Are plastic bag bans backfiring?

Plastic bags are bad. Ban them from supermarkets, and the problem is solved, right? Right? Right? Turns out, as is often the case, there may be a little bit more to that story. Researchers at the University of Georgia suggest that banning the sale of plastic bags may come with a side-dish of unintended consequences.

The new analysis suggests that plastic bag ban policies — while well-intentioned — may end up having the opposite effect. The issue that comes up is that grocery bags are viewed as single-use items, but they often get a (brief) second lease on life as liners for small trash cans. Without the shopping bags available, people look for alternatives — which the researchers suggest means they buy small plastic garbage bags.

“We know there is a demand for using plastic bags, and we know, if these policies go into effect, some bags will disappear or will become more costly to get,” said Yu-Kai Huang, a postdoctoral researcher at the UGA Warnell School of Forestry and Natural Resources. “So, we wanted to see the effectiveness of this policy in reducing bag usage overall.”

Previous studies have looked at the effect of bag bans on plastic consumption, but not the combined effects of fees or a bag ban. An environmental economist, Huang used a new way to calculate the effect of either policy while also accounting for variables such as residents’ income levels and an area’s population density, both of which influence the amount of trash generated in a community.

Keeping in mind the second life that plastic grocery bags take on in many homes, the team measured plastic trash bag sales in counties with bans or fees in place and compared them to other counties without such policies. The study found California communities with bag policies saw sales of four-gallon trash bags increase by 55%, to 75%, and sales of eight-gallon trash bags increase 87%, to 110%. These results echo earlier studies that also showed increases in sales of smaller plastic trash bags. While sales of smaller garbage bags jumped after policies were implemented, sales of larger 13-gallon trash bags — the size often found in kitchen trash cans in the U.S. — remained more or less unchanged.

“Carryout grocery bags were substituted for similar sizes of trash bags before implementing the regulations,” the researchers wrote in the research paper. “After the regulations came into effect, consumers’ plastic bag demand switched from regulated plastic bags to unregulated bags.”

If the average plastic bags drawer is anything to go by, most households use far more single-use bags than they have a need for trash bags, so it’s probably fair to say that taxing or banning single-use plastic bags is a net positive. But I found it interesting to remind us that even the best laid plans can have unintended consequences; a truth that appears to be as true in climate policy as it is elsewhere.

Flux Marine revs up its electric outboard business with $15M A round

The race is certainly on in the electrification of boating … even if everyone is jockeying for position before the market materializes. Flux Marine is joining the likes of Pure and Zin in trying to convert some of our waterways’ gas-guzzling outboards to cleaner, quieter battery powered ones, and the company just raised $15.5 million ahead of a planned summer shipping date.

The conversion of the boating world to electrics is progressing slowly for lots of reasons, but it also seems as inevitable as the electrification of land vehicles. Boats are such big investments, and used so differently from cars, and physically are so much more power-hungry, that it’s not quite as simple to make the switch.

Flux has designed for, it claims, both convenience and efficiency, with a new take on the traditional rear-mounted outboard.

“We’ve taken a ground-up design approach that places the electric motor above the waterline for scalability, but does not use any legacy combustion outboard parts,” CEO Ben Sorkin told TechCrunch. “Our lower unit was developed in-house to accommodate a belt drive, incorporate a closed-loop cooling system with active feedback, and reduce hydrodynamic drag.

“When looking at electric motors (electric machines), they are generally rated for a peak torque, determined by geometry and magnetics, and a continuous torque, which is determined by thermal management. Because a boat is subject to high drag forces from water, the key is in designing power electronics and a thermal management system to get the continuous torque as close as possible to peak torque,” Sorkin continued. “The end result is a lighter, more efficient total propulsion solution.”

A man drives a dinghy with an electric motor on the back.

Image Credits: Flux Marine

They also design the battery packs, which is of course a double-edged sword: They’ll be good, but you can’t just go out and grab a car battery to add another few miles to the range. (Actual range depends so much on the hull, weight and speed that it’s impossible to predict, but figure somewhere in the 40-70 mile range.)

The benefits of electric conversion in general are obvious enough that they scarcely need recounting: cleaner, quieter, greener, easier to maintain and potentially better performance.

The downside is primarily cost: Flux aims to make its motors available for $4,000-$12,000 including the battery pack, depending on whether you want a 15-horsepower equivalent (one person in a dinghy), 40 HP (a few people in an aluminum rowboat) or 70 HP (a few people in an aluminum rowboat, but going faster). A 100 HP equivalent one is planned as well.

Obviously that limits the number of people who can afford to go green, but boating is kind of an expensive hobby to begin with. If you want to get on the water for two bills, get a paddleboard — a hull and motor will run you a couple thousand bucks unless you buy the algae-encrusted one from that guy down the dock.

Preorders were opened last year and Sorkin said the company is on track to deliver its first motors this summer, hopefully in time for boating season. Lead times should decrease as they scale up over the next year, he added. In-person demos will be available in Rhode Island (where the company is based and just got a fat tax credit) and Connecticut.

The $15.5 million A round was led by Ocean Zero, with participation from Boost VC, Winklevoss Capital and previous early investors.

AR glasses maker Nreal nabs $200M funding in 12 months

China’s augmented reality startup Nreal is on a roll. The company, which hopes to bring AR to the masses by making bright-color, lightweight smart glasses, has just received $60 million in a Series C extension round, bringing its total funding in the last 12 months to a handsome $200 million.

The new investment is led by Alibaba, which has historically been a more hands-on but less active corporate investor than its archrival Tencent. The Chinese e-commerce giant has a reputation for acquiring controlling stakes in startups that can potentially be a complementary piece to its giant retail ecosystem.

Alibaba’s investment in Nreal, however, is purely financial. In theory, the two could have generated strategic synergies. One could easily imagine Alibaba hooking Nreal up with its gaming and video streaming units, or even having it develop smart glasses for its millions of food delivery riders — who recently began wearing voice-controlled helmets. But with the onset of China’s antitrust crackdown, the country’s tech behemoths have no doubt become more cautious with any investment that can be perceived as encouraging unfair competition.

Plus, Nreal, which was founded by Magic Leap veteran Chi Xu, already has a club of notable partners. Some of its strategic investors are Chinese electric vehicle upstart Nio, short video app Kuaishou — TikTok’s nemesis in China and Baidu-backed video streaming platform iQIYI. Qualcomm is not an investor but supplies cutting-edge Snapdragon processors to the hardware maker and works closely with it to build a developer ecosystem. Nreal is also backed by renowned institutional investors, including Sequoia China, Jack Ma’s Yunfeng Capital, Xiaomi founder Lei Jun’s Shunwei Capital, as well as private equity giants Hillhouse, CPE and CICC Capital.

Despite being China-based, Nreal hasn’t targeted its home market but has instead first tested the consumer appetite in six overseas countries, including Japan and the U.S. The smart glasses maker has relied on partnering with local carriers to tout its devices. In the U.S., for example, Verizon is helping to sell Nreal’s mixed reality glasses Light, which has a relatively affordable price tag of $600 and can be plugged into a 5G-compatible Android device.

With the proceeds from its latest round, Nreal will finally make a foray into China this year. The funding will also be spent on R&D and growing its ecosystem of content and apps, which will be critical to user adoption.