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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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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link roundup

  • I continue to have a huge blog crush on Do The Math, especially the analyses of how to reduce personal energy use.  While some of his findings are shocking (shrimp are one of the least energy efficient foods?  Say it ain’t so!), many of his methods for measuring and drastically reducing energy use are inspiring.  I’m not currently willing to take some of the steps he does (e.g., solar panels, or completely turning off my heat), but many of his methods can be applied in moderation, and I’m a big fan of his emphasis on starting by measuring where your big expenditures are.
  • Freakonomics had a recent podcast about the effectiveness of herd mentality in persuading people to make changes such as reducing energy consumption or water usage.  Telling someone, “Most of your peers are doing it,” is often one of the best ways to influence people’s behavior.  Conversely (and counterintuitively), telling people, “Please don’t do X, because lots of people are doing X, with terrible consequences,” often encourages people to also do X.
  • Slate asks: what happens to the clothes we donate?   “Most of our donated clothing does not end up in vintage shops, as car-seat stuffing, or as an industrial wiping rag. It is sold over­seas. After the prized vintage is plucked out and the outcasts are sent to the fiber and wiping rag companies, the remaining clothing is sorted, shrink-wrapped, tied up, baled, and sold to used-clothing ven­dors around the world. The secondhand clothing industry has been export-oriented almost since the introduction of mass-produced gar­ments. And by one estimate, used clothing is now the United States’ number one export by volume, with the overwhelming majority sent to ports in sub-Saharan Africa.”

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