The University of Guelph economist Ross McKitrick wrote a column for the Financial Post on Tuesday about the sudden abandonment or suspension, in the face of pandemic disease, of by-laws and regulations banning single-use plastic grocery bags. (I have to mention Guelph because I called it “Guelph University” in an article a little while ago, and they’re touchy about that, so I owe them one. Go Gryphons?) Consider this a footnote.
The professor observed that plastic packaging, while often overused and always a blight when carelessly discarded, is not especially serious when considered as an environmental problem. We’ve got much bigger fish to fry everywhere you look. Cities and states that had begun a jihad against single-use plastics in the B.C. (Before Coronavirus) era have temporarily thought better of these hasty, showy measures.
And they are hasty and showy. It is not a coincidence that they have been adopted in dense urban environments by politicians who don’t have any instinctive sense of how enormous Canada is. (These are the same people who want coyotes to be treated with sensitivity and respect when they start devouring housepets in suburbs, as if coyotes were running out of room.) We are not in any serious danger of running out of space for landfills. It seems that it is only the choice to “recycle” plastic bags and other single-use detritus that has made our plastic an environmental problem in Asia.
Discarded plastic bags are definitely hateful to the eye, in spite of that scene in American Beauty. I can assure you that they do much more aesthetic injury in the countryside than they do in the city. But that is what the objection to them is, fundamentally. It is aesthetic. At the very least, it is hard to argue that North American users are creating an environmental problem elsewhere by indulging in them here. (Even the unsightly workaday presence of discarded bags in the streets is, I think, much diminished from what it was 10 or 15 years ago.)
Unfortunately, it has turned out that the bags are pretty goshdarned useful in an epidemic of viral disease that has made grocery stores an important fulcrum of life-saving infection control. McKitrick discussed this question in a friendly, scholarly way, and you all know that this is the approach I prefer to take nine times out of 10.
This is the 10th time. McKitrick did not ask “What if the pandemic had arrived five years after a round of successful bans on plastic bags had altered the plastics supply chain and driven the bags altogether out of ordinary, accessible production?” The places that tried to ban bags were only able to retreat because other less forward-thinking places hadn’t gotten around to it. Even groceries that had been “taxing” the bags have stopped doing it because the incentives flipped upside-down, and replaceable bags were now deemed dangerous to life and health.
In view of this, are we likely to press on with the bans when SARS-CoV-2 is a sour memory? I have some sympathy, here, with even the boulevard environmentalists who think plastic straws are the devil, who have three children and two residences, and who take eight transatlantic flights a year. We will all want things to go back to some desirable state of normalcy when the time of troubles is over. But we will all want incremental political improvements that suit our ideology, in order to fulfill our wartime hopes of an ameliorated world. And we will all interpret prior events so as to agree with our political first principles. (I am not merely promising that other losers and partisan maniacs will act on these desires. I am also saying you will be able to catch me at it. Maybe I’m doing it right now.)
What this suggests is that the bag-ban fanatics will be back at it as soon as they think it is possible to proceed with decency and without some shame. They do have a good chance, now, to quietly forget the policy they were espousing passionately a few weeks ago. Maybe they’ll take it. Or maybe they’ll try to go ahead as before, and be told, more stridently and by more people than before, to eff off.