The world has become increasingly alarmed at the amount of plastic in its oceans. But where does all this plastic waste come from?
Here’s a hint: not from us.
Not if by “us” is meant the United States, or the West in general.
Plastic in the ocean is a major problem. As this article points out, “more than 8 million tons of it ends up in the ocean every year. If we continue to pollute at this rate, there will be more plastic than fish in the ocean by 2050.”
That is not just hype, and it is not something we should take lightly, especially if we care at all about this good Earth and its future (not to mention our future, on it). But here’s the thing: plastic straws in California – or anywhere else in the U.S. – are not the problem. We are not, by and large, the problem.
That’s not to say we couldn’t be doing a better job of disposing of (or, preferably, recycling) our plastic waste than we are; but for the most part, we’re not doing badly. So where does all that plastic waste come from?
Asia, primarily, and Africa.
According to the World Economic Forum, and recounted in the linked article and elsewhere, 80% of the plastic waste that makes it into the world’s oceans gets there via ten rivers: eight of them in Asia (including the storied Ganges and the Indus in India, and the Yangtze and Yellow in China), and two (the Nile and Tiber) in Africa.
Interestingly, this story came out this past summer. But how much attention has it received from the mainstream press? Little to none.
And instead of using its vaunted technological prowess to help ameliorate the problem – either by assisting developing countries to develop more effective waste-management techniques, or by finding ways to attack the pollution that has already made it to sea – what does California do? Bans plastic straws.
This is an example of “what Todd Myers calls ‘eco-fads‘ (things that make us feel good but do nothing beneficial),” as a related article points out. It is also a type of environmental virtue-signalling, a means by which folks on the “progressive” / Left side of the sociopolitical aisle can trumpet how ecologically sensitive and aware they are.
But consider: if you don’t use plastic straws, what do you use? Paper? If your paper does not come from 100% recycled content – or possibly a fast-growing product such as hemp – you are guilty of cutting down trees, which is hardly an ecologically-benign action! As Barry Commoner’s Fourth Law of Ecology put it, “there’s no such thing as a free lunch.”
Again, banning plastic straws is a feel-good, political action with little to no real-world utility. But it does give people who favor big government another tool with which to bash on people to do not. That can be said about a lot of the poster-child causes of recent environmentalism, including – of course – the anthropocentric global-warming hype, which (as I have discussed elsewhere) is coming increasingly to look like an emperor-in-the-buff.
It is not that there aren’t ecological issues that are worth addressing. It is not that the Earth doesn’t matter! This is our home, the only place in the Cosmos we have found thus far where we can survive, without heavy hi-tech assistance. If we screw it up, we are screwed, ourselves: we can’t exactly go to the galactic Walmart and buy a new one.
I myself has spent most of my working life dealing with environmental, ecological, conservation, and sustainability issues, much of it educating others on these subjects.
And one of the things that angers me most about things like this is that they actually hurt the cause of legitimate conservation, legitimate ecological concern, when so-called environmentalists overplay their hand, and/or politicize the issues, and turn people off to care for the environment entirely.
As the American Council on Science and Health post I quoted above points out, “If we want this pollution to stop, then we might want to consider helping [developing nations] modernize their infrastructure. Finally, we should consider policies that punish commercial fishermen who leave nets and other gear in the water.” Why?
Because according to this article that appears in Bloomberg, of all places, “two Australian scientists estimate that there are up to 8.3 billion plastic straws scattered on global coastlines.” That sounds like a lot! “Yet even if all those straws were suddenly washed into the sea, they’d account for about .03 percent of the 8 million metric tons of plastics estimated to enter the oceans in a given year.”
In contrast, “at least 46 percent of the plastic in the garbage patch by weight comes from a single product: fishing nets. Other fishing gear makes up a good chunk of the rest.” The article goes on to add that the “impact of this junk goes well beyond pollution. Ghost gear, as it’s sometimes called, goes on fishing long after it’s been abandoned, to the great detriment of marine habitats.”
These are the kinds of issues we should be addressing, not engaging in absurd political posturing over plastic straws, in a country which – though we could always stand to improve – actually does a pretty good job of dealing with its waste. Especially compared to other areas of the globe!
But as the above indicates, there are things that we could, and should, do. Why are we not doing them? Perhaps because, as the ACSH post points out, “these policies are boring and spiritually unfulfilling. But the upshot is that they would probably work.”
And perhaps also because they would require us to help other people where they live – not extend the power, and enlarge the voting blocs, of Left-wing politicians here at home.