Policy change often comes with unintended consequences.

This simple idea is sometimes neglected by would-be reformers. Powered by self-righteousness, activists succeed in passing their preferred policies. But after the high wears off, it’s important to survey the consequences.

As environmental advocates target polystyrene and other single-use plastics, they should use the previous effort to ban single-use plastic bags as a case study. The earlier ban is a story of good intentions and unintended consequences.

Anti plastic bag and anti styrofoam marchers make final adjustments to their costumes at Magic Island before heading by bus to pali Longs Drugs. 10 feb 2017

The Honolulu City Council is considering Bill 40, a proposed law that would prohibit food vendors from providing foam take-home containers.

Cory Lum/Civil Beat

A Successful Bag Ban?

Seven years ago, the City and County of Honolulu joined Maui, Kauai and Hawaii counties in banning single-use plastic bags.

At the time, the ban was celebrated by leaders of groups like the Surfrider Foundation and the Sierra Club of Hawaii.

Their celebration was premature. Seven years later, it’s not clear that the ban reduced the use of plastic.

Instead, loopholes in the ban were exploited by corporate retailers like Walmart and CVS. These companies adopted thicker plastic bags which take longer to degrade.

The ban also led many consumers to purchase garbage bags, replacing the bags they used to get free.

Rebecca Taylor, an economist from the University of Sydney, found that plastic bag bans are followed by increased sales of garbage bags. Though fewer bags are used overall, garbage bags may be worse for the environment because they are made from thicker plastics.

Though no local data was collected after the ban, my experience is consistent with Taylor’s study. Before the ban, I reused plastic bags for my trash and rarely needed to buy garbage bags. Since the ban, I depend on garbage bags.

Life Beyond Plastic

Alternative bag materials seemed attractive at first, but they don’t hold up upon closer examination.

Bioplastics come with the environmental costs of industrial agriculture, and without specialized industrial composting centers, they degrade like normal plastic.

Paper bags aren’t much better than plastic bags because paper production uses more resources than plastic production. Also, they fall apart when wet, making them hard to reuse.

Cotton totes might be the worst for the planet, once you factor in water use, damage to ecosystems, and air pollution. By one estimate, you’d need to use a cotton tote 20,000 times to “provide the same environmental performance of the average low-density polyethylene carrier bag.”

Thus, a shift to alternative materials or reusable bags isn’t a panacea. Indeed, if people acquire more reusable bags than they need, the environmental cost might exceed the cost of disposable bags.

All told, there’s little evidence that the single-use plastic bag ban reduced the environmental impact of plastic in Hawaii. It might even have made the problem worse, as thicker garbage bags still pollute the environment and will take longer to degrade.

In light of this failure, leaders of the Sierra Club of Hawaii and Surfrider Foundation have called for an improved ban on plastic bags.

Bill 40: The Next Battle

The City and Council of Honolulu is now considering Bill 40. Bill 40 not only amends the earlier ban to include thicker bags, but also bans food vendors from providing polystyrene foam food ware, disposable plastic service ware, and disposable plastic food ware to their customers.

The bill also provides for business and industry exemptions. These exemptions favor larger businesses that have the political clout and financial resources necessary to resist the ban. Meanwhile, small businesses will suffer from increased costs with no relief.

To be clear, I am no friend of polystyrene. If I could snap my fingers and rid the world of styrofoam, I’d be tempted.

But I’m skeptical of advocates who downplay the cost of their plan, especially when they won’t suffer its worst effects. I empathize with small business owners who testify that this will threaten their profits and force them to raise prices.

The state is sliding toward recession. The cost of living is already too high. Can the average citizen afford higher prices for every meal? And if customers can’t afford higher prices, what happens to small businesses on the cusp?

In the case of the single-use plastic bag ban, advocates didn’t think about second- and third-order consequences. They were reckless in their enthusiasm. Before the council takes on new issues, they should fix earlier mistakes.

Environmental preservation is a public good, but policy making requires us to weigh that good against others. We should think long and hard about any measure that will burden small businesses and consumers who are already struggling.

Ultimately, there is no simple solution to our plastic problem.

The only thing certain is the past, and past solutions have been far from perfect. We should act to reduce the use of disposable plastic, but with caution and care. Otherwise, we follow a road paved with good intentions.

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About the Author

  • Sterling Higa
    Sterling was raised in Nuuanu. He graduated from Roosevelt High School and later earned a master’s degree in education from Harvard University. Sterling now works as a debate coach and lecturer at Hawaii Pacific University. By candlelight, he is finishing his Ph.D. in education at the University of Hawaii Manoa. The author's opinions are his own and do not necessarily reflect the views and opinions of Civil Beat.