Of paper cups and plastic straws


Paper cup with coffee, creamer and sugar on the side.

Source: Wikimedia Commons

We all know that climate change is real, we all know that we need to fucking do something about it, yet nothing seems to happen. What is being endlessly discussed is always one small thing or the other small thing, like a ban on plastic straws, or how we should use reusable cups for our coffee. What is more is a tendency to declare one’s own behaviour to be benign while pointing the finger at others and it’s getting on my nerves.

You can easily find this one Twitter, where people proclaim that them getting a new phone every year and flying to X isn’t the problem, but people going on cruises is. Vegetarians point at people who eat meat as “the problem”. Folks in cities with a good infrastructure declare that “nobody needs a car”. There are lots of good discussions about how just making shit more expensive (like a proposed increase in taxes on meat, which will make factory farmed cheap meat slightly more expensive, but still enough to become a problem for poor people, while making ethically farmed meat a lot more expensive, thus discouraging people from buying it) is making fighting climate change poor people’s problem while those rich enough to go on three fucking cruises a year and flying to New York for a shopping trip will just shrug their shoulders.

In line with this is the argument that the problem isn’t people’s consumption and behaviour, but it’s just those evil companies, or to quote a tweet (not going to link to it, this isn’t about the person, but the argument), that:

100 companies produce 71% of CO2 emissions. The idea that climate change is an individual problem is a lie bought & sold by these companies to stop us from holding them responsible. If all academics stopped flying for a year, the planet would still be under their control.

Now, I don’t doubt that the number is true, and believe me, I have absolutely no sympathy for capitalist companies who will happily burn the planet for shareholder value, but how do you think they produce all that CO2? Hint: They don’t produce it by burning coal at the company barbecue. They produce it by making all those damn consumer goods that we buy every day. Yes, by producing your new phone. By producing your steak. By shipping your yoghurt container three times around the world because that’s cheaper than doing it all in one place. By producing the electricity you need to post that shit on Twitter. So a lot of the discussions well meaning people are having can be summed up by the German saying “wash me but don’t wet my fur”: I want to see results, but I am not willing to go through the process (obviously a saying from before the advent of dry shampoo). Of course, individuals are often caught up in this trap, without having good alternatives for more sustainable behaviour (if i wanted to take public transport to work, I’d have to leave home at 1 am or so before the train connection ceases for the night, because the earliest train in the morning wouldn’t be early enough to catch the buses I’d then need to take…), and an individual changing their behaviour will not make climate change stop (I dramatically reduced our meat consumption, the planet is still getting hotter), yet in the long run everybody will need to change.

To come back to the title: Of course 3 billion fucking single use cups a year in Germany are bad and unsustainable. But we won’t solve climate change by just all bringing our reusable cups. But we also won’t stop it while using three fucking billion cups a year. The solutions will have to be manyfold and they will have to change the way we live, before climate change changes the way we live without us getting a say.

Comments

  1. says

    The way I see it, plastic containers contribute nearly nothing to climate change unless burned afterward. In a way, disposable plastic packages help in fact mitigate it a bit. For example, a plastic bottle is lighter than a glass reusable one. You need ca 100 g glass bottle to transport 1 kg of liquid, but only about 5 g of plastic to achieve the same (but again, most people do not actually need to buy bottled drinking water since they have access to quality tap water, so there is also that). The same applies to a wooden box vs. plastic one etc.

    For goods that need to be hygienically sealed and/or transported for longer distances, plastic packaging is the best option. The problem is what becomes of it afterward -- recycling should be preferred, landfills are not optimal but still better than burning, and throwing the things willy-nilly away is pure idiocy.

    This is where personal choices come into play. The main problem is not the big landfills, but all those billions of idiots who throw plastic packaging away wherever and whenever they feel like it. I never understood why someone capable of carrying a full bottle to the beach/park/mountains cannot be arsed to carry the empty one back and dispose of it at a designated place. It makes me despair that one cannot go for a stroll in the woods without encountering plastic trash everywhere. I have given up on cleaning it up, it is Sisyphean endeavor.

    As far as cutting personal CO2 emissions go, in my neck of the woods most are produced in winter due to heating. But insulating your house and go to renewable fuel is a big upfront cost that not everybody can afford, not to mention that renewable fuel is more expensive and requires more storage space than coal. To me, it took ten years of well-paid job to be able to finally go from coal to wood as a fuel source -- and I had to drive a car to work for that because public transport to that location was and is nearly nonexistent.

    The second biggest problem is energy production and that is where our Green party was shooting their own leg for decades, by strongly opposing nuclear energy and bungling up the legislative for solar, which has the same problem as the heating -- it is expected from the little people to cover their roofs with solar panels, but the upfront costs are prohibitive for 90% of them, so it has become another thing for corporations to suck money out of the state, with big solar farms that are an eyesore, take-up arable land and increase the energy costs for consumers.

    I think that higher taxes on meat and dairy products are an OK thing, but those higher taxes should be applied selectively -- that is, they should be applied to these products grown in an unsustainable way. There is a difference in the carbon footprint of a cow grazing on marginal lands where farming food for human consumption is not reasonable, and a cow being fed high-quality corn in a cage in a factory. I would argue that cows on pastures can be effectively carbon-neutral if we clinch the problem of carbon emissions in transport.

    Which we won’t, because corporations are greedy and people are stupid. We will go on destroying the planet. WW1 was caused by colonialism, WW2 by racism, WW3 will be caused by climate change.

  2. consciousness razor says

    There shouldn’t be sales taxes imposed on things like food or medicine to begin with. (Some US states don’t, have much lower rates on that sort of thing, and several have no sales taxes at all. I don’t know about elsewhere in the world.) If there were still taxes on meat while they were eliminated on other foods, that would mean an overall decrease in the burden for poor people. And for those with health issues that require it, I suppose their doctors could certify that they should get some kind of voucher for that.
    But I’d prefer much heavier restrictions on the companies producing it, making them use the land in much more environmentally-friendly ways in general … not this market-based crap that may not have enough of an impact.

  3. voyager says

    Too true, I’m afraid. Around here they’re banning single use plastic grocery bags, which is good, but there’s no mention of all the single use plastic that everything else is packaged in. Some things I can understand, but they package baked goods made in-store in huge clear plastic boxes and it’s the same with local produce.
    You’re so right, Giliell. Personal accountability is great, but we need to find ways to change the bigger picture. Our world is full of crap we could do without. We have “dollar stores” (nothing is a dollar anymore) and there’s aisle after aisle of cheap plastic tchotchkes packaged in even more cheap plastic. Every holiday has it’s own crap, too. Even St. Patrick’s day comes with hats, shirts, scarves, keychains, stickers, lapel pins, signs, cards, pens, cups, napkins, earrings, ad infinitum it seems. How do we even begin to fight against this?

    I always walk with a garbage bag and there’s hardly a day that I don’t pick up something. Sysiphean -- yes, but it makes me feel better about the places we walk.

    It’s good to have you back, Giliell. I’ve missed your voice.

  4. says

    Sorry for the late reply, but as you know, a summer flu knocked me out

    Charly

    For example, a plastic bottle is lighter than a glass reusable one. You need ca 100 g glass bottle to transport 1 kg of liquid, but only about 5 g of plastic to achieve the same (but again, most people do not actually need to buy bottled drinking water since they have access to quality tap water, so there is also that). The same applies to a wooden box vs. plastic one etc.

    Yeah, but the glass bottle can also be used again and again. AFAIK, the German system of glass bottles and deposits is one of the most environmentally friendly and efficient ones. There’s also the issue of microplastic and softener and such that end up in your drink. I mean, bottled water is bullshit for many people, but there’s also stuff like beer and soda…

    For goods that need to be hygienically sealed and/or transported for longer distances, plastic packaging is the best option. The problem is what becomes of it afterward — recycling should be preferred, landfills are not optimal but still better than burning, and throwing the things willy-nilly away is pure idiocy.

    Again, something which has many aspects. A lot of packaging could be avoided. For example, my cheese slices are in a packaging that is about just as big as the cheese. But salami is packed in a way that lets me see every single fucking slice.
    And then there’s of course the thing that I could get a lot of stuff without the plastic if I went to different shops, but who’s got time for that?
    I really find my mostly single, all child free, all female young colleagues cute who go to the “no packing” shop (where you spend as much on 100g of pasta as you do on the pound at the supermarket). One of them said “well, it worked in grandma’s time!” to which I replied “sure, but that was your grandma’s job. She didn’t work full time outside the home as well.”
    Also, it’s a horrible waste of oil. You worked in the chemical industry, you know how many things have oil as a basis and it’s a finite resource.

    CR

    There shouldn’t be sales taxes imposed on things like food or medicine to begin with. (Some US states don’t, have much lower rates on that sort of thing, and several have no sales taxes at all. I don’t know about elsewhere in the world.) If there were still taxes on meat while they were eliminated on other foods, that would mean an overall decrease in the burden for poor people.

    To explain the situation: There’s a general VAT of 19% in Germany, and a reduced VAT on things like food and medicine. The bullshit proposal was to raise the VAT for meat and dairy to the normal level. That’s bad for many reasons.
    For one thing, it makes the cheap and unethically produced a little more expensive. Knowing the fucked up German food industry, it would increase the pressure on producers to lower their prices, making the farming conditions even worse. It would make more ethically produced goods a lot more expensive and thus potentially force people who are not poor but not rolling in dough either switch to less ethically farmed stuff. And neither animals nor the environment are helped by the German government making more money.
    For another thing, food banks exist. As long as they do, artificially raising prices on food is an absolute no go. And since it’s meant to make people consume less meat and dairy, there wouldn’t be an increase in payments.
    Last but really not least: I utterly reject those approaches that try to solve climate change by making poor people miserable and forcing them to “be good”. I double despise them when the subject is food.
    I get it, we need to consume less meat and dairy. I absolutely agree with the goal, I drastically reduced our personal consumption. I hear a lot of people say “well, meat was special when I grew up, don’t be so entitled!”, but I was raised by working class people of the war and post war generation. Yes, meat was luxury, which also turned meat into a sign of “not being dirt poor anymore”. Poverty traumatises and if it affects food, it can absolutely destroy your relationship with food and your body. Therefore reducing meat consumption by making people too poor to buy it (while rich people will of course still eat their pasture grazed steak and free range chicken wings) is inflicting trauma on vulnerable populations.

  5. says

    @Giliell Burning oil is a waste, throwing plastic in a landfill is a waste, but using plastic for things where it excels over other materials is in my opinion not. And one of those things is lightweight hygienic packaging.
    I am not convinced that glass is the most environment friendly option. I am not convinced that it is not either. I really do not know. When going on a google-crawl, I found no data that would really convince me one way or the other and I found plenty of contradicting “studies” that did not agree on any sinlge material from the triad glass-plastic-alluminium.
    Our currently biggest environmental problem is lack of available, safe, reliable and renewable source of energy. That is at the heart of everything and that must be adressed. And whilst glass bottles can be theoretically reused ad infinitum without melting -- a big plus -- there is no denying that transporting both full and empty glass bottles emmits more (I estimate it at 10 times) greenhouse gasses than transporting their plastic or aluminium equivalents. As I said, I did not find reliable data that confirms or falsifies the notion that this is outweighed by other properties of glass packaging, I found data claiming both of these contradictory notions.

    If we eliminate the energy problem, then aluminium will probably be instantly better than both glass and plastic. Because it is lighter and thus utilises better the energy used for transporting the goods packaged than glass and is 100% recycleable with current technology thus outperforming plastic.
    But should we (we will not, but hypothetically) solve the energy problem, then the plastic needn’t be environmental problem either, because it can be recycled (and made from waste biomass). Currently recycleability of plastic is only about 30% (compared to 100% of both glass and aluminium), but that is only due to costs (=energy) limits imposed on what kind of recycling is economicaly viable. There are ways to recycle plastic back into pure raw monomeric materials (anaerobic pyrolysis & cold plasma pyrolysis). Their only downfall is that (in our current for-profit-only societies run de-facto by fossil fuel companies) the open process “mine-manufacture-use-toss/burn” is cheaper than a closed loop cycle “manufacture-use-recycle”.

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