Beginning July 1, 2018, restaurants in Seattle will no longer provide plastic straws and utensils to consumers. The reason for the ban is plain and simple: the waste that results from disposable plastic creates a cost that enterprises in the private sector do not subtract from the surplus value/price realization process but instead transfer to what the early 20th century British economist Arthur Cecil Pigou called in Economics of Welfare a "social cost."
Seattle has decide to reduce these costs. This is the smart thing to do. The more matter and energy that is recycled in the city's economy, the more it becomes like a ecosystem in its advanced or climax stage. American consumers waste an insane amount of drinking straws everyday (500 million!). The public, which includes natural services and goods (clean water, fresh air), has to pay for any kind of waste that cannot be recycled. Sadly, the ban will not included plastic straws in grocery stores. For the ban to be truly effective, it must be universal.
I want to end this post with two brief notes. One is a marvelous passage from Green Metropolis that gives the reader a vivid impression of the civilizational impact of plastic:
Stephen Fenichell has written that when a French-American salvage expedition, beginning in the mid-1990s, retrieved items from the RMS Titanic, which sank in 1912, none of the thousands of recovered articles—“gold and silver wrist- and pocket watches, buttons, bracelets, jeweled necklaces, rings, tiepins and hairpins, gold pince-nez spectacles, leather goods, several hundred English coins, ivory combs, mirror cases, and hairbrushes”—included anything made of plastic, the first truly modern form of which, Bakelite, had only just been invented when the ship set sail. “That, if nothing else, shows how much times have changed,” the secretary of the French Merchant Marine told a press conference during the salvage operation. Since the sinking of the Titanic, plastic products have become so widespread that life without them can seem close to inconceivable.
My second note concerns Arthur Cecil Pigou. He was great at social costs but terrible when it came to unemployment. He preached the kind of nonsense that led the UW economists to conclude high wages in Seattle were hurting poor people. Pigou believed that if wages were lower, there would be more jobs (even Sarah Palin has reasoned thus). Pigou's rival John Maynard Keynes challenged this view and pretty much won and defined post-war economic policy. Keynes saw that gains made by lower wages came at the cost of weaker demand, and this, in turn, resulted in deflation, which is good for creditors but hard on debtors.