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How the Plastic Panic Hurts Us—and the Planet

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How the Plastic Panic Hurts Us—and the Planet

10 Blocks podcast February 26, 2020
The Social Order

John Tierney joins Brian Anderson to discuss the campaign to ban the use of plastic products and the flawed logic behind the recycling movement—the subjects of Tierney’s story, “The Perverse Panic over Plastic,” from the Winter 2020 Issue of City Journal.

Hundreds of cities and eight states have outlawed or regulated single-use plastic bags. But according to Tierney, the plastic panic doesn’t make sense. Plastic bags are the best environmental choice at the supermarket, not the worst, and cities that built expensive recycling programs—in the hopes of turning a profit on recycled products—have instead paid extra to get rid of their plastic waste, mostly by shipping it to Asian countries with low labor costs. However, the bans will likely continue as political leaders and private companies seek a renewed sense of moral superiority.

Audio Transcript

Brian Anderson: Welcome back to the 10 Blocks podcast. This is Brian Anderson, the editor of City Journal. Coming up on today's show I'll be joined in the studio by John Tierney. John's here to discuss his latest feature essay for City Journal, which appeared in our Winter 2020 Issue. It's called “The Perverse Panic over Plastic.” It's a powerful essay that exposes some of the weak thinking behind the campaign to rid us of plastic bags, bottles, and straws. You can find it on the City Journal website, and we'll be sure to link to it in the podcast description. John also has a brand new book out, which we'll talk about toward the end of the interview, called The Power of Bad: How the Negativity Effect Rules Us and How We Can Rule It. That's it for the introduction. We'll take a quick break and we'll be back with John Tierney.

Brian Anderson: Hello again everyone. This is Brian Anderson, the editor of City Journal. Joining me in the studio is John Tierney. You can follow him on Twitter @JohnTierneyNYC. John is a Contributing Editor at City Journal, and before joining us he was a reporter and columnist for the New York Times. He's also a bestselling author. His latest book was just released at the end of the year. It's called The Power of Bad: How the Negativity Effect Rules Us and How We Can Rule It. It's coauthored with Roy Baumeister and you can find it on Amazon or wherever books are sold. We'll talk to John briefly about his new book later, but we were eager to get him on the podcast to discuss his latest essay for City Journal which is in our winter 2020 issue, called “The Perverse Panic over Plastic.” The essay was just adapted in the Wall Street Journal so you can check out a shorter version of the piece on their website if you're interested. John, thanks for joining us.

John Tierney: Thank you Brian.

Brian Anderson: So to start, I want to remind our listeners that you've been studying the question of recycling and environmentalism in America for decades now. Back in 1996 the Times published a seminal piece by you on the issue under the provocative headline, “Recycling Is Garbage.” In recent years it seems that the campaign against plastics has really grown. So hundreds of cities and now I think eight states have passed laws to ban or regulate single use plastics, plastic bags most notably. New York's ban on plastic bags is set to go into effect very soon on March 1st. But you write in this essay that if we really cared about the environment, we'd throw our plastics into landfills and incinerators rather than recycle them. And that the plastic bag ban in grocery stores and other retail outlets is going to be counterproductive. So what's the logic behind that position?

John Tierney: You know, it's very strange. I mean, the plastic panic, as I call it, is really even crazier than recycling. I mean recycling was an expensive and time-consuming way to accomplish very little. But the plastic panic is not only a waste of time and money, but it's actually bad for the environment. Because it increases carbon emissions and it actually increases ocean pollution too. The logic behind it, there really... I mean the basic explanation is that environmentalist for like 50 years, just have something against plastic. And they've been looking for one excuse after another to ban it. In the seventies and eighties they were saying that we're running out of petroleum so we can't use plastic. We have to save it. Then there were things that it was causing litter, clogging storm drains. And lately the excuse has been that it's a way to reduce carbon emissions. But if you look at the facts, it's the reverse.

Brian Anderson: Yes. Let's stop there for a minute. Why not just shift to, say, cloth bags?

John Tierney: The problem is, is the cloth bags, or any kind of reusable bag, is much thicker. It takes a lot more energy and resources to manufacture those bags. Also more energy to ship them because they're a lot heavier. So the green logic is well we'll just keep using these bags over and over again and that will save it. But in the real world, people do not use their bags that often. People forget them about half the time they go to the supermarket. The typical tote bag is used only about 15 times. And meanwhile these bags have much bigger carbon footprints than those really thin gossamer grocery bags that we get. And so to offset the initial carbon footprint of a cotton tote bag, you would have to use it 173 times, which nobody does.

John Tierney: To offset people switch to paper bags. Those things have a carbon footprint that are four times the size of a plastic bag. They also take up 12 times more room in the landfill. So basically by banning the thin plastic bags, people end up using thicker grocery bags. They also, because those single use plastic bags, they're called that, but most people actually reuse them to line their trash bins or pick up after their pets. So people do use them more than once. And when you ban them at the grocery store, people end up buying new plastic bags to make up for that, and they buy thicker ones. So again, you're basically increasing the carbon footprint. You're adding more carbon to the atmosphere.

Brian Anderson: It's true. I use my plastic bags for the cat litter.

John Tierney: Exactly.

Brian Anderson: To take out, to clean the litter. Do that almost every day. So I would go out and buy plastic bags, I would assume, if that was not available to me.

John Tierney: Right. And you probably would typically buy a thicker plastic bag. Those are the ones that tend to be on sale. Those grocery bags are so thin that, I mean they're really marvels of engineering. The fact that you can get something that thin with so little resources in it that is so strong and waterproof.

Brian Anderson: But isn't one of the arguments made that they don't really biodegrade, and so that they stay in the landfill forever.

John Tierney: Well that's a good thing because the problem with them in landfills is not that we don't have enough room for them, and they take up very little room, but that stuff as it decomposes, it releases greenhouse gases. That's what cotton and paper bags do. Now they they can trap these things. But the fact that it doesn't biodegrade means that nothing in it, the carbon, those bags are basically made of natural gas that came out of the ground. You're putting it back in the ground. So the carbon from there is not going to escape into the atmosphere. It's not going to pollute the oceans. So in effect, it's a very good way to dispose of it.

Brian Anderson: Turning back to recycling, people listening to the podcast might not have followed this, but there's been a growing logistical problem with recycling and what we do with recycled products. Up until fairly recently, American cities were shipping the bulk of their plastic waste to China, where it was supposed to be made into a variety of new goods, shoes, bags, other products. But China has banned that practice. And so what's happening to the that waste now? You know, was it even a good idea to be shipping our waste in this way to China?

John Tierney: No, because it's, I mean, it's more-

Brian Anderson: Why not leave it in the landfill, right?

John Tierney: Exactly. I mean for one thing it's more expensive to have to ship it, all that... And cities end up, cities expected to save money on recycling. They thought we're going to have these valuable materials people will buy from us. What they discovered was sorting the stuff and recycling it is so expensive and so labor intensive that you end up having to pay people to take it off your hands, and it's more expensive than it would be to put it in the landfill. And there is just no market in the United States for this stuff. So the only place to send it is to places with very low labor cost. As you say, used to be China. Now China closed that off so people have been shipping it to Malaysia, Indonesia, Vietnam, some other countries.

The problem with that, aside from that it cost cities extra to do this... And by the way, the more intelligent cities have given up and are just starting to put the stuff in the landfill. But to the extent they can find anyone to take these bales of plastic recyclables off their hand, they're going to these countries, these developing countries with very low labor cost, but also very primitive waste management systems. And what happens when they get there, there have been exposes by journalists and by Greenpeace and other environmentalists, is that the stuff gets... It's what researchers call mismanaged waste. Some of it just gets dumped illegally. Some of it is burned, which creates toxic fumes. And a lot of it just ends up leaking one way or another into rivers and into the environment. So it ends up in the ocean.

Brian Anderson: So when you see these pictures of rivers choked with plastic, in a way that's an outcome of this kind of system.

John Tierney: Exactly. I mean, some of that... When you put plastic in the recycling bin, there's a chance that some of that is going to end up in an Asian river and it's going to end up in the great Pacific Garbage Patch. We probably heard about that. And there was these lamentations, that the BBC did a very famous documentary, about our throwaway societies being blamed for this garbage in the Pacific Ocean and elsewhere. But when researchers have looked at that garbage, they find in the first place, about half of it comes from ships. There's an awful lot of fishing nets and things. And we ought to be trying to stop that by enforcing laws against littering in the sea. But the other, but the rest of it almost all comes from Asia. A little bit from South America and Africa, but it's basically coming from these developing countries that don't have good systems for processing waste.

So the best thing you can do, if you care about seeing a saving Flipper and the creatures of the sea is put that plastic in the trash so it doesn't get shipped anywhere. So it goes to a landfill or an incinerator instead of ending up in the ocean.

Brian Anderson: One of the very interesting parts of your essay is speculative, but it's trying to figure out why these kind of panics take hold about plastic. And in general, why there is so much kind of wooly-minded thinking about environmental issues. This is something you've written about for a long time. What, what is the upshot of your argument in this piece? Because it's quite fascinating, just for our listeners.

John Tierney: Well part of it is, I've always thought that recycling is a sort of sacrament to expiate guilt. That we feel guilty about being consumers and using all this stuff. And it's then sort of a right of atonement. But the plastic thing, there's some of that in it, but the closest parallel, I was fascinated to discover some research into sumptuary laws from the 13th to the 18th centuries. And it was amazing. I mean, just in Europe, these things occurred worldwide, but these were laws that forbade people from using products the same way we're banning plastic grocery bags. And there were thousands of them passed across Europe, and an awful lot of it was by social class. The commoners were not allowed to wear silk or satin or gold things. Someone below the rank of a countess couldn't wear more than one ring. And there were, the people couldn't have silk in their curtains. You couldn't have more than two courses at dinner.

John Tierney: There were all these laws restricting people's consumption. And they had rationales for this. It was supposed to be saving money, stopping the country from importing goods. But the laws never achieved their stated purpose. And when scholars who've looked at it, they said the real reason these laws went on is that they gave rulers and nobles this sense of power. They got to, it reinforced their social status that we got to tell other people what products they could use. And I think that's really what's behind a lot of the plastic. It gives people a feeling of moral superiority, and it again allows them to expiate that guilt. So no matter how much fuel that environmentalists and politicians are burning on their way to vacation homes or climate conferences, they can feel virtuous because they have issued an edict stopping everyone from using plastic grocery bags.

Brian Anderson: I mentioned at the top of the show that you have an exciting new book out. It's called, again, The Power of Bad: How the Negativity Effect Rules Us and How We Can Rule It. Maybe just for our listeners, describe what that book is all about, what the negativity effect is, and perhaps that has something to do too with plastics.

John Tierney: Yes. The Power of Bad is about the negativity effect, which is the universal tendency of bad events and bad emotions to have more impact than good emotions. Bad is stronger than good. And there's a reason that evolved. It kept our ancestors alive by being alert to deadly threats. The problem is, is that in today's environment we're surrounded all the time by people exploiting that negativity bias of ours trying to scare us all the time. And we don't realize how well things are going in the world because we're constantly being surrounded by people trying to scare us.

And also, in the book we talk about how this negativity bias skews our judgment, and our perception in personal relationships, in marriages, and in school, in business, and in other kind of things. And the plastic panic is a great example of what in the book we call the crisis crisis, which is the way that politicians and journalists and activists exploit that negativity bias by hyping this continual series of threats to scare us. And that they typically lead to actions that grow the government and leave us all worse off because they benefit special interests instead of the public. And the plastic panic is this example where we've, for 50 years now, there've been kind of horror stories about what plastic is doing. And they know it's this sort of miracle substance that doesn't degrade in the environment, that is waterproof, that's light, that's cheap, it's healthy in that it keeps food, it preserves food, it combats illnesses. But we just had all these people scaring us about it.

And this has been good for environmentalists who are doing fundraising pitches. It's been good for the companies that make these reusable tote bags. But it's really not... It's been very inconvenient for the public and bad for the environment.

Brian Anderson: What's the reception to the book been like so far?

John Tierney: It's been very encouraging. I think people, over and over again, we say, God, I never thought about these things. The way that someone compliments you, gives you lots of compliments, but it's only the one little word of criticism that you remember. And I think people don't realize in their relationships how what really determines the success of a marriage. It isn't the good things you do for the other person. It's how you avoid doing bad stuff and how you deal with negativity. And that's the case in business.

And I think people were also just surprised, in this chapter we have on the crisis crisis, if you actually look at how well things are going in the world and yet how scared everyone is. The strangest thing is that people in the richest societies in history, where the luckiest people in history, are the most pessimistic about the future. And they have the most distorted view. They don't realize how much life has improved for people around the world. And I'm hoping that the book will cheer them up a bit.

Brian Anderson: Well, we need a little bit of cheering up with this virus outbreak that's a scaring everybody in the world. And maybe this is a real crisis rather than part of the crisis crisis.

One aspect of panic these days, beyond plastic, is our concern about social media. And I'm actually finding very good people to follow on Twitter, scientists who are being very responsible and clear in reporting the facts of the viral outbreak, and what we should be worried about, and what we shouldn't. But there's also a lot of stuff on there that is probably fear-mongering.

John Tierney: Exactly.

Brian Anderson: What's the view of Twitter that you have in the context of the book?

John Tierney: Well, I started out thinking in a bind, the usual line that there's all these Twitter Wars and there's so much vitriol on social media. And I was... But I found again that this was a bit of the crisis crisis too. That yes, there is some awful lot of negativity on social media, especially among the political class, the merchants of bad, as in people who are alarmist.

But the surprising thing to me was that, on the whole, social media is much more positive than mass media. Because the mass media has got to appeal to these common emotions. And fear, and disgust, these are very, are universal emotions that are easy to appeal to. Positive things, the things that inspire us, art, culture, history, these tend to be much more niche products that people have their own idiosyncratic likes. In mass media it's hard to to get a mass audience for that.

But on social media you just have all these interest groups, and that are pursuing all these positive things. And when you look at what, how people behave on social media, they tend to share positive stories much more than negative stories. And contrary to the, some of the alarms you've heard, that tweeting positively, posting positive stuff, actually gets you more followers and those tweets travel farther than the negative tweets. You know, the negative stuff will get retweeted more quickly, and you can get that outrage cycle. But over the long haul you actually get more followers and a better reception on social media by being positive.

So I think you know what you're doing, as far as who to follow, that's what we advise in the book, was just try to go on a low bad diet. Curate your news feed. Follow people that aren't just spewing vitriol everyday about the evils of the other side. Try and find people that are sharing some of the good things going on in the world.

Brian Anderson: The book is called The Power of Bad: How the Negativity Effect Rules Us and How We Can Rule It. And John's latest story for City Journal, which we've discussed here, is called “The Perverse Panic over Plastic.” Don't forget to check out John Tierney's work on our website, www.city-journal.org. We'll link to his author page and the essay in the description. You can follow John on Twitter @JohnTierneyNYC. You can also follow City Journal on Twitter @CityJournal and on Instagram @cityjournal_mi. And as always, if you like what you've heard on the podcast, please leave us a rating on iTunes. Thanks for listening and thanks very much John, for joining us.

John Tierney: Thank you Brian.

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