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The Prosperity Haters
Jonathan Adler • March 1992

In 1940, when you got a cup of coffee “to go,” you might have scalded your hand if you weren’t careful. At least in a few cities, the same might be true in 1992. In the intervening period, a Styrofoam cup held the coffee, keeping it hot and your hand cool. But environmentalists have deemed that cup immoral; they want us to use paper.

This is only one example of the Green assault on American consumers. From the daily paper and the evening news, to blockbuster movies and the Sunday funnies, Americans are under a constant barrage of environmental misinformation aimed at killing our prosperity and the economic freedoms that made it possible.

We are told, “Plastic is bad.” Plastic has become a symbol of America’s insidious consumer mentality. The reduction of waste and consumer costs that plastic made possible are ignored. Such important innovations as Styrofoam, shrink wrap, and aseptic packaging (juice boxes) are condemned despite the material benefits they bring to society and their ability to increase the efficiency of resource use, something environmentalists are supposed to believe in.

Another eco-mandate is that “Recycling should be universal.” Irrespective of the product or how expensive it is to process, recycling is presented as the necessary alternative to the imminent exhaustion of the world’s resources. As a result, mandatory recycling has been bankrupting municipalities nationwide despite the fact that in many cases, recycling actually increases pollution from such processes as the de-inking of newspapers.

Environmentalists apparently don’t realize that the lower price of raw materials reflects their lower need for energy or material inputs. High recycling costs reflect a greater input of scarce resources. While Styrofoam is a great consumer convenience, environmentalists have declared it an ecological nightmare and crusaded for its annihilation. First, they said it wasn’t recyclable, and therefore it was wasteful. Not only is it recyclable, a Styrofoam cup is more easily recycled than its paper counterpart. What is more, the production of a Styrofoam cup consumes far less resources than recycling a paper cup: one-sixth the physical material, one-twelfth the steam, and one-thirty-sixth the electricity. It is no wonder that Styrofoam is typically 60% less expensive.

Next, the environmentalists claimed Styrofoam isn’t biodegradable. If thrown into a landfill it would not decompose for hundreds of years. While this is true, it is not clear why this is a problem.

The biggest problem with landfills is potential contamination of groundwater from waste. Styrofoam doesn’t cause this. Nor are we running out of landfill space. All the garbage since the Pilgrims would fit in a landfill covering less than one-tenth of 1% of our land area, with ample room for the garbage of the next several hundred years.

Yet Styrofoam has been banned in Florida, and effectively prohibited in Portland, Oregon and Newark, New Jersey. In Maine, juice boxes have been banned, except for ones containing Maine apple juice. In Oregon, environmentalists want to make use of disposable diapers a criminal offense, and an editor of Garbage magazine condemned disposable tampons.
The truth is that the development of synthetic packaging, even disposable packaging, has allowed us to use resources with increasing efficiency. While American households may dispose of more packaging than those in Mexico, the average Mexican family throws away 40% more total garbage, much of it wasted food that modern packaging technologies would have preserved. In fact, for every 1% increase in the amount of packaging in America, there is a 1.6% decrease in food waste.

The “ban wagon” may make for good politics, but it does terrible things to our economy and prosperity.

—Jonathan H. Adler ’91 is a former YFP Editor-in-Chief. This article was first published in The Free Market, the newsletter of the Ludwig von Mises Institute.

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