical cleaners such as Drano to unclog it.  My first thought was to wonder whether Seventh Generation or some such “green” brand has a drain cleaner.  And then it occurred to me to wonder just how eco-friendly brands such as Seventh Generation really are.

I’ve been told by friends and cleaning sites alike that one can use baking soda and vinegar for almost all household cleaningwith additional help from kosher salt, lemons, club soda, and other non-harsh products. (NB:  these household cleaners are not as effective as ethanol or some commercial cleaners in tests of rapid disinfectants — so don’t go trying to get rid of polio virus using baking soda and vinegar.)

So far, I’ve preferred to buy an off-the-shelf cleaning product like Seventh Generation (though this is purely a matter of laziness rather than principle).  One of these days, I’ll probably make the switch to using these household items for my cleaning — in the meantime, am I doing harm to the environment, or are allegedly green commercial cleaning products actually eco-friendly?

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