During the last legislative session, some elected officials proposed banning plastic grocery bags in Washington state, citing the danger of ocean plastic. The bill did not pass, and that is probably good news for the environment. To successfully reduce ocean plastic, we need to go to the root of the problem.

About 80 percent of ocean plastic comes from developing countries, where garbage collection is poor or nonexistent. In these countries, discarded plastic ends up in the ocean, polluting the seas and harming marine life. The entire United States is responsible for less than one percent of this plastic.

Like many environmental challenges, where government fails, innovators in the free market are solving the problem. One example is an organization just across the border that uses market incentives and the organizing power of smartphones to reduce plastic waste where it makes the biggest difference.

PlasticBank works in developing countries and pays people to collect plastic waste and exchange it at a community location for goods and services. Participants can charge their cellphone, buy food or get fuel.

Washingtonians can help these efforts. Individuals can pay PlasticBank to recover the amount of plastic a typical consumer uses in a year, about 84 kg according to PlasticBank.

To collect that amount of plastic in places like Indonesia or the Philippines costs about $44. Contributing helps ensure you aren’t adding to the world’s ocean plastic problem. And, since people in Washington state contribute almost nothing to the problem, it probably reduces the amount of ocean plastic.

More amazing is what PlasticBank is planning to do with the plastic it collects.

In partnership with SC Johnson, the plastic will be recycled to use in Windex bottles as early as next year. You will also be able to ensure the plastic came from what PlasticBank calls an “ethical supply chain,” simply by scanning a barcode on the back of the bottle with your smartphone.

The beauty of PlasticBank is that it actively prevents plastic from reaching the ocean, or even removes plastic from the water. Rather than simply relying on altruism, it rewards environmental stewardship. It creates a system that is self-sustaining and expanding.

Empowering and connecting people using smartphones opens up vast new opportunities to address previously unsolvable environmental problems. Not only do smartphones empower people in developing countries by giving them tools to make plastic collection profitable, they create a market for those plastics.

Smartphones have radically reduced the cost of environmental collaboration. Smartphones allow consumers to connect their own environmental concern with measurable environmental progress where it matters.

As a result, programs like PlasticBank are superior to coercive approaches like bag bans because they actually reduce the amount of plastic in the ocean.

They get at the problem where it starts. Banning plastic grocery bags in Washington state to reduce the amount of plastic in the ocean is a bit like looking for your lost car keys where the light is best, rather than where you dropped them. Washington already has a good solid waste system that prevents bags from reaching the water in the first place.

Some argue that even stopping a tiny amount of plastic is better than nothing, but that assumes the alternatives are better than plastic bags. The science overwhelmingly shows that isn’t true. Switching from plastic to reusable bags, especially cotton bags, would significantly increase air and water pollution. Environmental agencies in the U.K. and Denmark have found that reusable bags create hundreds of times more water pollution than plastic bags.

Bag bans aren’t a serious solution to ocean plastic. They’re just virtue-signaling. The serious solution is already in the palm of your hand.

Todd Myers is the environmental director for the Washington Policy Center.

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