California, the Los Angeles Times recently reported, is building a “non-plastic future.” The state has outlawed or restricted single-use plastic bags, plastic drinking straws, and plastic cutlery. Future targets: plastic detergent bottles, unattached caps on plastic bottles, and polystyrene containers (typically used to hold restaurant takeout orders), which more than 100 California cities have already banned. Some legislators also want to ban travel-size shampoo bottles that hotels provide for guests.

Golden State consumers are schlepping groceries in their arms as if they’ve been sent backward to the pre-bag era, sucking on paper straws that quickly become sodden and useless, and smuggling plastic bags across the state line. Some Californians even take their own steel straws into restaurants. The Los Angeles Times reports that the plastic straw ban has created “a cottage industry of upscale straws and elegant carrying cases, along with such necessities as cleaning brushes, straw squeegees and dental-friendly silicone straw tips.”

Virtue-signaling flourishes in such an environment. Shoppers flaunt their reusable bags (which might carry disease), big business parades its green credentials, and lawmakers seek the approval of likeminded thinkers by enacting bans. Then-governor Jerry Brown acknowledged that “plastic has helped advance innovation in our society” when he signed the plastic straw ban last year. Then he scolded residents for our “infatuation with single-use convenience,” which has “led to disastrous consequences.”

The idea that plastic consumer goods cause a good deal of global pollution drives much of this regulation and prohibition. “Plastics, in all forms—straws, bottles, packaging, bags, etc.—are choking the planet,” Brown said at his bill signing. But the legend of plastic obscures its more mundane reality. The Great Pacific Garbage Patch has become a rallying point for environmentalists, but it’s made up mostly of lost fishing gear, “not plastic bottles or packaging,” National Geographic reports. Contrary to popular wisdom, the patch can’t be seen from outer space.

Ideally, of course, there would be no plastic in the ocean and none littering our land, beaches, city streets, and public spaces. But domestic bans can do little to reverse the buildup of plastic in the environment. Almost none of the plastic in the oceans comes from California. An analysis by Germany’s Hemholtz Centre for Environmental Research found that roughly 90 percent of ocean plastic enters the ocean via ten rivers—eight in Asia and two in Africa. Only about 1 percent of all plastic in the oceans is from the U.S.; California’s “contribution” to the mess is negligible.

The story with plastic straws is similar. Of that 1 percent, just “a tiny amount comes from plastic straws,” notes Reason TV’s Kristin Tate. The often-cited estimate that more than “500 million plastic straws are used each day” in the U.S. was made by a nine-year-old Vermont boy as part of a school project. The real number, according to Technomic, a food-service consulting company, is 170 million to 175 million.

As for plastic-bag pollution, Steven Stein, principal of Environmental Resources Planning, found that such bags make up only .04 percent of visible litter in San Jose and .06 percent in San Francisco—close enough to zero that no one would notice the improvement if those figures were, say, cut in half.

A natural solution to the plastic-waste problem could already exist. Microbes that devour plastic have responded to the growth in their food source and may have substantially reduced the amount of plastic in the ocean. The Environmental Defense Fund reports that “microbes eating plastic are already an important reason that the plastics numbers do not add up—the amount of plastic we see in the ocean is much less than the total amount of plastic calculated to have been piled and poured into it.” Genetic engineering of such bacteria could improve their plastic-eating efficiency and reduce the danger even further. 

Applying science to solving problems is apparently no longer fashionable in California, where advocates of a green future view prohibition as the only politically tenable approach. Residents may tire of such dogmatism.

Photo by David McNew/Getty Images


City Journal is a publication of the Manhattan Institute for Policy Research (MI), a leading free-market think tank. Are you interested in supporting the magazine? As a 501(c)(3) nonprofit, donations in support of MI and City Journal are fully tax-deductible as provided by law (EIN #13-2912529).

Further Reading

Up Next