Shifting Costs Back and Forth
Externalizing costs is a clever strategy. When business off-loads cost of dumping waste or cleaning up the environment or treating medical conditions caused by their toxic stew, they have successfully externalized costs in order to realize greater profit. Nice strategy, eh?
Efforts to encourage lower impact products or just a reduction in stuff altogether are often a recognition that those costs belong with the producers and users rather than with those poor or unfortunate enough to be incidentally dumped on in the process of making and distributing stuff.
Once the costs of stuff like plastic become more clear, we’re more willing to change. Once we find out that babies are born toxic, for example, and we freak out saying, “How could this have happened?” and we find that we are better able to hear our options. We become more willing to consider changes in our collective lifestyles that will either internalize costs (choose a more expensive but less toxic alternative, like buying a hybrid car) or remove the costs altogether (stop doing the thing that requires the stuff choice, like walking, biking, or taking the bus or train instead).
Actually, I think the big changes, the regulated and legislated changes, come when we can show the costs very clearly. That’s when those to whom the costs have been externalized start lobbying for change. The people paying medical bills, the cities paying for waste pick up, the cancer centers tracing clear lines from product to patient, the clean-up crews combing beaches for plastics and the dead birds and sea creatures who eat plastics—these are the effective voices in making changes. When the shock of the costs becomes too much, we push for change justified in terms of measurements and costs. We change in order to save money now and later.
If that’s what it takes, that’s fine by me.
Who is saying NO to plastics?
My lists aren’t meant to be comprehensive. This is a sample to show that the tide is turning against plastics.
Local rejection of plastic bags and plastic bottles is one of the big stories recently. There are a lot of reasons to ban plastic bottles. For some, the issue is molecular migration of BPA and other toxins from container to contents. For others, the issue is single-use bottles in landfill. Still others are more concerned with water privatization and the bottled water dependence that follows.
- North Carolina banned plastic bottles in landfill. They must be recycled.
- Concord, Massachusetts, has banned the sale of bottled water, but not everyone is happy about it.
- Bundanoon, New South Wales, Australia banned the sale of bottled water.
- The University of Ottawa has been working to make the campus more public water friendly in anticipation of a bottled water ban.
- Toronto will implement a ban on water bottles in 2011, and guidelines to reduce bottled water use are already in place.
- Others just discourage the use of plastic bottles or bottled water. March 11th is Bottled Water Free Day in Canada.
- The city of Hamilton, Ontario, opted for a public education campaign rather than a ban.
Both Health Canada and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency have declared BPA a chemical of concern. As concern about this toxic plastic ingredient spreads, more cautions and bans follow. A group of 60 scientists urge a worldwide ban on BPA.
- Canada, Australia, New Zealand, and Denmark have banned BPA in food containers for young children, and calls for bans are moving through Europe.
- BPA baby bottle ban failed in the California Assembly this week, but the vote was close and bill may be revived.
- Many U.S. states have banned BPA, including Connecticut, Minnesota, Vermont, Washington, and Wisconsin. Maine’s Department of Environmental Protection recommended a ban this month and New York’s Senate and Assembly unanimously passed a ban last week. This story is on the move, and more bans will follow.
- A U.S. ban and regulation can’t come soon enough for the Natural Resources Defense Council. Yesterday they filed suit against the U.S. Food and Drug Administration “for its failure to act on a petition to ban the use of bisphenol A (BPA) in food packaging, food containers, and other materials likely to come into contact with food.”
Plastic bags blow around. They blow into trees, and they blow into the sea, where they look like jellyfish and are eaten by sea creatures. Images of plastic bags are easy to find and difficult to forget.
This should be the easiest of these changes, since the costs are clear both to the consumer and to the environment, and the solution is simple. Plastic bags are so easy to replace, since a cloth bag will do. (Yes, remember to wash your reusable bag, since a study showed that bags can get dirty. Hello! Then WASH it, dear Liza.)
- Washington, DC, has reduced plastic bag use with a tax. Higher cost has meant less use.
- The city of Bankok has created as an incentive a 45-day discount if shoppers bring their own bag.
- China does not allow retailers to give out free plastic bags, and their reasoning is that this saves oil.
- California is on track for a statewide plastic bag ban despite their (perhaps temporary) failure to ban BPA in baby bottles. Follow progress of the ban on The Bag Monster blog.
- In a different turn of events, Walmart is experimenting with banning plastic bags in some stores.
These are steps in helping us move beyond waste. Friday I’ll write more about that big change.
Great organizations doing good work on anti-plastic activism