Economists are always alert to the potential for adverse unintended consequences of well-meaning policies, so the Queensland Government grabbed my attention recently when it announced it is considering a single-use plastics ban. ABC News has reported:
Single-use plastics could be banned in Queensland as early as next year after the Palaszczuk Government announced a proposed plan to “tackle pollution”.
The new plan would see plastic straws, cutlery and plates scrapped under new legislation to be introduced next year.
The State Government would also consider extending the ban “down the track” to include coffee cups, plastic cups and heavyweight shopping bags.
Thankfully, the government has committed to consultations with the community and industry and to a Regulatory Impact Statement. I think they will be surprised at just how costly and inconvenient such a ban would be. In hospitality, for example, it would require additional staff time to collect used cutlery and crockery and it may require some establishments to purchase new tableware and dishwashers. It could end up being very costly.
The government’s announcement prompted me to recall the short-lived ban on single-use plastics in the University of Queensland Student Union refectory in the mid-nineties. The well-meaning Student Union was concerned about the wastefulness and environmental impact of disposable containers, coffee cups, plates, and cutlery, so it replaced them with proper crockery and utensils. The policy lasted no more than a few months if I recall correctly. The crockery and cutlery tended to disappear. It seemed that poor students living away-from-home, struggling on Austudy or low wages, were wandering off with it. So a well-meaning policy ended up costing the Student Union a fair bit of money and had to be reversed.
As always, we should be alert to adverse unintended consequences of well-meaning policies. I’m open minded about the single-use plastics ban at this stage, but my gut tells me it’s a bad idea.
Cloister on the Great Court at the University of Queensland, Brisbane. Photo by Nick-D.