2 more unintended consequences

One of the big ironies in life is called unintended consequences – You try to do something good or helpful to fix a problem and there is some completely unexpected problem caused by the good & helpful thing.

Two examples from today’s reading. First, making forest fires worse. Second, getting sick from reusable grocery bags. My previous examples were from the international aid world.

Trying to prevent forest fires makes them worse

Mark Perry describes the unintended consequence of creating more and worse forest fires caused by trying to reduce the number of fires – The “Smokey Bear Effect”: How Government Forest Takeover Has Led to More, Bigger and Hotter Fires

Here’s the concept: Regular small fires burn the underbrush but let the big trees survive. Preventing the small fires lets the underbrush build up so much that when it does eventually catch, the entire forest goes up, only bigger, faster, and hotter than otherwise. Suppressing all fires has been US policy for over 100 years.

NPR has details in their article How The Smokey Bear Effect Led To Raging Wildfires. Two comments from the article:

So instead of a few dozen trees per acre, the Southwestern mountains of New Mexico, Arizona, Colorado and Utah are now choked with trees of all sizes, and grass and shrubs. Essentially, it’s fuel.

And now fires are burning bigger and hotter. They’re not just damaging forests — they’re wiping them out. Last year, more than 74,000 wildfires burned over 8.7 million acres in the U.S.

And also this:

“Basically, the mountains in the Southwest — you can almost think of them as caskets of fuel,” Allen says. “Gunpowder has been building up in these things for a century, and now it’s dangerous to try to defuse.”

Reusable shopping bags can make you sick

Walter Russell Mead calls attention to the increase in illness caused by reusing shopping bags: Plastic Bag Bans Lead to E-coli Deaths

The International Association for Food Protection has a study on the contamination rate in reusable bags. The article is behind a paywall. Here is a key comment from the summary:

Reusable bags were collected at random from consumers as they entered grocery stores in California and Arizona. In interviews, it was found that reusable bags are seldom if ever washed and often used for multiple purposes. Large numbers of bacteria were found in almost all bags and coliform bacteria in half. Escherichia coli were identified in 8% of the bags, as well as a wide range of enteric bacteria, including several opportunistic pathogens.

About 1 in 10 have e. coli bacteria. Half had coliform. (That’s the helpful stuff in your gut. In your intestine? Good. In your stomach? Bad.)  That will cross contaminate to items in the bag, which will cross contaminate to your refrigerator shelves, countertops, and hands.

The Percolator has a video discussing the issue – The Health Costs of Plastic Grocery Bag Bans. The econometric breakeven point is at valuing each death at $8M imputing a value to birds of $70k each.  That’s the tradeoff to offset the wildlife loss with the human loss. I would suggest that one human death is far more serious that the loss of 100 birds. You really need to watch the video to understand that comment.

Reusable bags increase plastic consumption

Yet another unintended consequence from reusing shopping bags is that in my home our consumption of plastic has increased. Used to be we would use the plastic bags from the grocery store to line our kitchen trash can. Now we use several of the store’s reusable bags to get groceries home. 

As a result, we have to buy plastic bags for the trash can.  Not only do we have the cost of the bags, but they are probably three times as large and are noticeably thicker than the one-time use bags. So we are probably using three or four times as much plastic every time we replace the trash can liner.

Unintended consequences

Making forest fires more fierce and destructive, making people sick from reusable grocery bags with some people dying, and increasing use of plastic bags are not what was intended. Yet that is what happened.

(H/T Carpe Diem and Via Media)

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