Making our trash someone else’s problem

Kurt Willems has an interesting post about the Seattle City Council’s decision to ban single-use plastic bags.

In 2008, Seattle tried to impose a fee on plastic shopping bags, but voters overturned it after a petition drive funded by the plastics industry.

Kurt thinks the ban is a good idea, and I agree. But some of my libertarian friends raise an important point: they say while it’s good for individuals to make eco-friendly choices, governments have no business legislating something just because it happens to be a good idea.

Is this a cop-out? A feeble excuse from those with no real intention of making eco-friendly choices?

Not necessarily. One friend who made this very argument also puts his kids in cloth diapers. He uses reusable garbage bags. (I don’t even do that.) He’s walking the talk, as they say.

I happen to be skeptical of big government, without necessarily being anti-government. (I think government has a legitimate responsibility to regulate, within reason, a wide range of things.)

But I’m equally skeptical of big business, without being anti-business. The market plays a vital role in creating economic opportunity for billions. But what happens when a business becomes larger than some countries? Wal-Mart, for example, would be the world’s 25th largest economy if it were a country. Who holds them accountable? Individual consumers? Not likely.

Back to the point: should governments be deciding whether or not we can use disposable shopping bags? Has the Seattle City Council overstepped its bounds? Should environmental responsibility be a personal choice rather than a mandate?

The “personal choice” argument might work if no one else is affected by your behavior. In other words, if you’re the only one impacted by your decision to use a disposable shopping bag, then fine. You should be able to carry on, free from government interference.

But what if you’re not the only person affected by your behavior? Does government have a responsibility to intervene when your choices negatively impact others?

Consider that it takes around 500 years for a plastic bag to decompose. As I understand it, even biodegradable bags take a long time to break down, because decomposition requires air, and there’s not much of that to be found inside a heavily compacted landfill. (Thanks to Dan Martin for providing sharing this insight.)

Something from which we derive a few minutes’ use will spend centuries in a landfill.

So here’s my question. Do we have the moral right to make our trash someone else’s problem? We derive all the benefit; our children and grandchildren get to deal with our mess.

“It’s just a plastic bag,” someone might say. Except that it’s 500 billion plastic bags every year. One million every minute. And almost 90% of them wind up in landfills, where they will continue to be someone else’s problem, long after we’re gone.

Do we have that right?

Do Christians, for whom the second greatest commandment is “love your neighbor,” have that right?

Might our “neighbors” include those who inherit the earth after us?

And do governments have a moral obligation to protect others from the negative consequences of our bad behavior?

Some politicians in the US follow this line of reasoning when they protest the growing federal debt. They say it’s not right for us to spend money we don’t have and leave the bill for our kids and grandkids.

They have a point. But perhaps the same logic applies to the debate over plastic bags, nuclear energy, and other environmental issues.

18 thoughts on “Making our trash someone else’s problem

  1. These “single use” plastic bags are typically recycled by consumers and used a second time as smaller trash bags. If you were to ban stores from providing these plastic bags, many people would have to specifically purchase disposable substitutes.

    I have seen people store these bags for personal use in special cloth containers that hang from the wall or even “stuffing them under the sink cabinet.” I fold the bags into a small triangle as if it were a flag or a grade-school paper “football” so they are easy to store or carry. These so-called “single-use” bags actually are a secondary resource.

    So, even assuming that the goal is to reduce waste, it seems that such a ban would have little helpful effect and hurt the people that use the bags. So I think the proposed ban solution seems rather shortsighted.

    * If one is determined to directly attack bags with legislation, then it would seem like a better idea to require local stores to provide both plastic and paper alternatives. Stores used to ask “paper or plastic?”

    * If one is really concerned about landfill use, it seems that there are other options which could be investigated, such as high-temperature incineration technology. This would deal with more than just instances of tiny plastic bags.

    But if Seattle is banning plastic bags, then how long before they start banning duct tape and electrical tape? What about banning cans and single-use bottles? Disposable pens? Have they moved their public schools to “paperless” systems yet? Why not also ban disposable cigarette lighters? Etc…


    1. I too have a container full of plastic shopping bags. (They’re in the cleaning closet, in my case.) I would consider it a minor inconvenience at worst not to have access to these bags, but maybe that’s just me.

      The fact remains that the vast majority of plastic bags end up in the landfill. Incineration isn’t a good large-scale alternative because it releases all manner of toxic chemicals into the atmosphere. (Which, of course begs the question: what are we doing making disposable products from such dangerous ingredients in the first place?)

      The question at the heart of my post still stands: Do we have the moral right to make our trash someone else’s problem, as is the case with every plastic bag that gets thrown away?


    2. One more thought, Andrew. If you don’t like the idea of banning plastic bags outright, how do you feel about charging for them (as the Seattle City Council originally tried in 2008)?

      One of the arguments I would make is that the system is designed to hide the true cost of our shopping habits. Consumers don’t pay extra for the bags (or at least they don’t think they are; the cost may well be factored into the price of everything they buy to put in those bags), so they don’t perceive any disadvantage to chucking them straight into the trash can. If you had to pay 25 cents a bag, you might think differently. You might take fewer bags to begin with, and you might hang on to the ones you’ve got.

      The same argument applies to the food industry. If it weren’t for massive gov’t subsidies fueling large-scale production of corn and soy by a few giant corporations, candy bars, soda, and most other processed foods would cost a lot more. In which case, we’d probably east a lot less of them. And be a lot less fat. And live longer.

      So how would you feel about charging a small “penalty” to reduce the use of plastic bags without necessarily eliminating access to them altogether?


      1. Incineration, when properly done, doesn’t release a bunch of toxic chemicals. When things are not properly incinerated then they have waste products. Although I am not an expert on this, I have a college semester of environmental engineering, and I did double check the Wiki page on incinerators before posting. Usually people are “afraid” of incinerators, i.e. the NIMBY (Not In My Back Yard) syndrome so I am not sure if the technology is being given a fair review.

        As considering a “plastic tax” I don’t think that it would be a good idea. This would effectively be a tax that would affect the poorest segment of the population the most, effectively punishing them for recycling the bags as trash containers. But what would people think if Seattle banned the use of black plastic trash bags? Or would it be fair if they also implemented a two-dollar tax on these to match the proportional weight of their plastic content?

        After all, people could simply dump their trash into a hard plastic or metal can, and that trash could be dumped straight into a truck without using any type of plastic bag at all. But would we want to do this? It would mean no more trash bags in landfills, but this would effectively “pollute” everyone’s local environment in their houses and neighborhoods.

        Political micromanagement is a slippery slope. You’re not always sure what effect it will have, and once you take a stand on one item you might as well be consistent with everything else. When taken to its logical conclusion, will this really lead where people want to go? But as for libertarian considerations, Seattle should decide for themselves what they want, and the rest of us penguins can look on safely from the side of the ice to see what happens.


      2. “Seattle should decide for themselves what they want, and the rest of us penguins can look on safely from the side of the ice to see what happens.”

        Well, at least we’ll have a good view from atop our giant landfills. (Sorry, couldn’t resist.)


      3. BTW, that still doesn’t answer my question: what gives us the moral right to leave a legacy of garbage for future generations to deal with?


  2. In the perfect world (not that it is one), government acts on the behalf of the people they represent. So, I would assume, the governmnet felt the people wanted to ban single-use plastic bags.

    And this argument, like you pointed out, could apply to lots of things (environmental or not). For example, emissions on cars. Hunting. School nutrition requirements. At some point, you kind of accept that every government decision is a percentages game (which also makes it a money game). You play the percentages. Some people will be happy, others will be unhappy.

    But yay for banning single-use plastic bags!


  3. Given your figure of 500 billion bags a year, and assuming that with appropriate pressure each bag could be compressed into a cubic centimeter, then all the bags in the US in a year could fit into a space 80 meters by 80 meters by 80 meters. Hardly catastrophic.
    Stores pay between 0.5 cents and 3 cents a piece for the bags they “give away” to customers. That customers do not face this marginal cost is irrelevant. The stores do. And they are more cost-sensitive than most consumers are.
    So much so that they appropriately weigh the value of time against the value of the bags. They have to pay the clerk ringing up customers. It usually takes longer to pack reusable bags than the plastic bags. The store has to pay the clerk for this extra time, plus the customers waiting in line behind the person with reusable bags have to wait. The cost of their time is seldom taken into consideration in these sorts of arguments.
    Indeed, I’ve perhaps spent 2 hours discussing plastic bags over the last year. Assuming I earn minimum wage, $8/hr that’s $16. $16 can buy 500+ bags. I’ve spent the equivalent of 10 bags per week for a year discussing bags!
    Which gets to my main point. This discussion is either wasteful, entertaining, or rhetorical. Let’s be generous and call it rhetorical. Talking about bags, and using cloth bags, are both highly visible actions. More than anything else they signal to other people “I’m environmentally conscious.” Rather, these behaviors are more effective at signalling environmental conscientiousness than they are at being environmentally conscientious.
    Signalling theory is yet nascent, but among observations of scholars in this field are that signalling builds solidarity, and that signalling builds status.
    So, bag-conscious folks are either trying to build up solidarity around something that is insignificant in and of itself, or they are trying to build status among others.
    Because, really, the whole disposable bag thing is not nearly as serious as the rhetoric makes it sound.
    Nathanael Snow


    1. Your value equation doesn’t consider the full societal cost of plastic bags – namely, the cost in terms of resources extracted (resources that could have been conserved or put to better use), the pollution emitted in the production and disposal of plastic bags, etc. Besides, are you really trying to suggest that the use of cloth bags threatens to bring Wal-Mart to its knees on account of marginally lower productivity and longer waits at the cashier?

      You ridicule those who eschew plastic bags as vain attention-seekers who’s actions are “insignificant.” I say do not “despise the day of small things.” Yes, reducing our dependance on plastic bags is a relatively small drop in the bucket (albeit a 3.5-million-ton drop in the bucket, by some estimates). But this is about far more than plastic bags. This is about confronting the deep problem with a culture that turns everything it can into a disposable commodity, without a second thought for the sustainability of the resources we’re consuming as ever-increasing rates or for the generations that will follow us.


      1. I’m fully aware of the cost externalities involved in plastic bag production. At the bottom of all discussions along these lines is the very basic question: can we trust prices to rightly reflect social and private costs? Pigou said, not so much. Coase said, so long as property rights are in place, yes. I’m willing to land somewhere in the middle. I’ll concede that the total social costs may be somewhat greater than the private costs I outlined. I’ll be generous and double my estimation.
        You say that “this is about a culture that turns everything it can into a disposable commodity.. without thought for sustainability”
        How far into the future should we be planning? Should we want to plan for the earth to remain forever? Should we want there to be more people in the future or fewer? How many people is the right number of people? If the earth can sustain 5 billion forever, but not the current 7, is it right to kill the 2 billion that are too many?
        Recycling (where it does not emerge naturally in markets) is a religion, because it does not think carefully enough to answer these deeper questions. It is not start from pure scientific principles and work its way forward. It does not try to resolve the relevant relative costs. It assumes an ethic which prefers an eternal earth without accounting for what that would cost people today.
        I have provided some simple calculation that demonstrates, first, that the 500 billion bag number was hyperbole, and translated into a relatively small volume (a cube 8 meters on each side). I have in the past done similar calculations to show that all the trash that the US produces over the next 20 years could fit into a space 20 miles long per side and 200 feet high. There is no shortage of space for depositing trash. There is a shortage of space prepared right now for depositing trash. There is no overpopulation problem. Look at all the grass growing in your neighborhood. How many could that space feed if cultivated?
        Hyperbole abounds in these discussions, and I am primarily interested in pointing out that rhetoric. Hyperbole, again, demonstrates the religious nature of recycling.
        I believe in good conservation, but recycling is often more wasteful than landfilling, and using reusable bags might be more wasteful than using disposable bags. The costs of using disposables are often overstated, at least, and that was the point of my calculation.


      2. You’re tripping headlong into caricature w/your statements about environmentalism. Of course I don’t have to entertain such fanciful notions as the earth being around forever in order to argue that we have a responsibility to leave it in good shape for those who come after us, however many generations there may be.

        If I were to leave my house to my daughter, I would be doing her a massive disservice not to keep it in the best possible condition for her. Same goes for the planet.

        Re. “recycling… is a religion”: no serious environmentalist claims that recycling is the answer. The three R’s (reduce, reuse, recycle) are more than just cute alliteration; they’re listed in order of importance/effectiveness. Many environmentalists have, in fact, studied the relative costs associated w/recycling, which is precisely why they advocate reducing our consumption of disposables and reusing items BEFORE we resort to recycling.

        Since you bring up the population issue, saying “there is no overpopulation problem” is a profound oversimplification. Such a broad statement doesn’t take into account regional variations (there may not be a problem in North America or Europe, but try making that argument in sub-Saharan Africa or Southeast Asia) and the fact that large swaths of land are agriculturally unproductive and essentially uninhabitable.

        And no: you don’t have to advocate killing off part of the population, abortion, or forced sterilization if you believe there’s a population problem. (Again, this is caricature on your part.) It might surprise you, but I happen to believe economic growth is the best answer to the developing world’s unsustainable population trajectory.

        As for the green space in someone’s neighborhood and how many people it could feed, well that depends. In my last neighborhood, the answer was zero, thanks to industrial contaminants like arsenic and lead.

        With all of the above, there are a host of variables and mitigating factors you don’t seem to be considering before you dismiss environmental concerns as mere “rhetoric.”


      3. A couple posts above, Ben said what this was about:

        This is about confronting the deep problem with a culture that turns everything it can into a disposable commodity, without a second thought for the sustainability of the resources we’re consuming as ever-increasing rates or for the generations that will follow us.

        If that is the case, then the bag issue really is about building solidarity about an issue that is not essential in itself. In other words, it is about “building awareness” towards shaping the thoughts of society in one direction or another. This was also the reason why I suggested that the implications of such a policy should be considered if it was consistently applied to everything else.

        The other point was that regardless of whether that is a fair characterization of the culture at large or not, just because one of us feels that the culture ought to think differently doesn’t mean that we have the right to force it on someone else through taxation or legislation. That is why I said that we should let Seattle govern Seattle (they have the freedom to try it out for themselves at the local level.)

        However, in keeping with Ben’s redefined thesis statement above, I would like to present this problem in the light of another perspective:

        1) When God created the heavens and the earth, he declared them good, but in short order he cursed the ground for Adam’s sake which has had an impact upon every following generation.

        2) Even the cursed earth that Adam left behind for his seed was such that it was not unusual for man to live for nine-hundred years or more. God destroyed that world as well, and the generations that followed were reduced from the previous nine hundred years to an expected three score and ten.

        3) When thinking concerning the longevity of the earth and the generation that that will follow us, the book of Revelation tells us that God is about to unleash quite a few things upon this earth including plague, pollution, disease, and death. Blood upon the waters is a bigger problem than an overflowing landfill.

        4) Concluding all of this, it is promised that the earth and its works will be burned up and that the elements shall melt with fervent heat. (2 Peter 3:10) Depending upon what it burns, that fire might even release a few toxic fumes into the atmosphere.

        Thus, addressing the theme of a prior question concerning “what moral right do we have…” I would suggest that we have the moral responsibility to manage what we have already inherited, but that we do not need to be overly concerned about small things that are beyond our control.

        If Christ had come in our day instead of two thousand years ago, what would do you think he would say if asked about whether we should be using paper or plastic? He might have said that we should take care not to strain at a gnat and swallow a camel. This world is a temporary thing that serves a greater purpose.The world was made for man, not man for the world.

        If the ultimate goal is that our children should inherit a better world, the Christian perspective foresees that God already has a plan, even creating “a new heavens and a new earth” (Isaiah 65 & 66, 2 Peter 3:13, Revelation 21:1).

        If we are trying to influence society in one direction or another, so that our children might inherit a better world, I think it would leave a better legacy for future generations if we pointed towards respecting God who has promised to “make all things new” even creating a “new heavens and a new earth” (see Isaiah 65, 66, 2 Peter 3:13, Revelation 21:1.)

        But trying to perfect this world under its current leadership is doomed from the start. We can talk about the sustainability of resources on this and that, but the fact remains that the powers that be are more interested in keeping a “jack boot in the face of humanity” than working towards any sort of utopia. Once we add in the doomsday clock, the question of whether or not we burn or bury a plastic bag seems rather trivial.

        Perhaps this really boils down to world perspective. Are we planning that this earth belongs to man for the next thousand generations to come, or do we look for another country and the Sun of Righteousness with healing in his wings? If a man has two masters, he will love the one and hate the other.


      4. I don’t necessarily disagree w/your “let Seattle govern Seattle” argument.

        But I want to respond to your larger point. You say this comes down to what kind of perspective you hold about the world around us. I agree. And I think we have fundamentally different perspectives.

        I believe (as you do) that God made the world good. I also believe that human sin, however devastating, cannot cancel out that goodness. God still cares about this world. Redemption in the Bible is about so much more than human souls; it’s about the entire created order.

        The pattern of Christ’s coming is always the same: God and his kingdom coming down here, not the other way around. God will return to this world. Yes, it will have to be purged and purified. Yes the old will give way to the new — or, more precisely, the REnewed. It’s significant that Christ spoke of the “renewal of all things” (Mt 19), not the eradication of all things.

        As for the book of Revelation, it has to be read in its historical context as a polemic against the Roman Empire.

        I don’t think we should kid ourselves into thinking we can create a utopia. But we are taught to pray “your kingdom come.” The clear force of that prayer is “your kingdom come NOW,” and the clear implication is that we have some part to play in this happening. So I don’t believe we’re allowed to just sit back and wait for it all to burn.

        In Genesis 1, God made humanity stewards of this world. He entrusted it to us. Someday, I believe we’ll have to give an account for how we cared for it.

        Besides, even if this world were headed for divine incineration, we have no idea when that might be. In which case it would be far more responsible to treat the earth as if another thousand generations will depend on it, rather than shrug our shoulders and say, “What’s the point? It’s all going to burn anyway.”


      5. I can agree with most of what you are saying here, but I suggest that this (below) is something that really ought to have a separate blog topic or even private mail to allow for full discussion:

        As for the book of Revelation, it has to be read in its historical context as a polemic against the Roman Empire.

        Why would Revelation have to be read in a “historical context as a polemic against the Roman Empire?” Who said this, and under what authority?

        It’s events are descriptive of our modern day, and some aspects would not have even been considered as a possibility until this last century. Many of the symbols could not have been recognized back in the day of John Gill and Matthew Henry. Revelation describes the day of the Lord and this vision even uses some of the same language and imagery to describe his return as Jesus used in the gospels. This was not a polemic against the Roman Empire.

        It has been my experience that Calvinists often embrace views such as “Preterism” or “Partial Preterism” that allows them to think of themselves as the embodiment of the “Kingdom of God” and I have also read seminary-style textbooks where plans were laid out to “conquer the world” for Reformed Theology… such as “The Theology of Christian Resistance” and “The Tactics of Christian Resistance.”

        But when we pray “thy kingdom come” the context is that his kingdom is not of this world, and rather it looks toward that time when Christ shall return and come into his kingdom. He is not coming to “move in” to a kingdom that has been prepared for him, but rather he is going to have to destroy those before that do not want to surrender their kingdom. That is why he comes with a sword, and that is why the Rock will strike the image at its feet.

        I think that it might be a good time to take a more serious look at Revelation and the world around us.


      6. You’re right that this is not the best place for an extended conversation about Revelation. Otherwise this could become one long, meandering comment thread! So just a couple brief points for now (and maybe more to come later in the form of a blog post).

        Every biblical book has to be read in light of its historical, cultural, and literary context. Revelation is typical of apocalyptic literature of its day, and its imagery and style have to be understood in light of this. As for its historical/cultural context, Revelation was written to seven churches in the Roman province of Asia Minor. It was a call to stand firm in the face of persecution and a reassurance that God would vindicate faithful believers in the end. As someone who’s visited the sites of all seven churches and studied them in their original setting, I think it’s quite safe to say that Revelation was written as a polemic against the Roman Empire.

        I agree that Jesus’ kingdom is “not of this world” (since he said as much to Pilate before his crucifixion), but the question we must ask is, what exactly did he mean by this? I’ve written about that elsewhere, in case you’re interested:


  4. Did you just declare yourself as the authority for this “polemic” theory? Revelation is not typical apocalyptic literature. If you accept it as canonical, then it is a book of prophecy (Rev 22:18-19) of the day of the Lord and it even carries a dire warning against anyone that would alter any of its words. Whether or not one has toured the Middle East hardly seems relevant (seriously, now…)

    What did Jesus mean when he said that his kingdom is “not of this world?” Since you asked…

    He meant that if His kingdom were of this world, then would His servants fight. So to answer that question, we should be looking for when His servants fight. Revelation describes His return when He comes into His kingdom, with the sword and His heavenly host, when the god of this world (2 Corinthians 4:4), even of this present evil world (Galatians 1:4), will be overturned and a new King established over all, and then it will become His world, but not without a fight.

    Rev 22:7 KJV
    (7) Behold, I come quickly: blessed is he that keepeth the sayings of the prophecy of this book.

    I did read your blog article that you recommended, but I think you missed the point. There are not two concurrent worlds coexisting on top of each other. The new world must completely replace the old. I would strongly encourage you to be willing to take another look at this book as if it were a book of prophecy, rather than merely some “polemic” against the Roman Empire.


    1. Um…no, I did not just declare myself the authority on the subject. But if I have some experience or expertise in a particular field, I have the right to say so.

      “If you accept it as canonical, then it is a book of prophecy.”
      I’m not disputing that it’s a book of prophecy. But every biblical prophecy has a historical context which informs our understanding of it.

      “Whether or not one has toured the Middle East hardly seems relevant.”
      Seems reasonable to me that studying the ancient Near East is useful when reading a book that is the product of the ancient Near East.


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