I suppose this is what they call a “First World problem,” so humor me. It’s 8.30 a.m. I’ve just finished at the gym. I’m in line to get my breakfast smoothie. I wait, as patient people ought, till the voice crieth “Order for Muh-dy,” and I think, as a kind person should, Close enough. I smile as my change is handed to me. I pout. I sip . . . then:
*$&*%#%! This straw is made of paper. And now — owing to an entirely foreseeable combination of suction and saliva — it is disintegrating in my mouth. Whose idea was this?!
Please don’t pretend. I know you know what I’m talking about . . .
Recall the following science from the 1967 hit movie The Graduate:
Mr. McGuire: Are you listening?
Benjamin: Yes, I am.
Mr. McGuire: Plastics.
Benjamin: Exactly how do you mean?
Mr. McGuire: There’s a great future in plastics. Think about it. Will you think about it?
We’ve been thinking about it an awful lot since then. The mass production of plastic products began during the Second World War and has skyrocketed ever after. At this point, the industry is predicted to double in the next 20 years. While the benefits of plastics, from keeping food fresh to your toddler happy, are too obvious to note, its downsides — that there is currently more than 5 trillion plastic pieces weighing over 250,000 tons afloat at sea — deserve proper attention, too.
The trouble is that the West’s war on plastics has, of late been missing the mark. A couple of years ago, for instance, the vice president of the European Commission attacked “single-use plastics” — the kind that take “five seconds to produce, are used for five minutes, then take 500 years to break down again.” The problem he described has, in many ways, been replaced by similar problems.
Like paper. Did you know, for instance, that the life cycle of pulp and paper is the third largest cause of air, water, and land pollution in the United States, releasing over 100 million kilograms of toxins per annum? Or that around 10 percent more energy is required to create a paper bag than a plastic one, and around 4 percent more water? Paper is also made of trees, as you well know — which play a crucial role in absorbing carbon dioxide.
Despite this, Seattle banned plastic straws in July 2018, as have many corporate greens. Starbucks is phasing out plastic straws by 2020. MacDonald’s is moving to ban them in the U.K. and Ireland. Alaska Airlines is also ditching them. Will this change the weather and restore the climate to harmony? Not if the ban on single-use plastic bags are anything to go by.
When California banned single-use plastic bags in 2016, the state saw a reduction of 40 million pounds of plastic per year. However, a social scientist who researched that in 2019 found that it had inadvertently eliminated in-house recycling (i.e., using a plastic bag a second or third time for another purpose). That, in turn, resulted in the increase of trash bags by 12 million pounds. The study’s author added that to overlook this fact was to “overstate the regulation’s welfare gains.”
Similarly, after the Scottish government brought in a plastic-bag tax, it conducted a two-year investigation, published in 2005, comparing the life cycles of a single plastic bag with that of a paper bag. The conclusion was that a “paper bag has a more adverse impact than a plastic bag for most of the environmental issues considered.” A better response, evidently, would have been to try to encourage consumers to use plastic bags multiple times. In 2002, Ireland managed to do precisely that, reducing plastic-bag use per person per year from 328 to 21.
Besides, in straw evolution, paper is a regressive step — it’d be like Homo sapiens suddenly reverting to a state of Homo erectus. The first patent for a drinking straw was filed in 1888 and was made of paper because plastic had not yet been invented. This model was then improved by Joseph Friedman in the 1930s, who added a screw to make straws bendy, allowing hospitals to use them to help feed the sick and disabled. Then along came plastics, as you know. Lots and lots and lots of plastics.
Today, an estimated 500 million plastic straws are used in the U.S. every day, and one study suggests 8.3 billion will end up on American beaches. This is unacceptable, clearly. But in the interest of perspective, let’s stand back for a moment. As reported by National Geographic, of the 8 million tons of plastic that flows into the ocean every year, plastic straws account for just 0.025 percent.
So, what else — other than plastic straws — might be going on?
A 2015 study in Science finds that under 5 percent of land-based plastic waste currently afloat at sea comes from OECD countries. Moreover, that around half of that comes from just four nations: China (which alone contributes around 27 percent), Indonesia, Philippines, and Vietnam. To be fair, this is partly because, for a quarter of a century, OECD countries had been selling their plastic waste to poorer Asian countries. China put a stop to this only in 2018, which has thrown everyone off, as explained in the National Geographic:
China’s withdrawal as the world’s repository for plastic waste also laid bare the notion that all that disposable plastic you conscientiously put into your taxpayer-financed recycling bin was actually being recycled. It was cheaper to crush unwanted plastic into bales and send it across oceans than to transport it at home by rail or truck.
Now, with China’s door closed, much of that recycled plastic is likely ending up at your local landfill. China’s new policy could displace as much as 111 million metric tons of plastic waste by 2030.
It is clear that much more needs to be done to help non-OECD countries engineer better systems of plastic-waste management. The same is true for fishing, of course, which is in desperate need of reform. As Bjorn Lomborg, president of the Copenhagen Consensus Center, has noted, “more than 70 percent of all plastics floating on oceans today — about 190,000 tonnes — come from fisheries, with buoys and lines making up the majority.”
Again, while a quarter of a million tons of plastic dumped in our oceans is deeply unacceptable, it is unclear how dictating Western consumer habits — rather than incentivizing responsible behaviors and making significant policy changes in appropriately targeted regions — will do anything other than keep up appearances.
Sure, my personal distaste for paper straws is a First World problem. But I hasten to add that, when it comes to a much graver problem of ocean plastics, the developing world is, at present, a disproportionate contributor, a fact obscured and even exacerbated by Western hypocrisy. Tackling plastic waste requires a scientifically informed, proportionate, and concerted global effort. Not green posturing from American coastal elites.