Environment, recent

Plastic Pollution is a Real Problem—and It Won’t Be Solved by Straw Bans

The presence of plastic in our oceans has been a growing problem for decades. But only in recent years has it found its way into the public consciousness. In one well-publicized case last year, scientists in Spain discovered the washed-up body of a sperm whale that contained 29 kilos of plastic—a grim intestinal haul that included dozens of plastic bags and a fuel container. On Midway Atoll, a dead albatross chick was found with a stomach full of brightly covered plastic junk, which the bird’s parents had collected and fed to her, imagining it to be food. In a recent study of 102 sea turtles, spanning seven species, every sampled specimen was found to have swallowed plastic material of some kind.

Plastics represent only one component of pollution, of course. But the durability of discarded plastic products presents a special challenge. This quality, which makes plastics so useful to consumers, has turned them into a unique menace to the entire natural environment. As the examples above illustrate, plastic often is mistaken for food by fish, birds and other animals (but of course yields no nutritional value). And marine life can choke on plastic, or become fatally entangled in it.

Usage of plastic in the West has risen dramatically since its first widespread application to disposable consumer goods in the mid-20th century. Being cheap, lightweight, non-porous and durable, plastic also has become ubiquitous as a packaging material. It has become instrumental to the massive expansion of global trade—the “skin of commerce,” as one Australian academic aptly put it.

Plastics tend to accumulate in ocean areas known as gyres, where surface currents converge and there is relatively little wind. The largest of these is known as the Great Pacific Garbage Patch (GPGP), an accumulation of (mostly) plastic waste and debris currently covering 1.6-million square kilometres, twice the size of Texas. While there has been much focus on banning plastic consumer products such as bags and straws, almost half of the GPGP may be comprised of discarded fishing nets; and a further 10%-20% is believed to consist of material that was washed away in the 2011 Tsunami that struck Japan. Analysis of such debris shows that larger plastic objects such as bags and bottles do break up into smaller pieces over time, but this only makes clean-up efforts more difficult.

The primary sources of ocean plastic waste are located in the developing world. Of all the worlds rivers, for instance, the flow from just 10 (eight in Asia, two in Africa) account for 93% of incoming river-transported ocean plastics. Of the 8-million metric tons of plastic annually deposited in oceans, more than 2-million tons is believed to come from river sources—about 1.5-million tons of which come from just one river, the Yangtze, in China. (These figures include both “large plastics,” such as bottles and shards thereof, as well as microscopic fibres and beads that may be invisible to the naked eye.)

Polystyrene foam beads on an Irish beach

The West’s developed economies generally capture a high proportion of their large-form waste plastic before it enters open water. However, the waste-production profile of oceanic micro-plastics is another story. The majority of micro-plastics emerge as a waste product from the laundering of synthetic clothing and the wear-down of synthetic rubber automobile tyres. Since consumers in the West also tend to wash clothes and drive more than their counterparts in the developing world, they contribute a larger share of this type of plastic. And most of it isn’t captured by waste-management systems, because the particles are too small to be filtered out, or because it enters waterways directly from road runoff.

But there is some good news. Last October (just hours before his infamous meeting with Kanye West, as it happens) Donald Trump signed the “Save Our Seas (SOS) Act,” which had attracted bipartisan support and passed the U.S. Senate unanimously. The SOS Act provides funds for ocean clean-ups in U.S. waters, supports research to improve waste reduction, and promotes the use of trade agreements to spur other nations to improve their own waste-management protocols. This latter stipulation is crucial, because it would require developing countries and their trading partners to stop treating the ocean as a negative externality—i.e. a commons that can be polluted and degraded at no cost.

This will likely serve to drive up the cost of the many cheap consumer goods and packaging materials produced with plastic. But if Western companies—and, by extension, Western consumers—continue to benefit from the low production costs associated with these products (including the low labour costs and relatively lax environmental regulation), then they have a responsibility to ensure that the ensuing waste is managed appropriately. Free-market capitalism has proven effective at supplying goods at the cheapest possible cost to consumers. But it doesn’t serve humanity if the producers aren’t required to impute the associated social costs—including the mass contamination of our oceans—into their profit calculations.

Assuming our primary concern is to reduce the total amount of plastic material entering oceans worldwide, we need to consider how best to allocate our resources on a global scale. Capturing 100% of plastic waste is impossible. And as with other problems of this type, the effort will yield diminishing marginal returns. Huge benefits can be had simply by targeting the biggest sources of contamination. As noted above, for instance, the plastic waste emitted into the ocean by just a single river—the Yangtze in China—eclipses all the world’s other studied rivers put together. (It should be noted, however, that some of this waste originated in the West, since, until recently, China was the world’s largest importer of plastic waste for recycling.)

This is not to deny the importance of maintaining social norms against littering and the excessive plastic use in the West. Every stray plastic bag or bottle that we remove from a waterway, beach or park is one fewer threat to marine life and ecosystems. Reducing our demand for plastic objects and packaging, and reusing them where possible, helps reduce the amount of plastic that our waste management systems need to process.

But such public-awareness campaigns can take on a life of their own, and blind us to the real source of the global problem. Single-use plastic-bag bans, drinking-straw bans and elaborate container-deposit schemes are all examples of policies that mix high visibility with scant global impact. Policymakers and legislators in the developed world may favour these measures, since they give the appearance that governments are acting on the issue of plastic waste, but they are unlikely to move the needle much on the total amount contained in our oceans, which mainly consists of micro-plastics, waste from (unregulated or thinly regulated) developing-world sources and discarded fishing nets. Most Western jurisdictions already do a relatively decent job of ensuring that large waste of any kind (including plastics) is either buried or safely processed.

Tackling the issue of plastic pollution will be a major challenge of our time. It is a challenge that will have to be met primarily at the level of government policy-making and enforcement—not personal-consumer choices made at your local coffee shop or fast-food restaurant.

 

Andrew Glover is an Australian sociologist. He tweets at @theandrewglover.

Featured image:Unnamed Road, Punta Cana, Dominican Republic, by Dustan Woodhouse.

62 Comments

  1. You make some great points, but i think the “ban” culture here in the US has some positive aspects we shouldn’t toss out. Reusable grocery bags for instance – while they may have an insignificant impact proportionally on global level, they are a great start towards establishing a “re-use” paradigm, which if promoted and embraced (instead of derided), could eventually have very meaningful impacts. Nothing irritates me more than superficial environmentalism, but I think these things really are good starts, lets arm ourselves with both realistic action steps and the information necessary to make the next meaningful change.

    • Are they though? Cost and mass give a rough idea of the resources involved in manufacturing a product. Single-use bags are cheap; reusable bags are not. I’ve read that paper bags have 7x the carbon footprint of single-use plastic, reusable plastic bags 26x, and reusable cotton 327x[1]. Reusable bags have to be washed – more resources and energy. And they have to be carried: probably in the trunk, but it imposes an additional cost on people walking or taking transit (I speak from personal experience). Finally, in my experience, most single-use bags are need anyway for garbage: eliminate them, and I would need to start buying garbage bags.

      In terms of environmental impact, banning plastic bags does virtually nothing, and possibly makings things worse. The argument I’ve seen is that it builds consciousness. But there’s a principle in environmental communication, known as the single-action bias. Someone who knows there’s a problem will want to do something to make it better: but once having taking action, will tend to feel that they’ve done their part. In this way, insignificant initiatives (like banning plastic bags) can actually stand in the way of bigger ones (like reducing the use of synthetic clothing). Is that happening here? I don’t know.

      A bag ban does server several groups very well. It allows businesses and individuals to feel virtuous; it gives environmental groups a cause to campaign for and the appearance of success; and it promotes consumption of new products (reusable bags and single-use trash bags). In my view, we should be talking about eliminating fleece clothing, not plastic bags. As long as we aren’t doing that, I’m not on the straw & bag bandwagon.

      I think that the most action on single-use plastic bags is obvious: resuse them.

      [1] https://www.theatlantic.com/technology/archive/2016/09/to-tote-or-note-to-tote/498557/

      • scribblerg says

        Big problem with your analysis is relying on carbon footprint to assess the costs/risks, when in fact, carbon footprint isn’t a risk. At all. That’s why you come up with a bizarre conclusion that reducing the use of plastic isn’t a good way to reduce plastic use. No, you are thinking too hard. Even if we all went with cotton reusable bags, we’d stop all the plastic particulate matter that ends up in the environment from them. Which is the problem, not the carbon footprint.

        • Carbon footprint is without a doubt a risk; the question is, is it bigger than stubbing my toe or bigger than nuclear winter? Is the risk an extinction risk or a risk we can fight our way out of? Same risk questions for plastic in the environment etc. What is the product of level of risk times likelyhood of occurence? I don’t have any of these answers, but it is impossible to do a proper risk analysis when we have to trade one risk for another without finding some of the answers to these questions.

      • Bigboi says

        People make totes from fabric scraps. So the cotton impact can head to zero… Never mind sensible harvest of other fibres e.g. Hemp and bamboo from place with great water stability

      • Farris says

        @Geof

        “I’ve read that paper bags have 7x the carbon footprint of single-use plastic, reusable plastic bags 26x, and reusable cotton 327x[1].”

        Could you please provide a source for the above statement? I find it hard to believe since plastic is a fossil fuel based product.

        • The goal is not (or should not be) simply to reduce plastic use. It should be to reduce environmental impacts overall, in particular, plastics in the water supply. Plastic use isn’t even a reliable indicator of that. There’s a big difference between a plastic bag that ends up being recycled, and a fleece whose fibres end up in the water supply. The ban on plastic microbeads in skin cleansers is targeted at the problem, and is an excellent idea. Plastic bag bans appear to be a feel-good waste of time.

          The fact is, we’re not about to stop using and discarding plastics. Bags and straws are an insignificant drop in the bucket. If we really want to have an impact, we need to phase out synthetic clothing, reduce packaging, and especially do something about planned obsolescence and unrepairable products. Plastic bags are nothing compared with cell phones, unrepairable household appliances that go to landfill after 10 years (where older appliances used to last much longer), clothes discarded due to fashion trends, and driving (synthetic car tire particles end up in the water supply; eventually the entire car gets junked).

          Responses to other points:

          – It’s a minor cost, but bags definitely do need to be washed when you use them dozens of times for groceries. They get quite filthy, inside and out. If you don’t see the need, I doubt you’re reusing them anywhere near 327 times.

          – For walking, one takes a bag if one expects to use it. The problem comes with unanticipated purchase – especially when it rains (I live in a rainy climate). To me, the bag ban (and above all the idea of using paper instead) is founded on an assumed car-oriented lifestyle.

          – I linked to an Atlantic article with the CO2 numbers. The lack of resource costs is a serious limitation; unfortunately I don’t have them. That’s why I mention cost and mass, which are probably decent proxies.

          • david of Kirkland says

            I buy plastic garbage bags that previously were reused shopping bags, so there’s little win here.
            We also could focus on cleaning the oceans more. While it can’t block all plastics, neither do any bad/straw bans or unlikely hopes for bans on synthetic fibers or tires on cars.
            We need to focus on the 10 major river sources, and also attempt to remove plastics already in big piles.

      • RMHampel says

        “Reusable bags have to be washed – more resources and energy. And they have to be carried: probably in the trunk, but it imposes an additional cost on people walking or taking transit (I speak from personal experience).”

        – why would anyone wash a shopping bag? Are people buying gloppy, soupy produce that somehow stains or somehow mars their reusable bags? I imagine that might occur, but only rarely.
        – what “additional cost” is associated with toting a reusable grocery/shopping bag? That’s absurd. Many people walk to their local grocery store and most shopping and carry a bag with them. How hard is that, exactly?

    • prince says

      @Joe,

      Your (and others) willingness to trample over individual freedoms for the sake of meaningless virtue signaling is greatly alarming.

      In California, people can get incarcerated for the use of plastic straws. Literally lose their actual freedom over nothing.

      Educating and winning the heart of the public for a cause is a fine thing to do. But to try to do that by sacrificing our most basic rights of choice and freedom runs against everything this country stands for (and the eight amendment as well).

      Making the use of plastic straws punishable by jail time is part of a pattern of harsh consequences to any signal that goes against the extreme left narrative whether it is related to the environment (here) or offensive speech (blackface photo from 35 years ago).

      Do not play to their hands. Do not let the extreme left become a tyranny of virtue signalers.

      • david of Kirkland says

        Tyranny is the age-old liberty. To be free, we need to be coerced. But we could put more effort into reducing known pollutants, cleaning where it’s hard to eliminate without incurring alternative externalities, and adding taxes to cover those externalities.
        But you can’t expect liberty to solve this…it’ll take cooperation.

    • david of Kirkland says

      What is needed is an effort to account for externalities in all products/services. Pricing works wonders, but not when externalities are hidden from the cost.

    • Anthony G Warren says

      The entire premise of this plastic pollution is misplaced. The plastic ends up in the oceans because we put it there in our misguided efforts to recycle plastics.

      Thermoplastics can in theory be recycled. In other words they can be remelted and made into useful products. Except. As an example, there are hundreds of possible compounds that can all be called polypropylene. various additives to formulae give different properties to the product produced. In any case though, the plastics must be free of contaminants that will impede processing the plastics.

      The plastics also have to be sorted by species. This is difficult, experts have difficultly ascertaining what a plastic is without destroying it. Many plastics such as pvc can be very soft and transparent or rigid and black. The all have the same polymer backbone.

      Regardless, an industry has been created by telling the public that they can use plastic products without issue because they can be recycled in a way that creates high value products. This idea is a manifest lie.

      So, your cities create massive recycling programs and we all put plastics into bins or blue plastic bags that are picked up and delivered to a recycling centre. There low paid workers are tasked with sorting all of the junk that people toss into their bins. This includes the useless paper, and various metals. The metals can in fact be recycled. They are pretty much the only things that really can.

      The plastics, so dutifully sorted are usually baled to be shipped for further processing. The claim is that these plastics are being sold to be upgraded into useful things. The reality is different.

      At one point these bales were sold at some nominal price and shipped to a port. Various countries would be involved in these purchases. For the most part, these facilities were located on large rivers with port access to the ocean, often hundreds of miles inland.

      There the bales are broken apart and dumped back into the water. Where of course the plastic goes out to sea.

      Now, that market has disappeared. The Chinese now charge to get these bales. They will pick them up at a port and sail offshore and into international waters. The seamen will push the bales overboard and pick up another load at another port. The shipper pays for them to take the bales ($65/ton) and for the freight to the port in China. The vessel rarely goes back to China, instead it plies up and down coasts picking up the ‘recycled’ plastic. It ends up in the oceans because we put it in the oceans.

      There is no point in doing any of this. Plastics are indispensable and will not ever be replaced in the tonnage required. It should be ground up and either burned for fuel as the Danes do, or simply landfilled.

    • Lightning Rose says

      Yeah, I wondered when “sociologists” became environmental experts. BTW, that “garbage patch twice the size of TX” has been debunked a thousand times. Sociologists tend to be very good at scaremongering agitprop, however.

      Asia needs to be taught to recycle its mess. The US needs to be less wasteful. There are many positive and creative ways to go about solving these urgent, real-world problems. Many of them will make someone a pile of money.

      • david of Kirkland says

        Seems like bans on massive fishing nets would be the best ban ever. It is the largest source of plastics, and of course it’s designed to kill marine life. Humans cannot live in the wild anymore and must rely on growing the foods it wants.

  2. E. Olson says

    The dangers of plastics in oceans is greatly exaggerated (see link), and several of the popular solutions will have minimal to negative effects. For example, the straw ban has led to the use of sippy cup tops that contain more plastic than the straw, and a recent Danish study found plastic shopping bags to be more environmentally friendly that paper bags or reusable fabric bags.

    https://www.goodnewsnetwork.org/ocean-plastic-patch-exaggerated-2/

    https://nordic.businessinsider.com/danish-study-plastic-bags-are-better-for-the-environment-than-organic-cotton-bags–/

      • stoned says

        A thick shopping bag of woven plastic that won’t tear no matter how oddly shaped the contents, should be something people carry around.

    • Lightning Rose says

      Most of it’s the usual feel-good virtue signaling. But just imagine the inventive resources we might have to find better ways to re-purpose trash if only we weren’t busy conflating “let’s clean up pollution” with “let’s convince everyone we hold the Earth’s thermostat in our hand.” The former is laudable; the latter is Big-Lie charlatanism on a level that would make Lysenko blush.

      Me, I just make sure my trash makes it to the local incinerator so it can be turned into more of that good-ol’ plant food, CO2.

      You’ll notice no one, NOT EVER, suggests that we all CONSUME LESS.

      • E. Olson says

        LR – not exactly true, the sustainability movement is built to some degree on consuming less, but corporate and government sustainability efforts rarely encourage less consumption because success in convincing people to get by with less will mean fewer sales, fewer profits, fewer jobs, and less tax revenue.

        • Lightning Rose says

          Re: Sustainability Movement. Do you know ANYONE, personally, who chooses not to shop, not to fly, not to use throwaway packaging, not to turn on the lights, the heat, the AC, not to start the car, in the name of “sustainability?”

          Back in the 60’s we had “hippie communes” where they actually tried to live like that. It went out of style pretty quickly. Today this “movement” is nothing but media-generated bullshit, confined to leftist shills like The Guardian.

          The bottom line is we’re not returning to the pre-industrial age, where we lived in dirt-floored huts and died like flies before the age of 40. Full Stop. Especially not to “solve” a “problem” which can’t even be proven IS a “problem.” I’m referring to CO2, not plastic.

    • Steven says

      Let’s admit you’re right on all your facts. If sippy cups are now more damaging to the environment, they should be banned too. Plastic is a wonderful component but it should be used only in essential fields like medicine. People need to adapt and be ready in case they feel they have to buy something right now.

      How come you don’t have your own bag stuffed with things you might need at all times?

  3. Stoic Realist says

    When I read this article another Quillette article comes to mind, ‘The Virtue Economy.’

    https://quillette.com/2019/01/31/the-virtue-economy/

    I start to wonder if the problem is that people are more interested in signaling their support for the environment than in actually making sure something effective is being done.

    Also while I agree that the US has a responsibility to do its part on plastic waste it is a little odd to hang the Yangtze problem on America when the article makes clear that it was imported to be used for recycling. The article seems to imply that because the Chinese who imported it for recycling didn’t recycle it and turned it into waste instead the US should clean it up. Aka ‘you’ tried to do the right thing and recycle but the people you paid to recycle didn’t do instead of them cleaning up their own needs ‘you’ should. That bit of shifting the blame/ responsibility was offputting.

    • Bigboi says

      Lol @realist you think this applies only to America. How unrealistic a perspective, this is across natioms with massive material wealth e.g. Australia

    • Heike says

      It’s as if the Chinese import the plastic and then throw it into the river? Makes zero sense.

      It’s more like the companies that import plastic for recycling use that for recycling, and other Chinese people throw their plastic trash into the river. It’s just this left-wing religious sensibility that says, “It’s America’s fault, no matter where it happens in the world!” It MUST be catered to, because if it comes out that developing countries are the source of the world’s problem? Urgh, bad feelings and a meltdown in the comments.

      • Pierre says

        It’s more likely that the Chinese receive the plastic and payment for recycling it, then just dispose of it in whatever manner is the most expedient. Several Chines companies that were importing paper/cardboard for recycling where found to have just left the paper to rot in their yards instead of recycling it. China is quite different in how it operates, — and even on how it views life — than western societies.

  4. scribblerg says

    This is a real environmental problem, and is part of an overall global problem with oceans. Instead of wasting so much energy and other resources on global warming mythological problems, we should focus on this.

    The good news is that we already are. Under the Trump admin, lol. I’m very focused on plastics and was mentioning that this cleanup had begun under Trump to a leftist friend who shares my focus on plastics as an issue. I also brought up that his admin finally approved hemp for large scale production in the U.S. Hemp has huge potential as an alternative to plastic that is completely biodegradable in a short period of time. We can likely replace half or more of plastic products with hemp products.

    She could barely look me in the eye. I didn’t even mention Trump, I was just psyched we we were doing these things. She couldn’t even speak, she just made weird faces at me and kept talking about something else. Leftists are so weird.

    • bumble bee says

      There are also some environmental entrepreneurs who are already testing in the ocean cleaning systems. That is also a message that has not been discussed enough. Getting out there and just cleaning it up. It will take time, but banning plastics that are not even contributing is doing nothing. Then of course no one is addressing the over packaging of items and putting a ban on those. No they just want everyone who lives and breaths to be tormented in their daily lives like a punishment.

      No one is addressing why they are not recyclable either. Perhaps, developing new methods so that they can go into the recycling bins would be a place to look at. It is all just so short sighted and in reality is just another behavior modification law so us plebs can do what we are told. The wealthy who do not need to change their behavior because they can pay any fine or increase in pricing that occurs.

  5. Morgan Foster says

    How, then, can the West stop the people of China from tossing their plastic rubbish into the Yangtze River?

    I was hoping Mr. Glover might actually have a suggestion.

  6. George says

    So a sperm whale washes up dead with plastic in it’s gullet and we jump to the assumption that the plastic must have killed it? That’ a bit of a stretch don’t you thin? What other stuff do Sperm whales swallow? Junk that’s always floated in the ocean like chunks of wood perhaps? The wonderful thing about the ocean is that pretty much anything you throw in it almost instantly becomes a mini-ecosystem and thus a potential food source that may be worth consuming. We now know, for instance, that microbes have evolved to eat the plastic so maybe turtles/Albatrosses etc are actually eating these? We really do need more research here.
    The weird thing about the massive island of floating plastic as big as Alaska is you can sail right through it and not even see it. It doesn’t exist the way Greenpeace has sold it because it’s micro plastics. As NOAA states on their Website-
    “The name “Pacific Garbage Patch” has led many to believe that this area is a large and
    continuous patch of easily visible marine debris items such as bottles and other
    litter—akin to a literal island of trash that should be visible with satellite or aerial
    photographs. This is not the case. While higher concentrations of litter items can be found
    in this area, much of the debris is actually small pieces of floating plastic that are not
    immediately evident to the naked eye.” – What is the Great Pacific Garbage Patch?,
    NOAA National Ocean Service.
    I’m thinking Greenpeace has over egged the omelette once again as a marketing strategy to cover their ass when the planet goes into it’s inevitable cooling cycle and “climate change’ ceases to become a thing. Whales and Albatrosses will become the new Polar Bears

    http://1ggye33lc4653z56mp34pl6t.wpengine.netdna-cdn.com/wp-content/uploads/2018/12/The-Truth-Behind-the-Plastic-Crisis-Excerpted-from-%E2%80%9CAnalysis-of-Greenpeace%E2%80%99s-business-model-philosophy%E2%80%9D.pdf

  7. bumble bee says

    OMG, Thank you for bringing this topic up.

    (from my previous post on another site)

    I had yet to hear any information as to why its there in the first place. What do I hear? Plastic is destroying the environment, so we must ban straws, plastic bags, it is what is killing the environment. What is negated in the bans of plastic straws and plastic bags is that there is a reason they are even around. To most of the anti-straw people all they see is a sea turtle with a straw stuck in its mouth and now straws are evil. They do not go further in their thoughts to acknowledge that straws that seem like a luxury are necessary for many people who are incapable of lifting a container and drinking. They need straws in order to drink or take in any other liquid. There are many drinks that are incapable to be drunk without a straw, thick drinks, drinks with ice, as well as situations where unless you are still and can take a drink without fear of spilling it. Now there are paper straws which would seem to solve the problem, but as we know from the past when paper straws were used exclusively, they become weakened and are rendered useless after a short period of time. Now, why are’nt the anti-straw people going to the straw industry as well as the recycling industry and coming up with something that lasts for the period of use needed, and yet either decomposes properly or is recyclable?

    Then look at the plastic bag bans happening around the country. Again people see that some are not disposed of properly and are found littering in trees, waterways, oceans, and again the sea turtle, and they think lets ban them. Well what was the reason they came about any way? Were we not told back in the late 80’s/early 90’s that paper products were contributing to deforestation? That the over use of paper was assisting in creating the hole in the ozone layer? So plastic bags came about. We all started using them not only for groceries, but for many other uses in the home, office, car. Now we can’t recycle them as with other plastics and they are being banned. Just as with the straws, they do not go further in their thought process and see how it effects people. Unless you want to buy the expensive bags with handles, which become dirty and infected with bacteria and mold, one gets to use a paper bag which I thought was contributing to deforestation, that do not come with handles. So after shopping, say one has more than two bags, how are people carrying those bags if they do not have a car and a few steps into their homes? Do the anti-plastic bag people think about those who take public transportation, or those who must walk and carry their bags home, or how many flights of stairs they need to carry their bags up? You can carry at least 6 plastic bags in one trip but now that is turned into three trips. If the anti-baggers also knew the many other uses these bags are used for too, they will realize that people need to buy plastic bags anyway to line waste baskets, for cleaning up litter boxes, for anything needed for hygiene, storage, etc.

    Then of course there was the issue with glass. It was heavy, often breaking either in the home or outside. Why are glass items not allowed at the beach and other areas? Because, people would often cut themselves on it. Plastic was lauded because it was also safer.

    Do they again go to the source and like the straws try to make bags that are more friendly, but still do the job? No, they force people with their superficial notions of doing good. Has anyone addressed the recycling industry and how that can be expanded to include more items? Then of course there is the possibility that the recycling industry is not doing their jobs either and in order to be profitable are not recycling everything that could be.

    What new feel good items will be deemed hazardous to the environment next and what next are we going to be forced to pay for to make it happen. When in reality, this is nothing more than feel good laws that will have zero impact in the long run because they, the environmentalist, will see nothing much has changed because they need to go to the sources rather than the users. Local politicians making these straw/bag bans are low information people who listen to some cutesy kid or group and to look good put these bans in effect without realizing how this effects society and the environment at large. Bought my own plastic bags to use for shopping and reuse them for all the reasons stated above. I am just waiting for some self righteous nit to assume I don’t care about the environment, or worse think they need to educate me.

  8. Jezza says

    To reduce the number of drinking straws in circulation, give your godson or daughter a silver straw with their name on it. It will last a lifetime. When it is no longer required, being silver, it may easily be refashioned into something else. I would like one for my birthday. Please.

    • You mean stainless steel straw? Silver can cause problems to the human body over the long haul. I don’t know how much silver erodes from a silver straw or whether such a straw will be an issue, but to me stainless steel would be the weapon of choice, not silver.

  9. Jezza says

    I’m on a roll. How about we encourage the production of genetically modified creatures that will seek and swallow microplastics. They will be programmed to crawl up on a beach when it is time for them to expire, where small children can collect them for a bounty. Think positive pollution!

    • Stephanie says

      Jezza, carrying a metal straw around is inconvenient and unhygienic. Considering how often most people lose their sun glasses, it’s unlikely to last long, especially with kids.

      With regards to the plastic-eating microbes, that would open a can of worms we could not control. What happens when it starts eating plastic products still in use? Remember how quickly microorganisms can evolve: the danger such a life form could introduce is extreme.

      • david of Kirkland says

        It’s unlikely microorganisms in the sea often create problems on land. Are there examples today of sea life attacking land life?

        • Dan Love says

          @david of Kirkland

          I see someone hasn’t seen my favorite documentary – “Sharknado”.

          • Avid Reader says

            There are also several versions of that nuclear fuel/waste eating reptile, Godzilla…

  10. Morgan Foster says

    There are so many good articles offered in Quillette, written by prominent people with specialized experience in and knowledge of their subject.

    It’s frustrating, then, to come across the occasional article like this one that appears to have been researched from Internet sources and concludes with a call for all of us to do a better job of recycling.

    This is a Guardian on-line article, at best.

  11. Stephanie says

    Funny enough, this article accomplishes the goal of the last environmentalist article (“Conservatives need to grow up about environmentalism”) much better than it did. I’m glad to hear about steps being taken recently to ameliorate the ocean plastic situation. This is the sort of environmentalism I can get behind.

    It’s not just animals that are affected by the ubiquity of plastics. A recent study found microplastics in human stool. Who knows what kind of health complications we’re exposing ourselves to? For our own sake we need to move back towards more natural products.

    • ” I’m glad to hear about steps being taken recently to ameliorate the ocean plastic situation. This is the sort of environmentalism I can get behind.”

      Even when those steps here in the U.S. and Canada have no effect outside of virtue signalling? Perhaps spending our energy in the wrong places is detrimental to the environment when the vast bulk of this particular pollutant comes from things other than soda straw. If our attentions are being diverted from the real problem sources, then perhaps “getting behind this short of environmentalism”, i.e. soda straw bans, makes you part of the problem – no?

  12. Andrew makes some great points. I think what is missing from this debate is the role that subsidized waste collection plays in our plastic pollution problem. Currently in most cities around the world, municipal governments pick up excessively large barrels of waste at a government-subsidized rate or totally free.

    If waste collection were simply a free market or at least a freer market, people would be forced to think about the quantity and type of waste they accumulate. This would lead to people shopping for products that advertise minimalist packaging. I think it would even lead to stores posting two prices on any given product: the cost of the item, and the cost to dispose of the item with its packaging. Consumers seeing a high price tag for waste removal would opt for a cheaper version. Under our current system, no one thinks twice about buying products with excessive packaging, and we are even encouraged to do so because it’s more appealing to the eye, etc.

    I wrote about this here if anyone cares: https://medium.com/@djonesvi/the-mobro-4000-story-and-what-it-can-teach-us-about-trash-in-2018-9e22df910fc5

  13. Jackson Howard says

    The way waste volume has been reduced in Switzerland is by having a waste bags tax that covers the costs, coupled with free collection points for recyclabe stuff and a drop off area for bulky stuff. It works fine and is rather effective.

    As for the OP : straws and bags are a problems for animals and making ugly ocean patches. Which some might or might not care about. However, that is only half the story. Most plastics will fragment under the Sun’s UV light, till fragments are nanometers in size. At this size the plastic gets into the fishes that we eat.

    And yes Asia is the main source of the problem, but how does that precludes us for leading by example ?

    Carbon footprint : paper is 3x throwaway plastic, and reusable has about a 10x carbon cost in it manufacturing+raw materials. So if one use a reusable more than 10x then it’s better. Our malls sell fancy reusable and sturdy bags and nearly everyone uses them.

      • david of Kirkland says

        While I support taxes on externalities, they are effectively nudge bans. I mean, if the tax reduced usage by 80%, does that mean a ban (100% reduced in such bags, but of course we then buy plastic bags for our trash instead) would be better, or perhaps a higher tax?
        In the end, it is the state coercion that is reducing usage, either by making it unavailable to all, or just unavailable to those with less cash to spend.

        • K. Dershem says

          David: Plastic pollution derives, in part, from a collective action problem, so it seems like some kind of government action is required to address it. I would prefer a less coercive alternative (a five cent tax) over a more coercive one (an outright ban). You make a good point about plastic garbage bags, but based on anecdotal evidence I think most households acquire far more bags than they could ever use for waste disposal — so there would still be a reduction in plastic use and pollution. In my view, the whole question of plastic bags is ultimately a symbolic issue … but symbols matter, and we have to start somewhere.

  14. Scott says

    I work offshore in South East Asia and the materialism, consumerism and waste I see from the people I work with is far worse than that which I see at home in the UK. The state of the water in the Gulf of Thailand or off the coast of China is a disgrace to humanity but most of the people I work with actually laugh at you when you try and talk about environmental issues or recycling and I’ve been told many times that ‘we just don’t care about it’. We have water filters that produce good clean drinking water but they refuse to use them, insisting it is their ‘human right’ to buy bottled water as buying bottled water is a sign of status i.e ‘I can afford to waste money buying something that others get for free’. A recent report by Forbes says that 5 countries ( China, Vietnam, Indonesia, The Phillipines and Thailand ) dump more plastic than the rest of the world combined, and its not imported recycling they’re dumping, its consumer waste. Hong Kong apparently goes through over 5 million plastic water bottles every single day. At least most people I know in ‘the west’ are aware of environmental issues and pay some sort of lip service to them, but i fear we have a long way to go before other places catch up.

  15. Agore says

    I would like to make one simple change to the law: require a minimum specific gravity for plastics of 1.1. This would not prevent plastic from being dumped, but it would mean that plastic dropped into water would tend to stay near the source of pollution. Once floating plastic reaches the ocean, it becomes anonymous and virtually untraceable. If most dumped plastic stayed in the lake where it was dropped, or accumulated in the next quiet section of a river, you can blame local polluters.

    This would not of course solve the whole problem. Plastic items that trap air would still float. Exemptions would have to be granted for specific large plastic structures, like stadium covers, that have to be light, but such things could be individually accounted for through their life cycles until recycled.

  16. Brian Kullman says

    Thanks for documenting what few will admit: that the developing world, not the West, is by far the primary source of visible plastic pollution in the ocean. The developing world is also a major producer of such plastic containers. The article leaves the reader with the impression that greedy Western corporations are the source of the material.

    The side comment that China, the single largest polluter, buys recycled plastic from the US is true but irrelevant. China does not buy used plastic containers and pay to transport them across the ocean, just to dump them in the Yangtze. They use them as feedstock into their own manufacturing.

    The problem of plastic micro-pollution was mentioned, but no remedy is proposed. If we can’t get the peoples of the Pacific Rim not to throw plastic water bottles into rivers and streams, how will we get them (and us) to catch rubber microparticles that wash off highways?

  17. Jimbino says

    re: a dead albatross chick was found with a stomach full of brightly covered plastic junk, which the bird’s parents had collected and fed to her, imagining it to be food.

    This will ultimately result in improvement of the species either by the parents’ improving ability to discriminate between food and plastic or by the chicks’ improving ability to process plastic as food (cf: Charles Darwin).

    Let’s worry about humans, who appear to be getting dumber and dumber (cf: Obamacare and Al Gore).

  18. Agent P says

    Having sailed all over the world for the last 40 years I can attest that my experience is that Asia is the worst for floating garbage of all sorts and the “The West” broadly speaking, is orders of magnitude cleaner than Asia when it comes to waterways and their state of affairs.
    That’s not to say that North America or Western Europe is perfect by any measure but there is an absolutely huge difference between the crap you find floating in the West Pacific, and elsewhere in the world.

    I have additional data points I can refer to in the form of the network of sailors I hang with from around the world. Many have done trans-oceanic races and one who I stay in touch with is currently in the middle of the Pacific fighting fish and whale poachers and they regularly report on their plastic findings. As mentioned much of the waste in the GPGP is in fact industrial waste in the form of abandoned fishing nets but then everything goes down from there to the microscopic level. Other sailors I know of just completed racing about the globe and would periodically be taking samples, in the deep Southern Ocean where micro plastics are sadly ubiquitous. Most of what can be identified is in fact consumer garbage plain and simple, bowels, buckets, trinkets or plastic, all just tossed directly into oceans or rivers. (Lets not forget those floating cities known as cruise ships who get busted all the time dumping thousands of kilos of garbage at a time into various water ways late at night when nobody else is around)

    Our collective experience indicates there is far more plastic in the water than ever before, it is very persistent and it is almost entirely culturally driven. If all we collectively did was string a 40 mile long net across the mouth of the Yangtze river we’d be leaps and bounds ahead in 50 years of where we’re going now.

    The vast majority of cities and towns in NA and Western Europe who are located close to major waterways or bodies of water generally do an excellent job of fighting litter and plastic pollution, considering how much is in use. Once we go beyond that realm, life gets worse rather quickly.
    Recently on an FB group for sailors we took a straw poll of the craziest things that we’ve found in the water, we had remarkable feedback from cars, to lots of dead bodies, square grouper, abandoned boats, floating 40′ shipping containers and so on.

    I agree that we need to do better on plastic, for sure, but until Asia in particular wakes up and realizes they need to do better (They will when they kill their last remaining stocks of fish and are rebuffed from screwing up everyone else’s fisheries) the oceans won’t get much better.

    Want to focus on things in the West to make the ocean better? Then focus on micro plastics in consumer products, and reducing fertilizer run off from agricultural operations, particularly nitrogen based products.

    Disconnect pollution from AGW and you’ll have a much easier time as well. I still recall very well how we collectively started paying attention to Acid rain and how to stop it in the late 70’s. Within ten years there was demonstrable improvement in the health of lakes and rivers as a result. It was highly targeted, somewhat contested, and eventually extremely effective. If you try and solve all the worlds problems at once (AGW) you’ll get nowhere, simply too overwhelming to deal with.

  19. German Yeti says

    Lot of city folk here. Non-urbanites, those who work in field and forest, people whose livelihoods depend on efficient management of natural resources know first-hand that true environmentalism is apolitical and comes from the understanding that we care for ourselves and our families best by taking care of our ecosystems. Or, put more succinctly, don’t shit where you (or anyone else) eats.

    • TarsTarkas says

      As a field botanist specializing in site inventories and searching for T & E species I fully agree. I have found my fellow professional botanists and naturalists in my state to be some of the most reasonable and level-peopled people around.

  20. m edward says

    No, but a ban on straws fits the progressive goal of regulation and control and it makes them feel good.

  21. A cleaner environment is a secondary concern to many, whose primary cause is virtue signaling.

  22. Indie Wifey says

    kudos for the calling out of the tokenism of the plastic straw ban gesture
    Especially in the US nothing will change on throwaway culture until we all embrace re-use with classic glassware, silverware, barware etc
    No one is willing to do the dishes
    No one
    I lay the blame on feminism’s domestic work denigration, which has made housekeeping homemaking hosting and hostessing unpalatable and “beneath” the ahem dignity of self-important anonymous nobodies everywhere

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