Making up the Difference: Pt. 1 Plastic Bags

News flash, while we may not be at peak oil, it appears that we have indeed hit peak oil exports. As oil producing nations experience growth fueled by increasing oil revenues, their consumption is increasing. Coupled with production decline in many countries, we are due to see a very steep decline in exports in coming years, a decline steeper than the depletion rate of production (see Export Land Model).

While market forces will assuredly push the price of oil higher, destroying demand as the economy of industrialized nations weaken and as other governments are forced to quit subsidizing fuel, we cannot predict which sectors of the economy will be sacrificed in order to make up for the shortfall in supply and bring the market to equilibrium. Because of this, we should work to make discretionary cuts in consumption to avoid a shortfall in vital areas. In this series, “Making Up the Difference”, we will explore what measures can be taken to ease the impacts of the 1 million barrel/day decrease in exports experienced in the past year which will almost certainly grow.

In part one, we will look at plastic shopping bags, an item of convenience and environmental degradation which has already undergone regulation in several other countries and cities in the United States.

The primary objection to plastic bags is their incredible impact on maritime ecosystems. The UN Environment Program estimates that there are 46,000 pieces of plastic litter in every square mile of ocean1. Additional research suggest that the plastics outweigh zooplankton in the North Pacific by a factor of 6:1 and 95% of seabirds have plastic in their stomachs2. If you look below the surface of the ocean, you will find more than double the amount of plastic which has sunk to the floor. These bags could take up to 1,000 years to decompose.

With these facts so well accepted, plastic bags could be an easy target even without directly addressing peak oil mitigation. An estimated 12 million barrels of oil are used annually by the United States to produce these plastic bags, which comes out to roughly 33,000 barrels/day. Not a large or significant amount, but there is no silver bullet to reducing consumption. The alternatives to plastic bags, reusable canvas bags or paper, would require some level of oil consumption along with other unintended consequences. However, it is my suspicion that many plastic bags are unnecessary, and if faced with incurring the costs of bags, businesses and consumers will look to minimize the need for disposable bags. Realistically, the drop in consumption may only be 20,000 barrels/day, still significant enough to take action considering additional environmental costs.

So what options are there to regulate the use of plastic bags? We could follow the example of Bangladesh and many US communities in an outright ban. There also could be a tax on plastic bags, passing the environmental costs onto businesses, or an encouragement of recycling programs.

China is the most recent country to place a ban on the bags in preparation for the Summer Olympics. A problem with an outright ban could be that bags are not allowed in settings where they are vastly superior to all other alternatives in terms of convenience and costs. A tax would greatly reduce consumption, while leaving the possibility of use when there are severe disadvantages to alternatives. There also would be additional government revenue that could be used for environmental cleanup, sponsoring of recycling, or investing in alternative fuels.

In Ireland, a 15 cent tax on plastic bags has reduced use by 90%, and Ireland uses the income for environmental initiatives. A 90 percent drop in US consumption would leave roughly 8 billion bags being used yearly, generating $1.2 billion in revenue with the same 15 cent tax. Used in conjunction with further recycling, this would appear to be the optimal way to help the environment and reduce oil consumption.

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One Response

  1. […] inexpensive and ubiquitous petroleum goods not only at the gas pumps, but in our latex condoms, grocery bags, cell phones, water bottles, and medical […]

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