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How eco bans harm business

07.08.2019
Business, Ecology, Society

Responsible New York restaurateurs, abandoning plastic tubes, faced a sudden problem: customers began to take home metal counterparts. Bloomberg journalist explains why bans won't help change consumer behavior.
Hardly any consumer product deserves as much blame as plastic tubes. They have become a symbol of human wastefulness and irresponsible attitude to the environment. The perfect embodiment of evil. People use a straw only once, and it stays with us forever - at landfills, in the waters of the oceans.

That is why authorities in some regions have banned plastic tubes and other disposable tableware. For example, they did in New York. The solution seemed very logical, even despite the fact that the tubes make up an insignificant part of all the plastic that is thrown out annually in the world.

But in the end, the ban on the tubes clearly showed how complex, at first glance, elementary ideas can be implemented. He also demonstrated how these or other initiatives can be more harmful than inaction. And this is due to the quirks of consumer behavior.

It is enough to look at just one example: not so long ago restaurants and bars replaced plastic tubules with metal ones. Immediately after this, they encountered an unexpected nuisance, which the New York Post wrote about: it turned out that customers were happy to take the straws home. Restaurateurs were in a difficult situation. Metal straws are much more expensive - about a dollar apiece, while plastic straws cost only a couple cents. So the costs of replacing one with another quickly add up to an impressive amount.

All this would not be such a problem if the very ducts that visitors to bars and restaurants carry with them were used regularly. But people just brag about them as something new, and then they throw a new toy into the cutlery dryer and forget about it forever. And this means that the metal analogues of straws (to make them, you first need to extract metal, and then spend a lot of energy to turn it into a thin sheet and turn it into a tube) were not a very effective way to solve environmental problems.

Another example is reusable shopping bags. A lot more energy is spent on their production than on the production of a disposable paper or plastic bag. So such a replacement becomes justified only if you use them at least 40 times. But most shoppers are lost, thrown away or simply remain somewhere on the far shelf of the cabinet long before they serve their due date. As a result, the effect of them is reduced to zero.

Most likely, the situation with metal tubes is not much different from the story with eco bags. And if they are not used the required number of times, then the damage from such straws will be greater than from their plastic predecessors.

But there is another solution dictated by the economy: instead of banning disposable plastic dishes, you can tax it.

So people will have to pay or, as economists would say, internalize environmental costs. This will force consumers to change their behavior: people in general will reduce the consumption of plastic, and those who do not already see the special advantages of using disposable tableware will use it even less.

Practice shows that even small fines can significantly change the behavior of buyers: for example, in Chicago, a tax of only 7% on packages in stores led to a decrease in their use by 42%.

The amount of tax may vary depending on what damage the environment poses to one thing or another. So people will begin to think more about what type of plastic is harmful to the environment. In addition, the funds received can be used to solve environmental problems.

So no matter how obvious the solution may seem, the most important thing is to make it work in real life. And here taxes can be more effective than prohibitions.