Archive for Policy

A Plastic Bag Law In Marbletown?

An op-ed I wrote for some local papers.

Marbletown will consider a  ban on plastic bags in June.  

The need is clear. When well-intentioned people recycle plastic bags along with other plastics, the bags snag on recycling equipment.  Then the system must stop periodically and bags are removed by hand.  Bags also clog storm drains and sewage systems, where they must be manually removed before they cause backups and flooding.

The environment suffers, too.  Thin plastic bags become airborne, entering the environment unintentionally. In trees and along roads, they are ugly, entangle animals, and are mistaken for food by fish and birds.

International Bag Reduction Movement:  

An international movement to ban single use plastic bags has been gathering momentum.  Bangladesh passed the first country-wide bag ban in 2002.  Laws are in place in China, Ireland, Wales, Italy, Cameroon, Ivory Coast, Mali, Rwanda, South Africa, Pakistan, and the Philippines.  In the US, bag laws are widespread among cities, towns, and counties.  

In New York State, 12 municipalities have adopted bag bans, including the Village of New Paltz in 2014.  Four municipalities, including New York City, have introduced bag fees.  In February, NYC’s law was suspended by the New York State legislature in response to plastics industry lobbying.

New York State Task Force

Governor Cuomo announced a “statewide task force… addressing the plastic bag problem” when he signed the law reversing NYC’s fee.  One task force member is Michael Rosen, President & CEO of the Food Industry Alliance of New York State (FIA). In 2015, FIA sued the Village of Hastings-on-Hudson over its plastic bag ban.

With lobbyists like Rosen on the state task force, it’s easy to assume that the effort will lead nowhere. The FIA opposes plastic bag bans because retailers end up paying more, but it supports bag fees, which save retailers money.

Paper or Plastic–Or Bring Your Own?

Single use plastic carryout bags cost retailers between 1 and 2 cents each.  When they are banned, most shoppers opt for paper bags, which cost between 8 and 15 cents each.  Obviously, it costs much more for store owners to give away paper bags than plastic.  Double-bagging adds to these costs, and shoppers pay in higher grocery prices.

Some shoppers may be willing to pay more for paper bags in order to keep plastic bags out of the environment.  But banning plastic bags doesn’t have to result in higher costs due to increased paper bag use.  The only win-win is when shoppers bring their own bags.  Some will do it for the environment, but as long as checkout bags are given away, most people will take this easy option.

Bag Fees

Retailers in Chicago responded to that city’s 2016 bag ban by substituting slightly thicker plastic bags that aren’t covered by the bag ban.  These qualified as “reusable” under the law, and were given away for free–but they cost stores more than thin bags.  This led to both higher costs for stores and more plastic waste.  Thus the law didn’t accomplish its environmental goal, and it hurt businesses.  In response, Chicago instituted a 7 cent tax (5 cents kept by the retailer) which eliminated the problem by inspiring shoppers to bring their own reusable bags.

Fees are remarkably effective at encouraging the adoption of reusable bags.  A 5 cent fee reduces plastic and paper bag use by 60% to 90%. Reports show that giving cash back for bringing reusable bags is largely ineffective.  Fees work; cash back doesn’t.

New Paltz

Said Zadeh, the owner of My Market in the Village of New Paltz’s, supports Village’s plastic bag ban, but thinks it should have applied to the Town as well as the Village. Since the ban passed, he has seen a slight increase in the use of reusable bags, but a large increase in paper. He also sells (or gives away) 50 cent thick plastic bags and $2 cloth bags.  He has never seen people bring them back to reuse them.

If you want people to bring reusable bags, Said says, you have to teach them young, or “maybe charge a fee.”

Local Action

With little prospect of action by New York State, localities need to act first. Marbletown’s proposed ban is one more step in this direction. Local retailers are concerned that even a small fee might drive shoppers elsewhere.  That’s why Marbletown’s law has a built-in periodic review, which will make sure it accomplishes its intended environmental purpose while not harming businesses.

We hope this law will spur Ulster County, and eventually the state, to act. You can help by making sure your representatives understand the problem and what they can do to fix it.

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My current non-energy project…

 FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE                                                                          May 31st, 2016

Marbletown Environmental Conservation Commission (ECC) Tackles the Problem of Plastic Checkout Bags With Film Screening and Workshop, Hopes To Catalyze County-wide Action

CONTACT:  

  • Tom Konrad, Ph.D., 845 687-7210, 
  • Tracey A. Bartels,  845 255-0804,
  • Jordan Christensen, 516 390-7150, 

The film Bag It: is your life too plastic? will answer the questions most people have about plastic bags and help bring the problem into focus.  The workshop will build on this foundation.  The events are part of TRASH FEST, a free arts-and-waste reduction festival in June in Marbletown.  See Trash Fest Ulster on Facebook for more details.

Where: Marbletown Community Center, 3564 Main St, Stone Ridge

When: Wednesday, June 15th and Wednesday June 22nd, 6:30-8:30pm.

Who Should Attend: Marbletown shoppers, retailers and residents

How to get tickets: The events are free and open to the public

The purpose of these events are to build consensus around the best way for Marbletown to tackle the problem of plastic bags.

Bag It follows “everyman” Jeb Berrier as he tries to make sense of our dependence on plastic bags.  Although his quest starts out small, Jeb soon learns that the problem extends past landfills to oceans, rivers and ultimately human health.  The average American uses about 500 plastic bags each year, for about twelve minutes each.

Free popcorn and filtered water will be served at the event.  Attendees are encouraged to bring their own bowls and drink holders to cut down on waste.

The Bag Legislation Workshop will bring together Marbletown retailers, shoppers and officials to build consensus on how to tackle the problem of plastic bag waste in Marbletown and beyond.  The event will begin with background information from plastic bag legislation expert Jordan Christiansen of Citizens Campaign for the Environment and Ulster County Legislator Tracey Bartels on checkout bag legislation.  

Participants will be asked about their goals and concerns about possible retail checkout bag legislation in Marbletown.  Legislative alternatives will be judged by how well they address these goals and concerns.

The Chair of Marbletown’s Environmental Conservation Commission, Tom Konrad, Ph.D., CFA said, “Passing effective checkout bag legislation in Marbletown will improve our Town’s scenery by reducing plastic bag litter, cut costs for retailers, the town’s transfer station and the highway department, as well as set an important example for Ulster County and New York legislators.”

More info: Bag It:  http://www.bagitmovie.com/press_kit.html

                 TRASH FEST: https://www.facebook.com/TRASH-FEST-Ulster-484856678376272/

The Marbletown Environmental Conservation Commission (ECC) is a commission to the Marbletown Town Board, advising the Board in the development, management and protection of the natural resources and environment of the Town of Marbletown, and promotes community awareness and raises the visibility of such issues and activities.   http://bit.ly/MarbletownECC

TRASH FEST is a series of art-made-of-trash exhibitions and public education events in Marbletown, Ulster County, NY in June 2016.  http://bit.ly/TRASHFEST

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Why The Whitehouse Diaper Plan Stinks

The Whitehouse launched a new initiative to tackle the “Diaper Divide” today.

The goal is commendable (making diapers affordable to all) but the approach runs contrary to Obama’s environmental goals.

Instead, the focus should be on affordable and accessible cleaning services for reusable diapers, as well as reusable diaper loan programs. Most sources agree that there are significant cost savings for reuasables, and these would be increased if the (cleaned and sterilized) diapers were passed on to younger babies as the older ones grow out of them.

While there is some debate about the climate impacts of reusable vs disposable diapers, this case for disposables hinges on the assumption that washing diapers is done in inefficient home washing machines. Centralized, commercial cleaning of reusable diapers could easily make it a win for reusables.

While there are likely to be many places without the baby density to make this sort of central reusable diaper ‘library’ practical, at least in dense cities, this approach should be preferentially pursued. Since large cities almost all have problems finding space for municipal waste disposal, this scheme would have the added benefit of helping to tackle the problem of municipal waste disposal.

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New York’s Energy Highway: Public Comment until July 31

In his 2012 State of the State address, Governor Andrew M. Cuomo put forward an initiative to upgrade and modernize New York State’s electric power system.  The goal is to systematically plan new electricity generation and transmission in the state with all the relevant government agencies and private developers at the table.

The first stage of the proposal was a request for information about proposed generation and transmission from developers, utilities, and interest groups.  These responses are in, and are shown on these maps:

NY Energy Highway Transmission

Ny Energy Highway Generation Map

The Energy Highway taskforce will be taking comments from the public on these proposals until July 31, and issue an action plan based on all the information received sometime this fall.

More information is available at the NY Energy Highway website.

You can submit comments here.

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Risk Aversion and Pricing Climate Risk

I felt the “Editor’s Corner” article in the most recent Financial Analysts Journal (Sept/Oct 2011) “Pricing Climate Change Risk Appropriately” does an excellent job explaining why the possibility of extreme climate scenarios justifies a considerably higher price for carbon than would be warranted under the most likely or average scenario: Humans are risk averse.

Equities… have low prices (and high expected returns) because their cash flows are discounted by society at high rates. The reason has to do with the anti-insurance aspect of equities: Their cash flows are highest in good states of nature whereby the value placed on the cash flows is low. In contrast, efforts to mitigate climate change by pricing carbon emissions will be most valuable to society if climate change turns out to have catastrophic consequences for society’s well-being. Because of this insurance aspect, society should be willing to pay higher prices for climate change mitigation.

FAJ Executive Editor Robert Litterman goes on to explain the mechanics behind carbon pricing models and their flaws, as well as why equity analysts are uniquely qualified to do these assessments.

I’ve long thought that financial market theory is uniquely applicable to understanding climate and the measures needed to mitigate climate change. what I don’t understand is why I hear so few analysts talking about it, so it was very refreshing to come across this article applying a deep understanding of economic pricing theory to what the greatest challenge the world will confront in the 21st century.

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Fossil Debt

An off-hand comment by Marc Gunther in an article on Solyndra about the started an email chain between the two of us on green jobs.

We agree that most of the debate is silly, but I see some interesting economics underlying green jobs. I explore those ideas in this article: The Microeconomics of Green Jobs.

The article also gave me the opportunity to explore a parallel between using fossil fuels and running up the deficit:

[I]f we spend too much borrowed money to create jobs today, the long-term drag on the economy caused by paying back the debt will leave everyone worse off.

Economic growth fueled by the extraction of non-renewable resources is very similar to economic growth fueled by debt. When we extract these resources and use them, we increase economic activity today, but their non-renewable nature means that we lose the opportunity to extract and use them tomorrow. Hence, the economic stimulus today comes at the cost of an economic drag tomorrow, and the future economic drag will generally be larger than today’s stimulus, since improving technology should allow us to get more benefit from each unit of resource in the future.

Using renewable resources to stimulate growth does not have this problem: Tapping the wind or the sun for energy today does nothing to diminish the wind or sun tomorrow.

In my mind, this is a deep contradiction in current Conservative politics: they don’t like debt (and I agree) but they do like fossil fuels.

I’d be a conservative, if being a conservative actually meant conserving things.

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Savoring the Irony

I recently bought an e-Bike (Currie Technologies iZIP Hybrid Via Mezza), mainly for trips to the grocery store. There are some serious hills between me and the grocery store, and I’m not up to tackling them with a full load of groceries.

It may be a cheatercycle, but especially on hot days like today, it’s very nice to be able to take advantage of the cooling breeze you get while you’re pedaling without having to pedal so hard you’re overheated anyway. If an electric motor gets me to take the bike when I would have been tempted to get into the car, it’s a good thing.

I couldn’t resist riding it to the DMV today to register my car. How’s that for irony? Of course it would be better if I could get by without the car at all, but I live a bit to rural for that.

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