The problem of single-use plastic pollution

The problem of plastic pollution has come to the fore, thanks to the work of environmental groups who have highlighted the toll it is taking on the oceans and marine life. Much of the damage comes from the sheer volume of plastic items that are used just once and then thrown away. This website by a company called SLOActive that markets sustainable, eco-friendly swimwear has data on the harm that plastics are doing and what we can do to mitigate the damage. The numbers are staggering. About 1.15 to 2.41 million tons of plastic are said to annually enter the world’s oceans via rivers.

The problem of microplastics, the tiny plastic particles that are created near the end point of the plastic degradation process, is now coming to the fore. As the website says:

Scientific research surveys have revealed that microplastics are widespread throughout the world’s oceans, and are having a negative impact on marine life, as well as the health of humans who rely on seafood as a staple protein source. Polystyrene beads and plastic pellets are not easily digested so tend to accumulate in the digestive tract of marine animals who consume them. This can result in the animal feeling full, causing it to stop feeding, leading to emaciation and ultimately death from starvation, or it can cause an intestinal blockage that can also be fatal. When a predator feeds on a fish that has a gut full of undigested polystyrene or plastic, this is passed on to the predator who in most cases will also have problems digesting it.

In Australia , two major retailers have stopped issuing plastic bags and some states have banned them. An Australian senate committee has issued a report recommending that all single use plastics be banned by the year 2023. Some US states and cities are also taking steps towards the elimination of single-use plastics. In the US, Starbucks has made a big media splash by vowing to eliminate plastic straws from its stores by 2020.

The two targets currently in the news are disposable plastic bags and plastic straws. In the US, stores hand out these bags far too readily. If I buy even a single small item, the cashier will immediately slip it into a plastic bag and give it to me and I have to ask them to take it out again and just give me the item and keep the bag. If I know I will be buying a lot of stuff, I take my own bags.

I have never understood the need for straws, though. I actually prefer to drink straight from the glass or cup without a straw. The only times when a straw is necessary is if you are in a moving vehicle and your cup has a tight lid with an aperture that the straw pokes through to prevent spilling. Another, less frequent occasion, is when I am drinking something with a large head of foam (like an ice cream milk shake) and I don’t want the foam all over my face. But plastic straws, like plastic bags, are also handed out indiscriminately, without being asked for.

I am waiting for the inevitable backlash against these moves to limit single-use plastics. In the US there are a number of people who not only deny that the planet and the environment need protecting, they actually go out of their way to create pollution, by deliberately adjusting their vehicles to belch smoke. Any attempt to limit their choices is seen by them as a monstrous infringement on their rights. Remember the outcry against the introduction of compact fluorescent light bulbs? At some point, they are going to ask for multiple straws for a single drink and separate plastic bags for each item, however small, just to show their contempt for the environment. They are really that petty. They may be aided in their effort by the news that even Al Shabab, an Al Qaeda affiliate in Somalia, has launched a war against single-use plastic bags, calling it a “serious threat to the well-being of both humans and animals.” That news alone is enough for the crazies in the US to argue that fighting single-use plastics is an insidious plot to undermine the way of life of righteous god-fearing Merkins. After all, if god didn’t want us to use plastics, he wouldn’t have invented it, no?


  1. lanir says

    Well, that was unfortunate timing. My earlier comment was in regards to deliberate polluters. You can tell their whole goal is to annoy others and get attention because the pollution they generate is entirely optional and deliberate. But they have no more use for the results than you do (they’re not trying to prove they can breathe in black smoke without negative consequences, they just want you to deal with it so you can’t ignore them).

  2. vucodlak says

    I always use a straw for a number of reasons* but I’ll happily switch to carrying around a durable, unlimited use straw. I should have done so already.

    *In order of importance, if anyone cares (#1 is a little gross, so be forewarned):
    1.) Thanks to a combination of an old injury and allergies to just about everything, I have to drink a lot of liquids if I don’t want my mucus to thicken and plug up my bronchi (a terrifying sensation, not to mention potentially fatal). I always keep a giant mug of ice water nearby, and I make sure to drink from it regularly. I could do this without a straw but, as I absolutely hate the feeling of ice on my lip, I tend not to drink enough when I don’t have straw.

    2.) I often drink sugary drinks and it’s slightly better for one’s teeth if you use a straw, according to my dentist.

    3.) I’m a clumsy oaf whose mouth leaks if he isn’t very careful, and straws reduce the number of times I have to mop up after myself/change my shirt.

  3. anat says

    Also, sufferers of Raynaud Syndrome may experience vasoconstriction in the hand holding a cold drink (though there may be other ways to avoid the problem).

    There was a story in my local paper about a woman who avoids all products that come in plastic packaging. It made me wonder how much effort that would involve. Because in any place I shop, even if I avoid all processed foods, most ingredients require plastic packaging of some kind at some point. If I buy fruit and vegetables by weight, most require a plastic bag to hold the items together as they are weighed. We buy dry beans and other legumes in bulk by purchasing large plastic bags of them. The alternative is to buy them by weight -- in store-provided plastic bags. I have yet to see anyone weighing dry legumes in a multi-use container, nor do i know of companies that sell them in non-plastic bags.

  4. Dunc says

    You can also get disposable straws made from biodegradeable materials such as waxed paper or cellulose.

  5. alixmo says

    Thanks for the post about plastic pollution! Environmental problems are much ignored. The focus is on Climate Change (absurd to say that, knowing that it gets also underestimated and hardly anything is done to prevent a worsening of the situation!).

    Environmental science is getting ignored -- and for once, both Right AND Left are at fault. I thought I would never say that, knowing how darn awful and inhumane the Right is.

    The Right is against environmental protection for the obvious reason: Growth, economically for most “fiscal”/libertarian money loving capitalists AND growth for the religious hardliners in the sense of Monty Python`s song “Every sperm is sacred”.

    For the left, their intentions are benign: Their deeply felt worry about other humans and about justice put them at odds with the environment. Because the environment crisis is a conundrum that cannot be solved by simply applying leftist policy in the vein of: Better and fairer sharing of profits, more and better jobs through (government) programs and Keynesian economics (which still relies on growth).

    Even the absolutely correct and necessary change from fossil fuels to renewable energy (especially solar energy) will not be enough to stop our ecological problems. For instance: even “clean” solar power will not save us from pollution through toxins in products like electronics, detergents, fertilisers, pesticides, plastics and so on.

    Renewables will not stop the Sixth Mass Extinction of the other species on this planet. It will not restore soils, re-forest areas, stop desertification, depletion of aquifers, the concentration of salts in irrigated soil etc. Nor does it stop us wasting more and more thanks to Consumerism and convenience.

    The left tends to ignore all that, hoping that a “greening” of Keynesian economics through the use of clean, renewable energy will be enough. They do not touch the “Ponzi scheme” of perpetual growth with all its implications.

    Worse, their understandable fear of hurting poor people in the Global South lead to… hurting people in the Global South (mostly poor women of colour) AND the environment -- and therefore ALL people. How? By vehemently denying that there is ANY problem with human population growth (another “Ponzi scheme”), making any discussion about it a taboo and ecologist who bring it up into “Malthusian racists, anti-human, anti-poor, eugenicists (!) and possibly even genocidal (!!)”. Naturally, ecologists did not like that association and never mentioned population growth ever again. (The turning point was the UN International Conference on Population and Development (ICPD) in Cairo, Egypt, 1994, when the Vatican with some Muslim allies “hijacked” the conference they so dreaded. Extreme anti-emancipation, anti-woman religious groups still hail this conference as a great victory -- curiously, so do feminists…sigh)

    And that lead to the under-funding of programs for sex education, free contraceptives and general “empowerment of women” in the Global South. (Even in the US, Planned Parenthood is under constant attack). The Global Gag Rule (aka Mexico City Policy) about abortion is also part of this mess.

    Our global ecological problems ARE manageable, but two things have to happen: Our economy has to de-couple from the “infinite Growth Dogma” and Consumerism (which first of all means ending neoliberal Capitalism). AND we have to tackle human population growth with IMMENSE programs for: sex education, free, easily available contraceptives, abortion as a universal human right (as a choice for any woman on the planet). Plus helping the Global South in meaningful unselfish ways, e.g. by financing education for boys AND girls, healthcare and (extremely important) help for the poor and elderly so that they do not rely on having a large family. And of course we should CANCEL THE DEBT of poor countries.

    We should NOT allow elites in the Global South (or the West, as Catholics and Evangelicals would love to do!) to deny girls and women their rights under the pretext of “culture”, “tradition” or “religion”! There are no “races”, we are all Homo Sapiens. Culture changes, all the time (try to take people`s cell phones away). When the left started to accept excuses by leading elites (e.g in the UN) on the grounds of “racism or colonialism” against their “culture, tradition, religion”, it allowed the continuous abuse of women in those places. Human rights should be universal!

    Additionally (!) to helping women all over the world to become “normal”, full citizens, not mere mothers, empowering and educating women and giving them access to contraceptives would ALSO help to have a more sustainable world population. It would allow more people to live a relatively wealthy and comfortable life, allow the Global South to catch up.

    So we need both, less consumption/waste (a smaller ecological footprint -- especially in the Global North) and less “feet” (because we want even the poorest people to have a larger footprint than they have now -- their ONE live is very hard!). But neither the Right nor the Left is working towards these aims. I am not optimistic for the future.

    I recommend this article by an environmental scientist:

  6. says

    Others have touched on it already, but the banning of plastic straws is actually ableist as hell. I’m doing research to write a blog post on it, but here’s one of my sources…

    As Vivian Kane points out… it’s a privilege to not have to think about this. When I first heard about the ban, I also first thought it was a good thing. But then I’m not physically disabled. I can easily use my arms and hands to drink liquid straight from the cup or bottle without having to even think about the possibility that I might lose control. It was several of my friends, some of whom do have to worry about things like that, who disabused me of that notion rather quickly.

    Of course there’s the argument of “alternatives”… that they could just bring a reusable straw from home… but as Vivian points out, there are problems there, as well. Some simply may not remember to bring it. Some need more flexibility than most reusable straws provide. Some bendable reusable straws fall apart way easier than a disposable plastic straw does (paper simply isn’t going to work because it falls apart way too easily, and a biodegradable straw can start to biodegrade in whatever liquid the person is trying to drink). And some people who rely on straws simply aren’t able to clean a reusable straw.

    There’s also the fact that banning plastic straws is utterly pointless. That’s simply not going to save the environment. It’s a fact that no single human being can make any kind of dent in global warming through personal changes. Changes need to be way more large-scale. Banning plastic straws is purely performative, and it hurts the disabled community in the process.

    Until someone invents an environmentally-friendly disposable alternative to plastic straws that is friendly to those who need straws to drink, a ban on plastic straws is an ableist idea that should not be happening.

    I’m more ambivalent about banning plastic bags. I think that one has less ableist consequences, since reusable bags are as easy to use as plastic bags, and get cheaper and cheaper every day (I own 6, and they were all $0.50 with no added tax). Plus, many of my friends who are angry about the plastic straw ban seem to largely support the plastic bags ban, so that definitely tells me that it’s a better move. But I’m going to do my research on that one, as well.

    Over all, the point is that before we start banning disposable stuff (straws, cups, plates, utensils, and so on), let’s first talk to the disabled community to see why and how they use it. Because they do, and stepping on them to “protect” the environment is absolutely unacceptable. That doesn’t mean we don’t do what we can to minimize global warming… I am an environmentalist and take the steps I can to reduce my carbon footprint… but, like everything, environmentalism will be intersectional or it will be bullshit. Banning plastic straws is the opposite of intersectional… and, therefore, it’s bullshit.

    (Also, I like the wording of this comment enough that it I’ll most likely use it in my blog post, so don’t be surprised if you see it there… :D)

  7. Mano Singham says

    I admit that I hadn’t considered the possibility that it might be ableist. I think that establishments should have straws that they can hand out to people who request them. The problem is that, like with plastic bags, they hand them out indiscriminately even when the person does not ask for them.

  8. says

    That I can agree with. Having the straws available for those who request them is, I think, a good compromise that can actually work in practice. Plastic straws would still be consumed, but much less often than they are, now.

  9. Art says

    My neighbor has difficulty drinking from a cup because of brain and nerve damage incurred during a brutal rape. She had to relearn how to read and write. It isn’t obvious but she has limited control over one side of her mouth and so liquids tend to slip out the side while drinking. She can use a straw without spilling.

    That said she does have a collection of stainless steel straws so, other than when we forget to keep them in the truck, few disposable straws are used.

    If a business or household needs to hand out non-reusable straws they can hand out biodegradable straws.

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