Policy Memo: Single Use Plastic Bag Ban at Davidson College
TO: Carol Quillen, President of Davidson College
FROM: Janelle Dadul & Charlotte Smith, students
SUBJECT: Reducing the college’s plastic waste
Plastic waste is a problem that just isn’t going away. At least, not anytime soon. Physically, all of the plastics currently in the environment will still take hundreds to thousands of years to decompose – and there is a ton of it. An estimated 6 to 12 million tons of plastic enters the ocean each year. In the North Pacific Subtropical Gyre, more than 18 million tons of waste – of which over 90% is plastic – stews and swells under an open sky. This massive amount of waste affects the entire ocean ecosystem, and has been linked to having fatal effects on every kind of organism, from the largest vertebrates on our planet, such as whales, to tiny zooplankton. These fatal effects include impaired digestion, decreased mobility and reduced body weight. While a portion of this waste does come from sea dumping, some scientists have estimated that 80% of mid-ocean waste was first discarded on land. As a result, even the waste Davidson College discards on land will likely make its way to the ocean. Therefore, the College must take whatever steps it can to reduce its own plastic waste. Specifically, the College must stop providing single use plastic bags.
This policy memo will outline the negative effects of mismanaged plastic waste, as well as the role of plastic bags in daily life. The memo will also examine the potential solutions to reduce the use of plastic bags by looking at scientific studies, passed legislation, and opinion pieces, and weighing the PEST effects and pros and cons of these solutions. Next, the memo’s conclusion – that if Davidson College bans plastic bags at its bookstore and dining halls, it will have a significant impact on the amount of plastic waste that Davidson produces – will be explained. Finally, the memo will address the intricacies of the Davidson situation, and the specific reasons a ban may or may not be successful at the College.
There are four main responses, or solutions, to the plastic bag problem, and they are: maintaining the status quo, switching to biodegradable bags, taxing bag use, or banning the bag. Below, these options are assessed through the PEST framework. Within our analysis, the authors of this paper assigned greater weight to economic and administrative impacts, as we assume these elements matter most to the administration Davidson College. The environmental and social impacts are likely more important to the student body of the College; however, the administration still remains the main stakeholder in this decision-making process. The authors also decided to exclude technological impacts from the matrix because the technologies to produce plastic bags and their alternatives are already in place and would not be affected by a ban or any other of the aforementioned solutions to the problem. Because complications with technology might impact administrative and political decision making, however, they are briefly discussed throughout this memo.
- Maintaining the Status Quo
Maintaining the status quo would have little administrative, economic, or social impact on campus as there is currently no movement pushing for any change in the college’s use of plastic bags. There would also be very little technological impact as the means of production for plastic bags already exist. This lack of impact can be viewed in some respects as a pro, because maintaining this policy requires no hard decision-making. A severe con to this response would be that the negative environmental impact would remain since plastic bags would still be used.
- Switching to Biodegradable Bags
The administrative and economic impacts of a switch to biodegradable bags would be great as the administration would have to find new bag producers, and pay more for the greater production costs of these alternatives. In this policy change, the administration bears the entire burden of making these changes, and not the consumer. This would minimally affect technological impact as these production means already exist. The social impact would also be minimal as students would still have the convenience of a bag at their disposal. This is one pro of this policy: although the kind of bag itself is changed, consumers can still incorporate the bags into their daily lives for at-home use, a habit they have cultivated with plastic bags. Switching to biodegradable bags, however, does not alleviate a negative environmental impact as biodegradable bags have been demonstrated to only decompose in very specific, unnatural circumstances. Therefore, biodegradable bags pose the same problems that plastic bags do.
- Taxing the Bag
The tax on bags would have a large economic impact on the college, as it would introduce a new source of income. This would result in a moderate administrative impact. While introducing a tax would not require the college to adjust its budget or allocate new resources to the issue, there would be some logistical complications. The College would have to decide what to do with the new source of income and determine what percent of taxation would be appropriate in its stores. The administration might want to vary the tax by location and type. Administrative effort would also have to be spent in determining if the tax itself might vary depending on the type of bag used. This is because different Davidson stores use different kinds of bags: the bookstore uses thick plastic, logo-emblazoned bags, and the Union uses typical, thin-plastic bags.
The social effects would be high impact as students and other consumers would immediately take notice of any introduced tax. This may have the positive effect of incentivizing different behaviors, such as using one’s backpack, over paying the tax. In past cases, taxes have worked with varying success. In Ireland, a 15-pence tax resulted in a 95% plastic bag reduction. However, another study from the UK demonstrated a tax had almost no long-term effect, even with unanimous support for it, and studies within the US have also demonstrated that a tax on plastic bags is not a powerful deterrent. Therefore, implementing a tax bears the con of potentially being ineffective, and resulting in the same negative environmental impacts as the status quo solution.
- Banning the Bag
Because banning the bag is such a straightforward policy choice, requiring little administrative effort, its administrative impact would be minimal. Implementing this change would also pose a positive economic impact on the College because it would cut costs on buying plastic bags for the college. This solution requires no technology, and therefore there is no technological impact of the policy. Socially, however, the ban could affect campus culture and how consumers shop. This potential student backlash is the most significant potential con that comes along with a plastic bag ban. One factor frequently discussed by scholars who debate the plastic bag issue is how ingrained the use of plastic bags is in our daily lives. This attachment has even been proven to prevail when consumers are in agreement about the negative effects of plastic bag usage. However, the ban would also deliver major benefits given that it guarantees a major decrease in the college’s overall plastic waste production. This solution was proven successful in a study conducted in California, where a ban solution was contrasted with a tax solution. There have also been multiple successes at banning plastic bags at schools such as UC Santa Barbara and UC San Francisco.
There are several counterarguments to banning the plastic bag. At Davidson College, plastic bags are primarily used in three locations: the Davis Café, the Union Station, and the College Bookstore. While plastic bags are used for the same purposes in all of these settings, the specific context of using plastic bags at Davidson may lead to the counterargument that banning a plastic bag is just too inconvenient. This inconvenience pertains to the bookstore, which is not visited regularly by the same customers, and where some customers, especially parents buying Davidson merchandise, cannot reasonably anticipate what they will buy there. Both of these factors likely mean that the customer is unprepared to bring their own bag, and as a result, might inconvenience parents. Despite this, the environmental benefits of reducing the college’s plastic usage may outweigh this inconvenience. Advertising and incentivizing reusable bag usage could also provide alternatives and a means of alerting visitors to the campus of the policy.
Another counterargument to banning plastic bags would be that, because of this inconvenience, plastic bags should be distributed as normal, just with some signage which would lead to more bags being disposed of properly. This is founded upon the idea that people are the main problem in creating plastic litter, and the issue would not exist if people disposed of their waste properly. However, there are still many ways that plastic garbage can become litter – whether it is “blown off garbage trucks or out of landfills, spilled from railroad shipping containers and washed down storm drains, sailed down rivers or wafted on the wind” – and therefore plastic must be eliminated at the source to truly guarantee that it will not become an environmental hazard.
In conclusion, every solution to banning the plastic bag, with the exception of the ban, still comes with considerable environmental costs. Alternative bags such as biodegradables also litter environments and still require specific conditions to properly break down and therefore become pollutants as well. Production costs going into these bags also require greater amounts of energy than it takes to produce plastic bags, which could provide counterarguments that although we are reducing the amount of plastic used, we are still contributing significant environmental impacts based on the amount of energy being consumed. For these reasons, we believe that the best method for reducing Davidson College’s environmental impact would be to completely ban the plastic bag from campus.
Furthermore, the authors of this memo believe that you, President Quillen, are best able to make a change. In our research, we were shocked to learn that plastic bags have been banned in their entirety in multiple developing countries. But because of the political realities within the United States, we believe that at a ban in North Carolina will not be coming soon. For that reason, we are hopeful that a college lead initiative at Davidson would serve as an example for the community and for the state as a whole.
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