Plastic Bags Fact Sheet
Earth Policy Release
Worldwide, a trillion single-use plastic bags are used each year, nearly 2 million each minute.
The amount of energy required to make 12 plastic shopping bags could drive a car for a mile.
City, state, and national governments around the world are trying to limit plastic bag litter and waste with bans and fees.
The oldest existing plastic bag tax is in Denmark, passed in 1993. Danes use very few light-weight single-use plastic bags: about 4 per person each year.
At least 16 African countries have announced bans on certain types of plastic bags, to varying levels of effectiveness. Before a ban on thin bags—which tear readily and get caught by the wind—went into effect in 2003, plastic bags were christened South Africa’s “national flower” because of their prevalence in bushes and trees. Thicker bags are taxed.
Many European countries tax plastic bags or ban free distribution. The EU Parliament is discussing measures that could require member states to cut plastic bag use by 80 percent by 2019. A memo on the proposal noted that “plastic bags have been found in stomachs of several endangered marine species,” including various turtles and porpoises, and 94 percent of North Sea birds.
The provinces of Ontario and Quebec have each halved their plastic bag use through a variety of measures, including store incentives for using reusable bags and retailer-imposed fees.
Livestock choking on plastic bags—from camels in the United Arab Emirates to sheep in Mauritania and cattle in India and Texas—have led communities to consider regulation.
Currently 100 billion plastic bags pass through the hands of U.S. consumers every year—almost one bag per person each day. Laid end-to-end, they could circle the equator 1,330 times.
Over 150 U.S. cities and counties ban or require fees for plastic bags. California passed the first statewide ban in 2014, though Hawaii had a de facto ban through county ordinances. Over 49 million Americans live in communities that have passed plastic bag bans or fees.
U.S. cities with bag bans include San Francisco (as of 2007), Portland (2011), Seattle (2012), Austin (2013), Los Angeles (2014), Dallas (to begin in 2015), and Chicago (2015).
The plastics industry has spent millions of dollars to challenge plastic bag ordinances.
Washington, D.C., was the first U.S. city to require food and alcohol retailers to charge customers 5¢ for each plastic or paper bag. Proceeds are shared between stores and environmental clean-ups.
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Data and additional resources available at www.earth-policy.org.
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Earth Policy Institute
Ten years ago peak oil was assumed to be a rather straight forward, transparent process. What was then thought of as “oil” production was going to stop growing around the middle of the last decade.
Shortages were going to occur; prices were going to rise; demand was going to drop; economies would falter; and eventually a major economic depression was going to occur. Fortunately or not, depending on your point of view, the last ten years have turned out to a lot more complicated than expected. Production of what is now known as “conventional” oil did indeed peak back around 2005, and many of the phenomena that were expected to result did occur and continue to this day.
Oil prices have climbed several-fold from where they were in the early years of the last decade – surging upwards from $20 a barrel to circa $100. This rapid jump in energy costs did slow many nations’ economies, cut oil consumption, and with some other factors set off a “great” recession. Real economic hardships have not yet occurred
What is so interesting about all this is that a temporary surge in what was heretofore a little known source of oil in the U.S. is masking the larger story of what is taking place in the global oil situation
Much of this is due to the reaction that set in from high oil prices and increased government intervention into the economy. In the case of the U.S., Washington turned on the modern day equivalent of the printing presses and began handing out money that was used to develop expensive sources of oil and gas. The high selling price per barrel, coupled with cheap money led to a boom in U.S. oil production where fortuitous geological conditions in North Dakota and South Texas allowed the production of shale oil at money-making prices provided oil prices stay high.
U.S. unconventional oil production soared by some 3.3 million barrels a day (b/d) in the last four years, and, if the US Energy Information Administration is correct, is due to climb by another million b/d or so in 2015. While this jump in production was unexpected by most, it was just another phenomenon resulting from unprecedentedly high oil prices, which in turn resulted from the lack of adequate “conventional” oil production. As is well known, economic development can have major reactions and feedbacks
What is so interesting about all this is that a temporary surge in what was heretofore a little known source of oil in the U.S. is masking the larger story of what is taking place in the global oil situation. The simple answer is that except for the U.S. shale oil surge almost no increase in oil production is taking place around the world. No other country as yet has gotten significant amounts of shale oil or gas into production. Russia’s conventional oil production seems to be peaking at present, and its Arctic oil production is still many years, or perhaps even decades, away. Brazilian production is going nowhere at the minute, deepwater production in the Gulf of Mexico is stagnating and the Middle East is busy killing itself. On top of all this, global demand for oil continues to increase by some million b/d each year – most of which is going to Asia.
If we step back and acknowledge that the shale oil phenomenon will be over in a couple of years and that oil production is dropping in the rest of the world, then we have to expect that the remainder of the peak oil story will play out shortly. The impact of shrinking global oil production, which is been on hold for nearly a decade, will appear. Prices will go much higher, this time with lowered expectations that more oil will be produced as prices go higher. The great recession, which has never really gone away for most, will return with renewed vigor and all that it implies.
An additional factor which has grown considerably worse in the last ten years is climate change, largely brought about by the combustion of fossil fuels. We are already seeing global weather anomalies with record high and low temperatures and record floods as well as droughts. This too will take its toll on economic development as mitigating this change will soon become enormously expensive. We are already seeing migrations of restive peoples. Thousands are dying in efforts to get from the Middle East and Africa into the EU. Millions are already homeless across the Middle East and recent developments foretell hundreds of thousands if not millions more being added to ranks of refugees as decades and even centuries-old political arrangements collapse.
All this is telling us that the peak oil crisis we have been watching for the last ten years has not gone away, but is turning out to be a more prolonged event than previous believed. Many do not believe that peak oil is really happening as they read daily of surging oil production and falling oil prices. Rarely do they hear that another shoe has yet to drop and that much worse in terms of oil shortages, higher prices and interrupted economic growth is just ahead.
We are sitting in the eye of the peak oil crisis and few recognize it. Five years from now, it should be apparent to all. More
Perhaps you’ve seen one of the recent barrage of articles claiming that fears of an imminent peak and decline in world oil production have either been dispelled (because we actually have plenty of oil) or are misplaced (because climate change is the only environmental problem we should be concerned with). I’m not buying either argument.
Why? Let’s start with the common assertion that oil supplies are sufficiently abundant so that a peak in production is many years or decades away. Everyone agrees that planet Earth still holds plenty of petroleum or petroleum-like resources: that’s the kernel of truth at the heart of most attempted peak-oil debunkery. However, extracting and delivering those resources at an affordable price is becoming a bigger challenge year by year. For the oil industry, costs of production have rocketed; they’re currently soaring at a rate of about 10 percent annually. Producers need very high oil prices to justify going after the resources that remain—tight oil from source rocks, Arctic oil, ultra-deepwater oil, and bitumen. But oil prices have already risen to the point where many users of petroleum just can’t afford to pay more. The US economyhas a habit of responding to oil price hikes by swooning into recession, and during the shift from $20 per barrel oil to $100 per barrel oil (which occurred between 2002 and 2011), the economies of most industrialized countries began to shudder and stall. What would be their response to a sustained oil price of $150 or $200? We may never know: it remains to be seen whether the world can afford to pay what will be required for oil producers to continue wresting liquid hydrocarbons from the ground at current rates. While industry apologists who choose to focus only on the abundance of remaining petroleum resources claim that peak oil is rubbish, the market is telling Houston we have a problem.
Meanwhile some environmentalists have abandoned the subject of peak oil because they believe it’s just not relevant. For them, climate change is the only thing that matters. Society must deal with its collective carbon habit by going cold turkey on all fossil fuels. We can make the needed energy transition through the strategies of substitution and efficiency. Develop low-carbon energy sources (solar and wind, possibly nuclear), and use energy smarter! Electrify transport with battery-powered cars! Get with the program and stop wasting time on side issues!
Like the abundant-resource argument, this line of thinking proceeds from an unassailable premise. Anthropogenic climate change is indeed the nastiest, gnarliest environmental issue humanity has ever faced. The potential consequences stretch centuries or millennia into the future and imperil not just humanity, but thousands or millions of other species. But peak oil won’t go away just because it’s an inconvenient distraction from addressing that gargantuan issue. In fact, the two problems are closely linked and society will need to address both by way of a realistic, comprehensive strategy. I’ll get back to that point toward the end of this essay.
Is the necessary transition to renewable energy a simple matter of politics and regulation, as many climate campaigners seem to suggest? Hardly. Transitioning the electricity sector is a huge task in itself (the variability of wind and solar power implies soaring costs for energy storage, capacity redundancy, and grid upgrades once these sources start to provide a substantial portion of total electrical energy consumed). But liquid fuels pose an even bigger hurdle. Even the most advanced batteries do a poor job of storing energy when compared to oil; that’s why we’re unlikely ever to see electric airplanes, tractors, ships, 18-wheel trucks, or bulldozers. Some energy pundits tout compressed natural gas as a viable bridge fuel for transport, but that assumes sufficient availability and continued affordability of fracked shale gas—a prospect that seems highly unlikely in view of the results of Post Carbon Institute’s ongoing research into possible shale gas drilling locations and per-well production profiles. Hydrogen could be a niche fuel in some instances, but conversion from other energy sources (electricity or natural gas) to hydrogen implies energy losses, as does hydrogen storage. Further, if we were to make lots of H2 from water, using electricity, in order to fuel much of the transport sector, this would place an enormous extra burden on solar and wind, which already face a daunting job replacing coal and natural gas in the power generation sector.
How about energy efficiency? Good idea! We need to cut energy waste, and the folks at Rocky Mountain Institute have proposed many good ways of doing that. But, at the end of the day, efficiency is subject to the law of diminishing returns; so, while the tie between energy consumption and economic output is somewhat elastic, it cannot be severed. Specifically regarding oil: yes, many nations have reduced petroleum consumption in the last few years as a way of adapting to higher prices. But the fact that their economies have weakened suggests that efficiency gains have tended to lag behind oil price increases. Average vehicle fuel economy has improved, but not fast enough—so our main “efficiency” strategy has in reality simply been to travel less, and then deal with the withdrawal of economic benefits that cheap transport formerly provided.
None of this is trivial: oil is essential to the functioning of the modern industrial world. We use it for just about all transportation, which is key to trade. It’s also the fuel for construction, resource extraction (mining, fishing, forestry), and agriculture. Together, these sectors form the backbone of the real, physical economy of industrialized nations.
Again: the costs of oil production are rising and oil is stubbornly hard to substitute. As I argued in a recent book, this effectively spells the end of the historic period of rapid economic growth that began shortly after World War II. There is no way out; inevitably, society will become less mobile and—this should be cause for much greater concern—it will either produce less food or produce it in more labor-intensive ways.
Of course, peak oil and climate change aren’t the only looming challenges we should be concerned about. Economists rightly worry that the world is mired in far too much debt. Ecologists warn us about biodiversity loss, pervasive chemical pollution, and human overpopulation. Food system analysts try (usually in vain) to direct public attention toward the predicaments of topsoil degradation and depletion of aquifers from over-irrigation. Public health professionals caution us about the specter of pandemics as antibiotics lose effectiveness due to rapid microbial evolution. For city managers, the crumbling of water, sewerage, bridge, gas, and electricity grid infrastructure implies countless disasters just waiting to happen. I could go on. It’s all so overwhelming! Perhaps the only way to avoid crisis fatigue these days is simply to stop paying attention. But amid all these priorities and problems, peak oil refuses to die.
Those of us who insist on paying attention sooner or later get around to doing a form of mental triage. What are the worst crises that humanity faces over the long run? Which are the worst in the short term? What are the deeper issues, of which many problems are mere symptoms? This sorting process has led many systems thinkers to the conclusion that our species, in essence, faces an ecological dilemma of overpopulation, resource depletion, and environmental degradation resulting from a relatively brief period of rapid expansion enabled by a huge but temporary energy subsidy in the form of fossil fuels. We discovered buried treasure and went on a spending binge, adopting a way of life that cannot be supported long-term. Peak oil, climate change, mineral depletion, soil degradation, species loss, and the rest are justwords that blind men use to describe an elephant.
What we must do now is treat symptoms while keeping in mind the root disease, seeing why and how various crises are related. I have a couple of suggestions in this regard. One is that we begin to speak of peak oil and climate change as two sides of the same coin. The coin itself represents our reliance on fossil fuels and their unique energetic benefits. Both side-problems (the declining economic value of fossil fuels as they deplete, on one side, and the increasing environmental cost of burning them, on the other) demand that we reduce our fossil fuel dependency as rapidly as possible, even though that means sacrificing benefits we have come to depend on. If we maintain this holistic view of the situation, we’re more likely to understand that there is no way to keep eating our cake while having it too, either by continuing to burn fossil fuels of declining quality or by relying on new technology to fix what is actually an ecological problem. We can’t frack our way back to economic prosperity; nor can we unplug a coal plant, plug in a solar panel, and go on expanding population and consumption. We will have to adapt to the quantities and qualities of energy that are actually available from renewable sources alone, and that will mean changing the way we do just about everything.
Which brings me to the second, related suggestion. The constellation of challenges before us ensures that economic growth, as we have known it, is over, finished, kaput. That’s a terrible thing, in that the end of growth will almost certainly entail financial and political turbulence with real human casualties. But from the standpoint of diagnosis and treatment, it simplifies everything marvelously. If our impending crises stem from fossil-fueled expansion of population and consumption, their resolution surely starts with a coordinated, planned, and managed program of decarbonization and degrowth. We must reduce population and energy consumption from fossil fuels, while minimizing the human and environmental impacts of both past growth and the process of contraction. Easily said, not so easily done. But if civilization is to maintain itself in any recognizable form, this is what’s necessary. It would really help if those of us working at treating the various symptoms of the global meta-crisistogether acknowledged that growth is a core part of the underlying problem, not a solution, and that it is effectively over in any case.
Ignore peak oil (this could equally be said of climate change), and our view of the global problem-set immediately becomes distorted. We grasp at apparent solutions that turn out to be a useless waste of effort, or worse. Peak oil helps us understand what we’re faced with, and what we must do. It’s a gift wrapped in a curse. And it refuses to go away no matter how often it is pronounced dead.
By. Richard Heinberg
“There is nothing radical in what we’re discussing,” journalist and climate change activist Bill McKibben said before a crowd of nearly 1,000 at the University of California Los Angeles last night. “The radicals work for the oil companies.”
Taken on its own, a statement like that would likely sound hyperbolic to most Americans—fodder for a sound bite on Fox News. Anyone who saw McKibben’s lecture in full, however, would know he was not exaggerating.
McKibben was in Los Angeles as part of his nationwide “Do the Math” tour. Based on a recent article of his in Rolling Stone, (“The one with Justin Bieber on the cover,” McKibben joked) the event is essentially a lecture circuit based on a single premise: climate change is simple math—and the numbers do not look good. If immediate action isn’t taken by global leaders: “It’s game-over for the planet.”
The math, McKibben explained, works like this. Global leaders recently came to an international agreement based on the scientific understanding that a global temperature raise of 2°C would have “catastrophic” consequences for the future of humanity. In order to raise global temperatures to this catastrophic threshold, the world would have to release 565 gigatons of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere. Here’s the problem: Fossil fuel companies currently have 2,795 gigatons of carbon dioxide in their fuel reserves—and their business model depends on that fuel being sold and burned. At current rates of consumption, the world will have blown through its 565-gigaton threshold in 16 years.
To prevent the end of the world as we know it, it will require no less than the death of the most profitable industry in the history of humankind.
“As of tonight,” McKibben said, “we’re going after the fossil fuel industry.”
Obviously no easy task. The oil industry commands annual profits of $137 billion and the political power to match. As McKibben noted, “Oil companies follow the laws because they get to write them.”
However, there are some numbers on McKibben’s side. Recent polling data shows 74 percent of Americans now believe in climate change, and 68 percent view it as dangerous. The problem environmental activists are facing is in converting those favorable polling numbers into grassroots action.
Enter “Do the Math.”
Using McKibben’s popularity as an author, organizers are turning what would otherwise be a lecture circuit into a political machine. Before rolling into town, Do the Math smartly organizes with local environmental groups. Prior to McKibben’s lecture, these groups are allowed to take the stage and talk about local initiatives that need fighting. Contact information is gathered to keep the audience updated on those efforts. Instead of simply listening to McKibben, as they perhaps intended, the audience has suddenly become part of their local environmental movement.
It’s a smart strategy, and an essential one—because the problem of climate change is almost exclusively a political in nature. Between renewable energy and more efficient engineering, the technology already exists to stave off catastrophic global warming. Though its application is lagging in the United States, it is being employed on a mass scale in other countries. In socially-stratified China, with its billion-plus population and tremendous wealth inequalities, 25 percent of the country still manages to use solar arrays to heat its water. Germany—Europe’s economic powerhouse—in less than a decade, has managed to get upwards of half of its energy from sustainable sources.
The same can happen here in America—provided we have the will to make it happen. McKibben says the key to realizing that goal is to battle the lifeblood of the fossil fuel industry—its bottom line.
To start, he’s calling for an immediate global divestment from fossil fuel companies. “We’re asking that people who believe in the problem of climate change to stop profiting from it. Just like with divestment movement in South Africa over apartheid, we need to eliminate the oil companies veneer of respectability.”
In conjunction with the divestment regimen, continued protests against unsustainable energy projects will also be crucial. McKibben will be in Washington, D.C. on November 18 to lead a mass rally against climate change and the Keystone Pipeline. “We can no longer just assume that President Obama is going to do everything he promised during his campaign. We need to push him.”
“I don’t know if we’re going to win. But I do know we’re going to fight.” More