Those Nasty Single-Use Plastics: Is Their End in Sight?

First it was a photo of an albatross that died from ingesting plastics. Then there was the [warning!] very graphic and disturbing turtle with a straw stuck in its nose, and now a whale that was found with 80 plastic bags in it: victims — or emblems, all heartbreaking and horribly effective — of another species overtaking an ecosystem.

If there was a giant mutant crocodile involved, it could be a plot for a SyFy channel movie. (Maybe they’ll option my screenplay.)

Image: US National Park Service (Note: this is not the Chris Jordan photo referenced above.)

That guilty species, of course, is not a digitized reptile with an indiscriminating appetite but is us, and the ecosystem is the largest on the planet: the oceans. The mode of ecosystem disruption: plastics.

Ecosystems, pretty much by definition, are a balance of their occupants: animals, plants, food (i.e. those animals and plants), air and water. When one of those is out of balance, it affects the rest because — as is often stated by those studying systems — everything is connected to everything else. And when a new element is injected into an ecosystem, the result can be upheaval. If you want to make that easier to visualize, think in terms of that prehistoric asteroid hitting the earth and the resulting extinction of the dinosaurs, along with most everything else alive. (Cockroaches can survive anything.)

The new element injected into ocean ecosystems is plastics. Like that asteroid, plastics are a massive ecosystem disruption, unanticipated and sudden (they didn’t exist in significant quantities a mere 50 or 60 years ago). If you want to extend the comparison, the plastics equivalent of that asteroid’s impact crater are the ocean gyres, vast circular currents where water-borne plastics accumulate. Water samples taken in those gyres contain the detritus of contemporary life: toothbrushes, BIC lighters, fishing nets, plastic bags. Not the types of things you’d want humanity to be remembered for. Sometimes the garbage is recognizable; sometimes it has devolved into tiny pellets which, disgustingly enough, can end up pooped out by plankton. Another SyFy nightmare in the making. But the plastics in this floating landfill (seafill?) never break down further than pellets because plastic doesn’t decompose, at least not in any useful time horizon.

How ironic is it that we take an incredibly long-lasting material and use it for time spans often measured in minutes? The average plastic bag, to take the most egregious example, is in use for twelve minutes, and it’s estimated that there are 500 billion to 1 trillion made each year.

Those victim species, especially the turtle whose wrenching video of a straw being removed from its nose has gone viral, have spurred a growing and international movement to ban many of those plastics, specifically the category called “single-use plastics.” Those are the coffee cups and lids, plastic bags, straws, utensils and other conveniences we take for granted. Because of that turtle, straws, which hadn’t even been on most greenies’ radar, are the most recent focus.

(I recently visited a local restaurant twice in a month. In the span between those two visits, they stopped providing straws with their drinks.)

The number of bans, fees and regulations on single-use plastics, instituted by countries, states, municipalities and even terrorist groups, grows each month. Accompanying this are businesses — supermarkets, airlines, the Olympics — voluntarily restricting their use. The Queen of England (!), or at least those who run the royal estates, is on board with it.

(In my EcoOptimism blog I cite this as an example of “good news disguised as bad news,” meaning the response or backlash to negative — Trumpian or elsewise — environmental developments.)

The rapid expansion of these restrictions is impressive, if long overdue. To grasp the scale of it, as well as to keep track of it, in July I began assembling a list of those regulations, sorted by entity (region, nation, city, business) and by type of plastic being addressed (bags, straws, packaging and the still emerging issue of microbeads). Since then, I’ve been updating the list several times a month as I hear of new additions. My hope is that this resource is more than just a handy reference but serves to both promote awareness and document the movement.

Excerpt From EcoOptimism’s “Status of Plastics Bans Worldwide

One can question whether bans, which are a “brute force” method with anti-free market overtones, are the best approach to the single-use plastics scourge. Capitalists scream that government interventions such as bans and regulations hurt business. But an accurate free market, which those same people vociferously oppose, would incorporate the environmental costs — dead animals, damaged ecosystems, endangered human health, cleanups — into the costs of the materials and the products incurring it, resulting in pricing that reflects real costs. Most of our environmental problems — air pollution, global warming — would disappear if those “externalized” or “social costs” were corrected. But since capitalism as we know it doesn’t do that, and it’s considered sacrilegious (capitalism being basically a religion) to suggest that it should, we have to irreverently perform surgery on the all-knowing “invisible hand” of the market.

Recycling is another example of this (skipping past the fact that the plastics recycling rate in the US is pretty dismal), and it’s pertinent to our topic here of plastics waste. Whenever we’re told to recycle things, the responsibility is being shifted from the manufacturer to the user. Rather than the producers of materials like plastics having to deal with the full costs of their materials, they’re getting a free ride and putting the onus on us. So, yeah, we get the product at a lower cost, but we have to pay afterward ’cause, you know, there’s no free lunch and all that. And the products that don’t have those environmental costs — the ones that should be preferable — are at a disadvantage. Solar-sourced electricity, for example, should be cheaper than fossil fuel-based. (Actually, it already is, but that’s another story.) Bioplastics would be cheaper than petroleum-based plastics, which might (or might not) mean most of our ocean plastics problem would disappear.

Whose responsibility should this be? Ours or the manufacturer’s? And which would be more effective? (You know what my answer is.) Image: Pixabay

At the other end of the spectrum of “solutions,” we can forget about both free market and government interventions. We can say we’re not going to attempt to prevent the problem from occurring; let’s just take care of it afterward. It’s like choosing to have heart surgery rather than cutting out red meat. Given, though, the scale of both the oceans and the amount of plastics in them, common sense says that’s not feasible. That was the reaction many of us had when we first saw the proposal for The Ocean Cleanup, a huge floating boom that would collect surface plastics. Turns out we may have been wrong. It’s now advanced to prototype testing with some promising results. Still, there’d have to be a of booms to make a significant dent.

And then there’s issue of what to do with that plastic, whether it’s collected by those booms or other methods. There are companies making underwear, sunglasses, sneakers and carpets from recycled fishing nets. (Those nets are a major component — almost half — of ocean plastics and contribute to over-fishing and bycatch issues as well.) And Dell just announced that it will ship laptops in plastic trays made from 25 percent marine plastics. But that’s only a drop in the ocean bucket.

So, remediation isn’t going to solve the problem. And modifying capitalism, no matter how valid the theory sounds, isn’t going to happen in our current corporate-ruled form of government. That brings us back to bans and regulations. Fortunately, those viral images have incited a popular movement. So popular that even some of those corporate interests are taking notice. That may be the best we can hope for and, really, it may just do the job.

I’ll be keeping tabs on this mega-trend, updating that blog page as often as possible. And if you come across additions (or corrections) that I’ve missed, drop me a note and I’ll add them.

Author (Sustainable Design: A Critical Guide), blogger (www.EcoOptimism.com), architect, ecodesigner, professor. Aspires to be Bucky Fuller.