Author: rbouvier consulting

Tides, Taxes and New Tactics Report

Tides, Taxes and New Tactics Report

The Southern Maine Planning and Development Commission (SMPDC) has released their final report  Tides Taxes and New Tactics: Adaptation Planning for the Impacts of Sea Level Rise and Storm Surge . rbouvier consulting worked with SMPDC and GEI Consultants to review the impacts of sea level rise on the three Southern Maine towns of Kennebunk, York, and Wells. Rbouvier consulting assessed the economic and social impacts for each town and the people who reside there.

The results were presented to each town in a series of three virtual workshops.  After the presentation attendees were then able to make suggestions on ways to mitigate some of the impacts, and how they’d like to see those efforts prioritized. 

Assessments such as this provide towns and residents with the information they need to be better able to plan for, and potentially mitigate, the impacts of sea level rise. 

2020 sucked…but there’s good news

2020 sucked…but there’s good news

A week ago, I sat down to write an end of year blog post. My colleague Joie had assigned me the task, “2020 sucked but here’s some good news.” It felt overwhelming and impossible. What good news could I possibly write about, during a raging pandemic, ongoing environmental gloom, protests against injustice all over the country, gridlock in Washington… You see my dilemma. My first thought was to give up, and email Joie to say that I just couldn’t do it.

But I hate letting Joie down. So I did what anybody would do in this situation, and googled it: “positive environmental news 2020.” Turns out that there are several sites out there that are devoted to posting positive environmental news stories – not in a Pollyanna-ish, stick-your-head-in-the sand kind of way, but more as a counter to the persistent doom-scrolling many of us have been engaging in lately.

I read about the founder of one of these sites, Grant B. from Happy Eco News . He writes, “I found that when I really started looking, I could see in between all the doomsday articles and posts, were a few that were actually very positive. And so I started saving them with the intention of sharing with friends to let them know that there is some good news.” One thing lead to another, he says, and now he posts on average five times a day, and rounds up the week’s news with the weekly Top 5. Clicking on random posts within the website, I realized that there is a lot of good news out there, but our minds get hijacked by the constant doom-mongering. Outrage gets more clicks than hope. News networks and social media algorithms know that, and they take advantage of it.

So here are a few positive developments from the past year that focus on the intersection between economics and the environment:

1. President-elect Joe Biden has pledged to return to the Paris climate accord, and has appointed John Kerry as “climate envoy” and Gina Mccarthy as climate czar (Kerry’s focus will be international, while Mccarthy’s focus will be domestic) Biden’s Twin Climate Chiefs, McCarthy and Kerry, Face a Monumental Task). While we try not to be too overtly political in this blog, the fact that the climate will be elevated to such a high level in the incoming administration gives me a little hope. Not too much- I’m not going to go crazy or anything – but some. Plus, as I’m always reminding my students, real climate action takes place at the state and local level, and there’s a lot going on in Maine (where we’re located) right now.

2. Renewable energy is gaining ground. Coal is finally on the decline. Britain is ending subsidies for fossil fuel industry. While I am mindful of the difficult transition those who work in the fossil fuel industry are facing, ultimately this is good news both for the climate and for air quality.

3. Past and current injustices are being uncovered. The shooting of Breanna Taylor in March and the horrific murder of George Floyd in May served as (yet another) wakeup call to the reality of structural racism in this country. While there’s a real temptation to think that things are getting worse, perhaps they are finally being uncovered, to paraphrase adrienne maree brown. We cannot create a more sustainable future without acknowledging and reckoning with our past. 

4. The Great American Outdoors Act. Not only is the Great American Outdoors Act one  of the biggest pieces of federal environmental legislation since the Clean Air Act, it is also one of the few examples of successful bipartisanship that we can point to. The legislation provides badly needed funding to restore crumbling infrastructure in our national park system, and guarantees a steady stream of funding for the Land and Water Conservation Fund.

 5. Technology. Advances in lithium batteries could soon make the “million-mile” battery within reach. Advances in hydrogen fuel cell technology, as well, could help us in our quest to decouple the economy from fossil fuel use

6. Socially responsible investing hits the big time. 2020 actually began with a letter from Larry Fink, CEO of BlackRock, to his investors. In that letter, he called for a fundamental reshaping of finance, recognizing that climate risk is financial risk. BlackRock is now, in their own words, putting sustainability at the center of their investing. It remains to be seen whether this gesture marks a seachange. But when the world’s largest investment firm makes a commitment to sustainability, others will sit up and take notice.

So, yes. 2020 was a dumpster fire of a year, no question. And yet, there is some positive news on the environmental / economic front. We just need to remind ourselves to look.

Green Economic Recovery

Green Economic Recovery

Michael Surran, CC BY-SA 2.0 https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0, via Wikimedia Commons

The one-two punch of recession-pandemic this year has made vulnerability a more pressing topic globally. While resiliency has been discussed in our previous blog post, how to develop it requires a thorough understanding of where the metaphorical weakest link is. COVID-19 has proven to be an accelerant in many industries both in terms of developing trends and uncovering flaws in our economy. These vulnerabilities become much more apparent when considering the risk to human life imposed to our communities. 

U.S.News & World Report ranked Maine as the most economically vulnerable state to the pandemic. Maine has the highest percentage of citizens over the age of 65 (20.6%) and our economy is the 6th most dependent on tourism and hospitality. The state is in economic hardship from missing out on the full summer tourist season which has rippling effects across small businesses. While the pandemic may not be a long-term problem for the state, the vulnerabilities it has exposed will be and should be addressed now to develop resilience.

Looking further ahead, Maine has other long-term economic vulnerabilities. The dependency on tourism and hospitality has shown us that having diverse industry representation like manufacturing and skilled professionals is essential for economic resiliency and growth. The global climate crisis will have lasting impacts to the state’s economy and public health. The Gulf of Maine has been found to be warming faster than 99% of the global ocean, disrupting the fishing industry and weather patterns in the area. The threat of sea level rise will dramatically impact coastal communities around the state which represent 34% of its population. The economic impact of these changes means that the once scenic locations are at greater risk of flooding, higher insurance rates, and less attractive for industry. Due to these challenges, Governor Janet Mills has set goals to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 45% by 2040 and 80% by 2050. 

A new study from Robert Pollin and the Political Economy Research Institute at UMass-Amherst shows how to start the economic recovery in Maine by addressing the climate crisis.  The primary directive is for the state to invest in large scale projects to update the energy structure of the state. Coming from both the supply and demand side with energy efficiency standards and expanding on renewable energy in wind and solar. Given the temperature shifts in the state, energy efficiency is invaluable to buildings in the area so public buildings would undergo deep energy retrofits.

The economic impact of the program would be dramatic, estimating that $2 billion in investment from public and private sources would create nearly 15,000 jobs by 2022;  An investment of this scale would represent 2-2.5% of Maine’s economy each year.  Short term stimulus will boost the current recovery and long-term infrastructure investment will create jobs at scale and with longevity. The long-term annual investment of $500 million from 2021-2030 would create 7,300 jobs per year. These would be good paying working class jobs that would support Maine families. 1

Transitioning into clean energy will  help shape a new perspective around climate policy with equity in mind. Creating good working-class jobs demonstrates that tackling climate change isn’t an elitist issue and the benefits of doing so far outweigh the costs. Nate Barr of Zootility, tool manufacturer turned mask maker, has a factory right next to the Portland Waterfront, he says “If we don’t tackle climate change, we’ll literally be underwater.” While it may be more expensive to address climate change than ignore it in the short term a greater vulnerability will be exposed in the not so long-term. Climate change will then cripple local economies much like COVID-19 has already. 

Our firm looks to address environmental issues to improve economic conditions. We do this by expanding our perspective to see how vulnerabilities can transition into resiliencies. Maine wasn’t built to handle COVID-19, but it can develop the infrastructure to combat the climate crisis and come back stronger from this pandemic. 

Policy implementation like this will need broad public support to create significant change. Elected officials base decisions on their constituents’ views highlighting the importance of clear public opinion. Look at your elected officials and see their stance on climate change. Write to them and share your views on making the economy more equitable and sustainable to create the shift needed for change. Policy decisions are one of the most effective ways to address climate change and develop a more climate conscious economy. We understand that political views are very personal but the impacts of climate change will be very real. Knowing where elected officials stand before November 3rd will make you an informed voter and citizen, but most importantly, make sure you vote.

Written by Tom Dolloff, Intern

  1. Schreiber, Laurie. “New Study: Maine Can Recover from Economic Crisis by Addressing Climate Change.” Mainebiz, 31 Aug. 2020, www.mainebiz.biz/article/new-study-maine-can-recover-from-economic-crisis-by-addressing-climate-change?utm_source=Newsletter.
River Voices

River Voices

A flier that includes information on the publication of the book River Voices published by North Country Press.

We are excited to announce the publication of River Voices: Perspectives on the Presumpscot published by North Country Press. The book includes a chapter by Dr. Rachel Bouvier, “The Economic Value of a Restored Fishery on the Presumpscot River.”

In describing the chapter Dr. Bouvier said, ” I discuss the economic value of restoring a native alewife run to the Presumpscot River, one of the most heavily dammed rivers in the northeast. The chapter discusses traditional economic values such as increased property values and tourism, as well as less well measured – but no less important – values such as community revitalization, quality of life, and civic pride. It is not often that we get a second chance at something, from an ecological perspective. But just last year, one of the dams that has been impeding alewife from returning to the Presumpscot was removed. It heralds a new era for the fish, for the city of Westbrook, and for the environment.”

The publishers website describes the book as “a celebration of a river, a vision of stewardship and caring, with chapter topics ranging from geology to Native American history to fighting for fish passage. Illustrated throughout with original and historical works of art, this book embodies the concept of managing a river through appreciation of all of its attributes and aspects. If you live in this watershed you will appreciate it.  And if you live somewhere else, this is a model for caring for a river.”

For more information or to purchase a copy of the book visit North Country Press.

Quarterly Journal Reviews

Quarterly Journal Reviews

1. Economic valuation of green and blue nature in cities: A meta-analysis

Marija Bockarjovaa, Wouter J.W. Botzena, Mark J. Koetse

Ecological Economics 169 (2020)

Environmental economists have long maintained that nature and the ecological services that nature provides are vastly undervalued. This undervaluation of “natural capital” relative to other types of capital is one of the primary drivers of environmental damage.  But getting the prices right – putting a “value” on the environment – is not an easy thing to do well. Many times we rely on complicated statistical models (see below) to attempt to  “tease out” the value that people put on the environment by looking at their actions, or by their responses to carefully designed surveys.

Environmental economists have been relying more and more in recent years on a methodology called “benefit transfer.” Essentially, this is a method by which the value of a certain environmental good or service in one area is simply applied (transferred) to another area. While easier and certainly cheaper, there are serious methodological concerns about the technique.

One way of circumventing some of those difficulties is to use a method called meta-analysis – whereby many different environmental valuation studies are brought together in one large dataset and analyzed for any statistical regularities. This particular study examined 60 such studies worldwide, focusing on the economic value of nature in cities, to determine characteristics that are associated with either a higher or lower stated value.

The authors find, not surprisingly, that an area’s average income level is associated with a higher stated value. “The interpretation is that natural areas in regions with a 1% higher income have a 1.4 to 1.5% higher value.” They also find that areas with a higher population density also have higher values.  Secondly, the authors look at the vehicle through which the value is elicited- in other words, whether the survey respondent was asked to value urban nature through a tax, an entry fee, or a donation to a fund. Interestingly, results demonstrate that “nature values elicited by means of a tax as a payment vehicle were systematically valued lower compared to values elicited by means of other payment mechanisms, such as an entry fee or a donation to a fund.” Finally, the authors examine different types of urban green space, and find that parks are the highest valued type of urban greenspace, followed by “blue sites” (Iakes, rivers, ponds, etc.).

2. Who Cares? Future Sea Level Rise and House Prices Land Economics • May 2020 • 96 (2): 207–224

Olga Filippova 

Cuong Nguyen 

Ilan Noy 

Michael Rehm

Does the finding that a property is at risk from sea level rise lead to a decrease in property value? This article takes advantage of a unique case study in New Zealand to address that question. In 2012, the Kapiti Coast District Council produced and published detailed projected erosion risk maps. The Council then notified property owners in areas deemed to be at risk, and placed that information on memorandums that were then made available to every potential property buyer. Later, in 2014, the council had to remove the maps from online access, due to the actions of a small but vocal group of property owners worried about the effect of the information on property values. These events set up a perfect experiment for the researchers, as they could compare property values and sales during the time that the information was made available to the period when it was not. 

After conducting the analysis, the authors conclude the following: “Overall, given the known hazard risks, buyers are still willing to pay the same premium for these coastal properties, and appear to largely ignore the new information they received in 2012. In short, the erosion risk information being placed in the LIM reports seems to have had little effect on property pricing.”  While this effect may seem counter- intuitive, it is actually consistent with other studies examining the effect of what is seen as a risk in the distant future. While other studies have found that current flooding affects property values, people react less strongly to threats that are seen as hypothetical or occuring in the distant future. 

3. Legacies of Lead: Estimating Home Buyer Response to Potential Lead Exposure

Nicholas B. Irwin Land Economics • May 2020 • 96 (2): 171–187

Much like the previous study, this study examined the effect of a potential environmental threat – this time lead exposure – on property values. In this study, however, the author found that houses most likely to contain lead and located in areas that had been labeled “at risk” by the state of Maryland experienced a substantial price penalty of 7.7%. Using sophisticated statistical techniques, the author was able to determine that the price penalty was “attributable solely to the information about potential lead exposure,” not to other characteristics of the property or the area. Furthermore, the author found that the negative effect persisted and actually became stronger over time.

The author also found evidence that neighborhood composition shifted following the implementation of the program, “with a decrease in the number of white mortgage applicants in at-risk areas and an increase in the spread of incomes for all mortgage applicants.” The author then warns of the unintended consequences of such a program, noting:

“the goal of the policy was to prevent childhood lead exposure by coarsely targeting potential lead risk areas, which shifted home buyers’ perceptions of risk based on an entire area’s designation as a risk zone. This then capitalized in the form of lower house prices for houses located in the at-risk areas most likely to contain lead, which, in turn, altered said neighborhoods as they became less attractive to some while becoming more affordable for others. These changes in neighborhood composition could be leading indicators for longer-term cycles of neighborhood decline due to a perceived stigma of living in an at-risk area.” 

These findings have clear implications for environmental justice, and point to the need to think carefully about the unintended consequences of a program such as this one. Yes, residents should be made aware of the potential risks of the area in which they live; but the policy also may have created a situation where some individuals were able to escape that risk, while others may have been forced to accept a tradeoff between homeownership and increased environmental risk.

Resilience in the Age of COVID-19

Resilience in the Age of COVID-19

An example of climate change resilience planning chart

In our field, the term “resiliency” is typically thought of as resiliency to climate change . However, economic resiliency can also be resiliency to any sort of disaster – economic, human- caused, or “natural”. Economic resiliency or an economic resiliency study (sometimes called a vulnerability assessment) involves taking a good hard look at your community or your company, its strengths and weaknesses, and the connections between its various parts. If one part of the system breaks down, what are the impacts of that on the larger system? If one component is particularly vulnerable to an outside threat, are there alternatives if (when?) disaster strikes?

COVID 19 is making these vulnerabilities abundantly clear. Although vulnerability to climate change and vulnerability to a pandemic are different threats, , they involve some of the same basic questions. A closer look actually reveals some connections between the two seemingly different issues. 

For example, let’s look at why the United States has had such a difficult time rolling out adequate testing. Yes, the capacity is there, as the federal government has said, but the theoretical capacity is different from the actual ability to complete the entire sequence of events from start to finish. It actually is a good case study that illustrates the connections between public health, supply chains, and climate change.

Let’s start by looking at the chain of events that has to take place in order to carry out a successful testing regime. Yes, we need to have a lot of tests available -and we need to have a lot of medical personnel able to administer those tests. Most tests are administered via a swab that is inserted in the patient’s nose to where the nasal passage intersects the back of the throat, meaning we need to have an adequate number of specialized swabs available. After the specimen is obtained, the swab then needs to be transported in sterile saline  to a lab for analysis. Once at the lab, there needs to be an adequate amount of materials to run the analysis, including chemicals, machinery, and people. Only then can the results be made available. Looking at the chain of events and the things needed for each event to occur can reveal a lot about the vulnerability of a system. A chain is only as strong as its weakest link, as the maxim goes.

Remember Hurricane Maria? Hurricane Maria savaged Puerto Rico in 2019. It turns out that most of our country’s manufacturing of saline and saline bags is located on the island. The testing swabs mentioned in the previous paragraph need to be stored in saline in order to be transferred to a lab for testing. While health economists highlighted this weakness in the medical supply chain during the flu season of 2018, it was not adequately addressed.

 This example underscores the idea that analyzing vulnerability to an unexpected event – whether to a hurricane or a pandemic – follows the same formula: Vulnerability = exposure times probability times impact. It also highlights the fact that vulnerability to one disaster (hurricanes) can exacerbate vulnerability to another ( a pandemic).That vulnerability can have serious economic implications, as we are finding.

Our next blog post will be on economic vulnerability to COVID-19, and the way communities can build resilience.

Black Lives Matter

Black Lives Matter

Black Lives Matter

When talking about sustainability we often use the metaphor of a three legged stool.  We take great pains to explain how each leg – economic, social, and environmental – is essential to ensure that the stool will hold the person who sits on it. The person in this metaphor is us, human beings and the world we live in.

If these three pillars are the stool’s support, justice is the glue that holds them together. Without justice the stool will not stand. If we take an honest look at the sustainability table we are all gathered around, the faces are mostly white, and there is no place to sit.  

This is not new. Racism is present in every aspect of our culture. Our own movement of environmentalism has a history that is rooted in racism

The death of George Floyd at the hands of Minneapolis police officers has placed our failures as individuals, and as a culture, before us. We can’t deny the lack of justice in our country.  We can’t claim to be working towards a more sustainable world and turn away. 

As a company and as individuals we support and stand with Black Lives Matter.  We acknowledge our own shortcomings, our own biases, and our own culpability in the unjust society that privileges us at the expense of others. We are committed to educating ourselves, to investigating the consequences – intentional and unintentional – of our actions and the policies we support, and to emphasize the essential role of justice and equality in working towards a more truly sustainable society. 

Resources:

Black Lives Matter

Environmentalism’s Racist History

How Sustainability Professionals can Uplift the Black Community

China Recycle Ban Brings Challenges and Opportunity

China Recycle Ban Brings Challenges and Opportunity

Recycling changed dramatically in 2018, when China went from accepting 45% of the world’s plastic waste to almost none. As a result, by 2030, up to 111 million metric tons of plastic could be displaced.[1]

All that extra plastic, as well as the paper and other materials China is refusing, has significant and far-reaching effects. It impacts waste management systems and the economics of recycling, and it may also force people to re-evaluate their behavior.

Read More Read More

2019 Second Quarter Journal Reviews

2019 Second Quarter Journal Reviews

Measuring Willingness to Pay for Environmental Attributes in Seafood

Hilger, J., Hallstein, E., Stevens, A.W. et al. Environ Resource Econ (2019) 73: 307. 

We found this article very interesting because of our recent work with CEI on growing farmed scallop in Maine.  Most research suggests that consumers are willing to pay for environmental attributes (like sustainable harvest) in seafood, but the majority of that research are stated preference, rather than revealed preference, studies. In other words, they are studies of what consumers say they’re going to do, rather than studies of what consumers do.  It is more difficult to design a controlled experiment that adequately captures consumers’ actual behavior than it is to design a survey! This article uses a “natural experiment” by which the researchers compared sales of seafood before and after a sustainability labeling scheme (using red, yellow, and green labels) was implemented. The researchers found that consumers did express preferences for wild-caught versus farmed seafood, US-caught versus no-US caught seafood, and selective harvest methods to less selective harvest methods. Another interesting aspect of this paper is the discussion of the yellow label, which was described as “proceed with caution” on the label but actually meant that not enough information was available to make a final decision. Consumers seem to have responded to this ambiguity by substituting away from this alternative altogether.

Do energy efficiency standards hurt consumers? Evidence from household appliance sales.

Journal of Environmental Economics and Management

Volume 96, July 2019, Pages 88-107

Arlan Brucala; Michael J.Roberts

In yet another article investigating policy and its effect on consumers, this article looks at Energy Star ™ labels on washers, dryers, and air conditioners, and the effect of those standards on prices and consumer behavior.  Contrary to expectations, the authors find that stricter standards increase consumer welfare, by encouraging substitution towards more durable and energy-efficient goods.        

Urban afforestation and infant health: Evidence from MillionTreesNYC

Journal of Environmental Economics and Management

Volume 95, May 2019, Pages 26-44

This is a fascinating study of the effect of planting trees on infant health in urban areas. Whereas most of the literature on the positive effect of trees on health looks at the effect of proximity to green space on health, this article takes advantage of the MillionTreesNYC program in New York City to study the effect of planting trees on infant health. The authors use a database from the US Centers for Disease Control to compare the health of infants born to women in New York City to those born to women in similar areas where no afforestation occurred.  They take advantage of several cutting-edge statistical methodologies to control for confounding factors, such as socio-demographic factors. Their findings imply that a twenty percent increase in in urban forest cover (such as occurred under the program) decreased prematurity and low birth weight among mothers in New York City by 2.1 and 0.24 percentage points, respectively, relative to similar mothers outside of NYC. While this doesn’t seem like much, the difference in low birth weight is equivalent to that of a mother who doesn’t smoke to a mother who smokes two cigarettes a day during pregnancy. The effect seemed to be greater among African American women, indicating that urban afforestation may be significant equity effects as well.

Taking the Measure of Plastic Bag Bans

Taking the Measure of Plastic Bag Bans

MichaelisScientists [CC BY-SA 4.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0)]

Americans go through 102.1 billion plastic bags each year, and those bags end up everywhere. Whether they’re in whale stomachs, or in our water as microplastics, the volume has people concerned.

In an effort to reduce the amount of plastic, bans on single-use plastic bags are on the rise. California and New York already have state-wide bans, and Maine has just become the third state to do so. In other states, cities like Boston, Seattle and Chicago have their own bans, and more seem likely to follow.

While it’s popular to attack plastic bags, it’s still important to ask questions to make sure the bans are necessary and effective.

Are plastic bags as bad as people think? What are the alternatives, and are they any better? What impact do these bans have on people’s behavior and the environment?

It turns out that when you look at the whole lifecycle of different bags, and the unintended consequences of the bans, the results aren’t straightforward.

Cost of Bag Production

The environmental cost of production is a good starting point in measuring the impact of different bags. Contrary to what you might think, from this perspective, plastic bags win out.

Plastic bags are made by using ethylene. Ethylene   is a by-product of the crude oil refining process and natural gas production.   Manufacturing plants have also gotten very efficient at making plastic, so this process doesn’t generate many greenhouse gases per bag.

Paper bags, on the other hand, require cutting down trees and then processing them in an energy-intensive way. A 2005 Scottish study noted that paper bag production uses about four times as much water as plastic and creates three times the amount of greenhouse gases. It should be noted that in the United States, many paper manufacturing facilities use biofuels and co-gen systems to generate the power used in the manufacturing process which may mitigate some of these emissions.

Even cotton tote bags aren’t better for single use. This is because you need to factor in the land and water used to grow the cotton, as well as the processing and production. One study found that you’d need to use the tote bag at least 131 times to be better than a single-use plastic bag, based on the production impact.

Recycling and Decomposing

One of the biggest problems with plastic bags is what happens after they’re used. This is true whether they’re used once or a couple of times.

While the bags can technically be recycled, municipalities don’t accept them with other recyclables. This puts the burden on the consumer to save them and bring them to a place that will accept them, and most people don’t go to the trouble.

When plastic doesn’t get recycled, it either goes into a landfill or ends up as litter.

In a landfill, plastic takes an average of 500 years to decompose. The volume of these bags in the trash also comes at a cost. California alone spends $25M annually on disposal of plastic waste in landfills.

Paper, on the other hand, decomposes in just two to six weeks. It can also be easily recycled.

Other Impacts of Plastic in the Environment

Additionally, when plastic ends up as litter, the environmental impact is much worse than with paper.

Plastic has become one of the most common kinds of waste products, with much of it ending up in the ocean. A study from UC Santa Barbara found that each year, the world’s oceans receive almost 8 million metric tons of plastic.

As an example of how widespread this is, a recent dive by American explorer Victor Vescovo found a plastic bag at the bottom of the Mariana Trench, seven miles below the surface.

One of the biggest concerns with this is the impact on marine animals. Many are tempted to eat plastic bags, thinking they’re food, but instead the bags block their digestion.  As many as 1 million sea animals die each due to the plastic in the oceans. Among them was a dead sperm whale found in April 2019 with 48 pounds of plastic in its stomach.

A less publicized issue is the fact that plastic bags can cause problems in urban settings by clogging waterways and drains. This was discovered as one of the primary factors in flooding in Bangladesh in 1988 and 1998, which led them to ban plastic bags in 2002.

Microplastics are another concern. These form when the plastic breaks down into smaller and smaller pieces.

No one has enough evidence to show any specific health impacts of microplastics, mostly because it is unethical to ask human test subjects to ingest microplastics due to known health hazards of plastic in general, but the amount and range makes it worth watching. A 2017 study found that 94% of tap water samples from the United States contained microplastics and other studies have found high concentrations of microplastics in fish and shellfish commonly eaten by humans.

Another study also noted that when plastic bags are exposed to sunlight, they begin to give off ethylene, and continue to do so even after the sun sets.  This ethylene can contribute to the creation of atmospheric carbon monoxide, a greenhouse gas.  

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These factors are what make the plastic bag bans so popular, even though from a production standpoint, they can do less environmental damage than the alternatives.

Considering Consumer Behavior

One issue that policymakers often overlook is how consumers will react to their policies. Production and disposal are only one part of the story. It’s also important to consider if people actually do reuse those bags, for what purpose, and how consumers will change their behavior after a plastic bag ban.

In some cases, people do use the plastic bags again, though often only one other time. The most common examples are to line small trash cans and to pick up after dogs. Those needs don’t disappear with the bans, and those are things you can’t use tote bags for.

As a result, one side effect of the bans is that people buy more trash bags for those purposes. Rebecca Taylor, an economist at the University of Sydney, saw a 120% increase in sales of small, four-gallon trash bags. From an environmental perspective, trash bags are worse than the single-use bags, since trash bags are thicker than grocery bags. This means they use more plastic, and it takes longer for them to degrade.

A quick glance at the comments section of the Portland Press Herald, in an article announcing the ban, revealed that many commenters were “hoarding” their plastic bags in response to the ban, or even buying rolls of plastic bags in advance of the law’s April 2020 effective date.

Additionally, the use of paper bags increases significantly after bans. A survey of a few areas in California found that paper bag usage jumped from 3% to 16%. This meant increased production for paper bags, as well as higher volumes of paper trash.

Still, the bans do encourage people to reuse bags by 40%. The bans also reduce the amount of plastic that ends up as trash, which is the other piece to consider.

Conclusion – It’s Complicated

Economists are notorious for responding “it depends” when asked a question comparing two alternatives.  The impact of bans on plastic bags is no different.  Depending on what you measure, you can find support for using plastic bags, and support for banning them.   

It’s important to remember that the impact doesn’t stop with the manufacturing. It continues with how the bags are used, and what happens with them when they’re no longer in use. It’s also important to recognize that no law is ever passed in a vacuum. We need to consider how people will respond, what alternatives are available to them, and what the unintended consequences may be.   

References: