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The recycling myth: A plastic waste solution littered with failure (reuters.com)
346 points by laurex 49 days ago | hide | past | favorite | 333 comments



One thing I’m always curious about is why we are so concerned with plastic waste.

My local grocery store recently switched to paper bags. So I got curious. Turns out you have to re-use a paper bag 43 times for the energy use to be the same as plastic grocery bags. This is impossible since they are made of paper. Aluminum and glass bottles require several hundred times more energy to produce as well (between 170-250x).

Then when you look at plastic pollution and see that for the most part North America is quite good at properly disposing of plastic you wonder why we are so obsessed with this as a problem.

Plastic waste really isn’t a big problem unless you’re talking about developing nations. North America is responsible for about 3% of mismanaged plastic waste. Asia and Africa account for 86% of it.

Don’t get me started on plastic straws. They make up 0.03% of plastic waste in the ocean.

If we want to make a difference here we should be helping developing nations to better manage their plastic waste so that it doesn’t end up in waterways.

The Yangtze and Ganges are releasing plastic into the ocean at a rate far greater than all of North America combined, and our response is to expend huge amounts of energy produced by fossil fuels trying to recycle our plastic instead of burying it in a landfill where it is unlikely to pose a major ecological threat.

Like many environmental initiatives I worry that we’re more concerned about making ourselves feel better than actually solving the problem.


You're leading with energy use but that's really not the point.

The point is that plastic takes many centuries to degrade, and we go through a lot of single-use plastic. For example, a disposable diaper takes >500 years to biodegrade.

It's nice to imagine all this plastic going into walled-off landfills that protect the rest of the earth and water from being contaminated, but in practice this is a myth. US localities are seeing an unsustainably growing amount of plastic contamination in local waterways and beaches, some of it visible, some of it not.

Incidentally, this doesn't mean you need to use a single-use paper bag instead of a single-use plastic bag. Instead, use a durable bag made out of any material you like. The phrase is "reduce -> reuse -> recycle". Recycling was never meant to be the foremost part of our sustainability efforts.


> You're leading with energy use but that's really not the point.

Isn't that the critical point? Of all our environmental problems, atmospheric CO2 is the biggest one, right? My assumption is that the energy used in industrial manufacturing is almost always non-renewable. If we're advocating for using paper bags over plastic bags, that means we're advocating for way more CO2 in the atmosphere. So what we should actually be advocating for is mandating that people reuse bags, bottles, and containers of all kind.

It's been a long time since I've been involved in chemistry, but my understanding is that extruded polymers like plastic bags, wraps and containers are almost always synthesized from waste products of fossil fuel refinement. If it wasn't for products like plastic wraps and bags, these "waste" gasses that are polymerized into plastics would be released into the atmosphere (especially in places without environment regulation or enforcement). The production of plastics at least traps those gasses into some solid state that we can then hope to maybe possibly bury in a landfill. I know it's ugly and pretty horrible, but from a climate perspective I'd go so far as to say that I'd prefer the plastic in a body of water than in the atmosphere.


> Of all our environmental problems, atmospheric CO2 is the biggest one, right?

We honestly don't know how bad micro-plastic is. Our experience with asbestos, another fibre that can penetrate cells, suggests "very bad" is on the list of potentials. We do know that it's in literally everything from dirt to water to air, and that it has circled the globe and got to places no human sets foot.

Like soil depletion and loss of insects, it's on the list of problems which aren't trendy to focus on right now, but might end up being really serious.


Microplastics are a good reason to make sure your plastic makes it to a landfill instead of the ocean more than a reason to give up plastic entirely. Of course, not every country has government provided waste disposal so to the extent that our rich world preferences get foisted onto developing countries by default I guess that is a valid reason to want to reduce plastic use.

But on the third hand locking up hydrocarbons in plastics while we're dealing with global warming seems like a positive good.


From what I understand, most microplastics in the environment are from washing clothing made of synthetic fibers[1] instead of natural products like cotton. It's rare to find something made from 100% cotton - it's usually a blend of mostly synthetic and sometimes natural fibers. Every time you wash them millions of microfiber plastics are released into the sewer system and there is no filter system capable of removing them so they end up permanently in the water cycle. They even end up in rain and snowfall[2], and have been found in organs of the human body[3] and of course wildlife.

> Microplastic pollution caused by washing processes of synthetic textiles has recently been assessed as the main source of primary microplastics in the oceans.

[1]https://www.nature.com/articles/s41598-019-43023-x

[2]https://www.nationalgeographic.com/environment/article/micro...

[3]https://www.theguardian.com/environment/2020/aug/17/micropla...


Rephrased for impact: The dominant source of microplastics is lint.

Fuzzy blanket (synthetic)? Microplastics.

Cozy sweater (synthetic or blend, but lets face it: usually synthetic)? Microplastics.

Microfiber towel? Microplastics.

Plastic straws, bags, and packaging? Landfill.


It is not so rare to find 100% cotton clothing, most websites have an option to filter on the fabric. In physical stores this becomes harder though.


Also landfill becomes like a nuclear waste site, a burden on the future. You can't let it puncture, or be dug up (by humans or animals), or landslip, or flood. You have to cosset the damn thing in perpetuity, or until someone invents plastic-eating fungi (which dump it into the carbon cycle instead).


If we just abandon all landfills for 1000 years with no maintenance, how much of that plastic do you estimate will end up released into the sea during that time? Will it be enough to cause a bigger ecological problem than what's already happened with plastic in the sea today?

Importantly, where did you get your data from? It can't be just your imagination because that's only a tool to reinforce what you already believe.


Modern US landfills are lined and capped water tight, and have been for decades. Permitting is a thoroughly reviewed process, by dozens of federal, state, and local government offices, and hundreds of officials and engineers. Monitoring wells ensure compliance.

Even if it's microplastic in that landfill water, it's not getting to the ocean. Worst case is it's captured with the decomposing gases and condensate, and reprocessed at a refinery or incinerated.

The plastic is much better deposited in US landfills than shipped overseas, where it may be directly spilled into the ocean, or dumped into open fields for the poor to manually sift for the most valuable material, and then there's no telling where the rest of it will end up once it rains.

Plus landfill plastic is sequestered carbon.

Even places that certify plastic recycling into a new end user product are often making worthless items that are given away so that they can claim zero waste. The material ends up as construction fill for hydraulic detention infrastructure, playground surfaces and sports fields, or even those "green" children's toys. Or cheap fleeces. Lots and lots of cheap fleeces, blankets, and snuggies.

The exact places we don't want that plastic to end up.


Right, except that plastics do not biodegrade for hundreds of years or more. Will landfills continue to be as well managed as you claim they are now in perpetuity? Unlikely.


The linings are also non biodegradable, and a solid multi-foot layer of non-permeable clay goes under that. The cap is also non-permeable clay.

The hydraulic conductivity of this clay is measured in millions of years per inch. It's water tight, and it's super absorbent.

Yes, perpetual containment is what they are designed for.


Oil doesn't biodegrade either.


There are microbes that break down hydrocarbons for energy, but they aren't necessary for oil to break down.

Hydrocarbons can break down on their own, which is why you are supposed to change your cars oil every 3 months regardless of how many miles you drive.


Oil is a product of biodegradation, and can be biodegraded by some fungi.

It also degrades in the marine environment.


Eventually, once technology has sufficiently advanced, some people are going to make a lot of money mining landfill for raw materials.


> Our experience with asbestos, another fibre that can penetrate cells, suggests "very bad" is on the list of potentials.

On the other hand, the issue seems to be animals ingest microplastics, mistaking them for food. The thing is, the vast majority of any environment is "not food". Tiny sand particles, dust, lignin, volcanic ash. If there is one thing life is phenomenally good at, it's distinguishing "not food" from food. Introducing a poison like pesticides into the environment, or wholesale environmental change like CO2 is doing - that could and indeed is wiping out a lot of species. But I have a hard time believing another source of "not food" will cause the same scale of damage.


Yeah microplastics might indeed be worse. I didn’t know microplastics potentially had so much in common with asbestos.


>Yeah microplastics might indeed be worse.

Doubtful, not saying it's harmless but microplastics are everywhere, asbestos is not. We should research it but should not jump to the conclusion that it might be worse than a known horrible material.

Asbestos had clear links to various kinds of horrible conditions known all the way back to the early 1900s. Microplastics might increase some kinds of cancer and screw with some hormone signalling but we haven't seen such clear links yet to the same kinds of conditions.


The hunch that asbestos is really bad for human health is very old. The Greek geographer Strabo and the Roman naturalist Pliny the Elder both reported a sickness of the lungs in the slaves who wove asbestos into cloth.


And microplastics are still hydrocarbons that can be broken down into relatively harmless constituents, even if it takes some effort and energy.

Asbestos pretty much stays asbestos forever.


> If we're advocating for using paper bags over plastic bags, that means we're advocating for way more CO2 in the atmosphere.

Not exactly. The point is not to use paper bag, but to use durable/persistent bag from any material (even plastic) as long as you can.

For example, I almost never use one-time plastic bags, because I have backpack, so when I go to a grocery store, all the things placed into the backpack.

In such case (from energy perspective) it's easier to peoduce 1 backpack (32l) for several years of daily use instead of paper/plastic/etc ONE-TIME bag.

Unfortunately, that approach doesn't work with other things. For example, it's impossible to buy yogurt not in one-time plastic package and we didn't find a "mass market" solution to that problem. Same goes for any other ONE-TIME package


Using your backpack for a year makes it maybe superior to single-use plastic if you don't use the single-use bag for trash later on: https://youtu.be/JvzvM9tf5s0


Good thing I don't have to buy a new backpack every year!


> For example, it's impossible to buy yogurt not in one-time plastic package and we didn't find a "mass market" solution to that problem. Same goes for any other ONE-TIME package

Actually there are completely package-free supermarkets in Europe (and probably the US, too) now, where you bring your own container and pay by weight. It's very niche now but I can imagine it increasing in popularity.


Can you please name them? This is my dream. I would like to learn more.


https://reuprefills.org/ in Oakland.

https://www.azurestandard.com/ has drop off points across the country. They are amazing.

https://dispatchgoods.com/ for Bay Area delivery food in reusable metal containers.

Most health food grocery stores do something similar with their bulk foods and soaps.


https://scoopwholefoods.com has stores in Australia, Singapore, and the UK, although I'm not sure if it has yogurt.


Every household in Australia has a yellow recycling bin that is collected every fortnight. Given that this article tells us there is no way to recycle plastic, what actually happens to all the trillions of plastic containers that pass through these yellow bins?


This was in the news back in 2018, and at the time I think local councils were instead sending plastics to landfill.

https://www.smh.com.au/world/asia/malaysia-bans-waste-import...

I’m not sure how the situation has changed since.

More here: http://environment.gov.au/protection/waste/how-we-manage-was...



Coles and Woolworths in Australia both accept soft plastic recycling. Their store brands all list what soft plastic items are recyclable


In Germany they are called Unverpackt (unpackaged).


A keyword search would be “zero waste store $city”


Bulk Barn in Canada (no yogourt though).


In India you can buy yogurt in biodegradable clay pots.


SciShow did a great episode on this very issue:

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=JvzvM9tf5s0


Heh, I just posted this in reply to two other comments. It's good (counterintuitive) info.


Great episode. Thanks for sharing.


Thanks a lot, will check this out.


> it's impossible to buy yogurt not in one-time plastic package and we didn't find a "mass market" solution to that problem.

In Nordics most yoghurt is sold in one-liter Tetra Pak style cartons, similar to milk. I've noticed it's next to impossible to find these in Central Europe though, for whatever reason.


Is there a recycling process for Tetra Pak products?

I know they’re made from recyclable products, aluminium and paper, but they’re also an awkward combination of glossy paper glued to aluminium, which—last time I checked—were sent directly to landfill here.


Tetra Paks aren't put to generic waste, they go in a semi-specific packaging materials bin that depends on country. I assume almost all of them are incinerated for energy.


Not here in Australia.

Here’s the Tetra Pak website about recycling for Australia, where it goes on for a bit to vaguely avoid saying they go to landfill as the aluminium isn’t a sufficiently concentrated source, and nobody cares to reuse the low grad paper that could be reclaimed.

https://www.tetrapak.com/en-anz/sustainability/planet/carton...


In Nordics a large part of household waste is incinerated for energy, I don't have recent numbers but 50% already in 2015 in Finland and Sweden. In addition some part is of course recycled/composted (glass, paper, metal, bio). Landfills get just a tiny slice.


Locally they are recycled into roofing material. https://www.mwatoday.com/waste-recycling/recycling-disposal-...


> The point is not to use paper bag, but to use durable/persistent bag from any material (even plastic) as long as you can.

Of course. I was referring/responding to the parent comment.


> extruded polymers like plastic bags, wraps and containers are almost always synthesized from waste products of fossil fuel refinement

That's almost completely false.

It obviously depends on the kind of plastic. PE and PP are made from ethene and propene, which are indeed byproducts of fuel refining. But demand far outstrips supply now, so these are now made on purpose. PS is made from styrene, which is not a byproduct. It is made from low-value chemicals, so it's upgraded waste. PET is made from terepthalic acid, which is very much not a waste product of any process.

Even if there were any waste products from fuel refining, they would certainly not be vented. They'd be burned as fuel. Which is also a sensible thing to do with waste plastics. (Someone is going to object that this releases CO2. It does. Burning fuel releases CO2. We can come back to this point once we longer burn coal or methane for energy.)


Wiki and some other sources say that PE is made from crude oil byproducts https://extension.psu.edu/how-plastic-is-made-from-natural-g...


Thank you for the check.

> PE and PP are made from ethene and propene, which are indeed byproducts of fuel refining.

When we're talking about things like plastic bags and wraps, aren't we talking about PE/PP?

> Even if there were any waste products from fuel refining, they would certainly not be vented. They'd be burned as fuel.

This makes a lot of sense. But what if a refinery is not equipped to do this? What if the refinery is in a place with poor or non-existant environment regulation/enforcement?

> But demand far outstrips supply now, so these are now made on purpose.

This is the kicker. So how do we make PP/PE when supply of precursors from crude refinement is not sufficient?

> PS is made ... PET is made from ...

I shouldn't have used the word extruded, I guess? I was thinking more about PE/PP.


> So what we should actually be advocating for is mandating that people reuse bags

Except that many reusable bags are likely a waste of resources:

Danish study: "polypropylene bags (most of the [] reusable bags found at supermarkets) should be used 37 times paper bags should be used 43 times, cotton bags should be used 7,100 times."

UK study: "paper bags should be used three times low-density polyethylene bags (the thicker plastic bags commonly used in supermarkets) should be used four times, non-woven polypropylene bags should be used 11 times, cotton bags should be used 131 times."

https://phys.org/news/2018-08-reuse-bags.html

A simple approximation for environmental damage is the cost in $. If a plastic bag costs 1c, and a jute bag costs $2, then you can guess crossover point is 200 usages (weekly shopping for 4 years to reach breakeven also presuming you value your extra time and hassle at zero).

Reusable bags are a huge waste IMHO.

I dropped a bottle of wine the other day because I didn't have a plastic carry bag - cost equivalent of 1000 plastic bags... Arrrrghhh!


7100 times is quite a lot. If used once a day, that would mean approx. 20 years of use.

When I grew up behind the Iron Curtain, we mostly had cotton shopping bags for everyday use. Nicely printed, colorful plastic bags were a bit of a luxury. But our cotton shopping bags rarely lasted more than two or three years. The wear and tear was significant. A lot of food comes in edg-y or point-y packaging, which is not friendly towards the bags.


> A simple approximation for environmental damage is the cost in $.

Neglecting externalities seems like the exact opposite of what you'd want to do in a discussion about environmental impact.


Yeah. But there is no fundamental reason to assume that the externalities of a cheap option are different from an expensive one.

And price is generally an extremely good indicator of how much energy it took to produce something.


I wish you the best luck finding a good proxy for the externalities of any purchase!


> Isn't that the critical point? Of all our environmental problems, atmospheric CO2 is the biggest one, right?

Energy is important, but the energy consumption of a grocery bag is small compared to the energy consumption of most of the things in the grocery bag, and if you drive a car to the grocery store, the energy consumption of the car for the roundtrip (~0.3 kWh per mile).

I'd say for grocery packaging the ecological impact should be the bigger concern.

Honestly the solution is easy, change the $0.10 grocery bag surcharge to $1.00 and people will stop using single-use grocery bags tomorrow. $0.10 is not enough for people to care.


Even better solution. Charge $100 to go into the grocery store and that will greatly reduce people driving to stores, shopping and using single-use bags.


I'm assuming you are being facetious in order to highlight an alleged absurdity of the suggestion. Though in reality the suggestion seems quite sensible to me.

Where I am, we've been under the effect of a pretty steep tax on plastic grocery bags that get noticeably passed along to the consumer. The result, from my personal experience, seems to have been a widespread adoption of tote bags. These last a very long time, 5+ years in my own experience. It has not resulted in a decrease in supermarket visits, to the best of my knowledge.

Or perhaps I'm misunderstanding your comment.


I can walk to the grocery store, now I will have to drive to a bigger store because I have to buy everything in bulk.

Your fine isn't tied to any externality so it is stupid.


If you factor in cleaning into the reuse process you might end up with more waste:

- cleaning products (with plastic containers

- water (warmed by burning gas)

- spending time which could be used in any other way

- who knows what else


I feel these sorts of arguments are just excuses to be inefficient.

In many office kitchens, I see so many people using the hot water to wash when the cold would suffice. Using massive amounts of washing liquid when you only need a little. Keeping the faucet on while they scrub their dishes.

And depending on your household situation, you can do dishes for a family of 4 in under 30 mins. Cleaning a single plate during the day takes seconds. Or even just learn to pack your dishwasher properly. Let’s not pretend that doing a few menial tasks everyday is what’s stopping you from being that extra bit more efficient.


Jokes on you: I never wash anything!


Unfortunately there is no winner take all solution for environmental impacts, it is a many-fronted theater.

So better plastics solidified and made useful than released as fumes, but your decisive line of argument omits the carbon sequestration possible with large-scale paper for one thing (just not the kind that spills outflow directly into waterways), and the general degradation of the living oceans.


If what we are talking about is energy use, then we are probably wasting our time talking about bags, because the goods the bags are carrying probably take an order of magnitude more energy to generate. Refuse and energy consumption are separate but related problems.


Yes I keep preaching this to anyone that will listen. It was THREE Items that form the phrase. And we just don’t reduce or reuse given how easy it is to buy more stuff.

At my house, we have a whole “fixin’ stuff box” full of items that broke but not seriously enough that maybe we can figure out how to fix them. I started this to teach my kids that we can repair stuff rather than throw it. I still have really fond memories of fixing things around the house in India in the 1980s with my grandpa. Although those days most fixes involved either adding oil, or taking things apart and cleaning the dust.

What does make me happy is now, sometimes when I say let’s throw something my 7 year old son says “come on let’s at least try to fix it first”. We have fixed his headphones twice by taking it apart and re-soldering wires that came loose. And it feels so satisfying to know you can bring something back to life.

It’s had mixed results. The biggest pushback even with me is time. Do I have the time to fix that broken pencil sharpener or can I solve this in 2 mins on Amazon because I have 50 other things to do.

And more often than not the 2 mins wins.

I think if fixing things was more socially present (you saw more people around you doing it), more people would do it.


This becomes a reinforcing problem as we purchase cheap solutions in the quick fix option, ones that are more likely to break, be more difficult to repair, and more likely to let us to another quick fix.


And it is nigh impossible to know ahead of time how repairable a device is.


This doesn't detract from your main point, but there is a third alternative to fixing a purpose-made pencil sharpener vs buying a new one - use a knife.

This is what I did as a child whose family had no access to such luxuries. Of course, you can't bring this solution to school.


You can just burn plastic though, lots of places do for energy.

And if you put it in context, you’re already “burning” the carbon in the food you eat and plastic just adds a little bit of overhead to that.


Uh that just releases more carbon dioxide faster, how is that a solution to anything other than maybe landfill issues? I would personally say that's worse as it is contributing to our biggest problem of all which is climate change. At least if it's buried it takes centuries to break down


Well we already burn the same fossil fuels for power… instead of an oil fired plant you add an extra step and turn that oil into packaging for a while before burning it. As long as some of your power comes from fossil fuels it would really seem to be carbon neutral because a similar amount of carbon was going to be burned anyway.

And the amount of plastic actually burned is quite small when you compare it to everything else.


Depending on the technology used by whichever incinerator, they do go through multiple passes and filtration steps but I am not actually sure what that does about CO2 emissions.


The extra processing done is to clean up incomplete combustion and particulate. CO2 is the end of the line. The CO2 molecule is very similar in size to N2 and O2.

It can be separated and captured in various ways, but they are quite energy intensive (though occasionally power plant output will be used as input for industrial CO2 "manufacture" where they separate, liquefy or freeze it, and then sell it for whatever purpose.


I think the assumption is that point sources will have carbon capture.


You seem to be directly contradicting your parent commenter about US releasing plastic into the sea. Even if it's growing, do you still agree that it's insignificant compared to less developed countries?

A lot of the arguments against plastic miss this anyway. They say "don't put it in the landfill" but the landfill is exactly where it's walled-off and safe. If it was about getting into waterways, it'd be "Put your plastic in the landfill instead of the street".

Why does it matter how long it takes to break down? As long as it's secure, it'll just sit there doing no harm. Is there any evidence that landfills will one-day release their contents on a large scale and cause an environmental problem? Presumably that will happen in some post-apocalyptic world where people no longer bother to maintain things and the apocalypse will be tolerable but not the plastic?


We have no shortage of space for landfills. As the OP mentioned, we manage or garbage well in North America and most of it is disposed properly. I would argue the opposite of you, the energy consumption of production and shipping is more important than if it's biodegradable quickly or not.


There are a lot of factors to consider in reusable versus single use. For example, this video says you need to use a cotton reusable bag 7100 times to offset its environmental impact versus single use plastic bags. It goes into many other considerations too, including disposal problems: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=JvzvM9tf5s0


Perhaps if bags are made from new material, but it's not difficult to sew a bag out of old clothes, say, or other fabric that would otherwise end up in a landfill. In any case, the bag you already have is almost certainly better than a new, disposable one.


I agree with all that. But it is interesting to see what the implications can be. I once went to a conference where they made an announcement that they were being green by giving every attendant a canteen to fill up with water instead of using disposable cups. But I'd be willing to bet many of those canteens went into the trash right after the conference, and thus they probably accomplished the exact opposite of what they were after.


This is a familiar frustration. I've entered a number of recreational cycling events, and every time I do they'll give you another cheap drawstring bag, water bottle, and t-shirt that I will almost certainly never wear or use. I already have better versions of all of these things that I've been using for years. But the incentive, even when it's explicitly stated as environmentally conscious - is more likely promotional, and often times driven by outside sponsors anyway.

It takes a big mindset shift that is not easily made in a consumer-focused capitalist economy. It's easy to sell more, cooler things as a solution to a problem, but if consumption is part of the problem it's hard to incentivize doing more with what you already have, which was always the first two of the three R's.

That's also why these kind of corporate green campaigns (and for that matter many other pro-social campaigns) don't really work. It's not even that the people putting them on don't believe in what they're doing. It's just that they are constrained by the capital earning goals of the corporations, which will push back against any work that would undercut both the power/profit of the company individually and the capitalist system undergirding it and its place in the world.


Now, if they had given ceramic cups and a water dispenser...


I don't see people doing that though. Do you?


Reusable bags aren't necessarily better. https://youtu.be/JvzvM9tf5s0

On greenhouse gas emissions alone, reusable plastic bags need to be used about ten times to be as good as single-use plastic, and cotton bags over 100 times. Paper bags are no better than single-use plastic.

On total environmental impact, single-use plastic pulls further ahead: paper bags are much worse, reusable plastic bags need to be used 50 times to match single-use plastic (achievable with focus and effort), and cotton bags take thousands of uses to equal single-use plastic.

And if you reuse single-use plastic bags for trash bags, they are far superior to all alternatives.


Does this account for the fact that reusable bags are larger capacity and stronger than single use bags (don't need doubling).

Also, single use bags , as the name suggests, are used in far far higher quantities than trash bags. A week means 1 trash bag but a dozen grocery bags.

Anyway, regardless of that your shopping bag is, most of the plastit is inside it, wrapping your individual items...


> The phrase is "reduce -> reuse -> recycle". Recycling was never meant to be the foremost part of our sustainability efforts.

The thing is, "recycle" is the only one that preserves the economy, so that's what everyone jumped on.


But reduce and reuse are bad for bottom lines!!


> The point is that plastic takes many centuries to degrade

So? Is there a shortage of centuries? Do you really think—300 years from now—they’ll be using plastic?


There have been numerous cases of finding plastic waste in some fish, and because it doesn't decay organically it can form blockages in their digestive tracts. Whatever they're using in 300 years, they'll still be finding plastic in oceans and rivers(absent a massive clean up program)


Bits of plastic can form blockages? Says who? I seriously doubt it.

A bit of plastic — to a fish gut - is no different than a pebble, chunk of coral, bit of bone, etc.

Littering is bad.

And litter that doesn’t naturally decompose is annoying.

But, it’s an aesthetics problem. Plastic is harmless (despite the occasional picture of a turtle with a straw in its nose...)

Over time, whether is decomposes or not, it will be covered with sediment and gone from the ecosystem.


> A bit of plastic — to a fish gut - is no different than a pebble, chunk of coral, bit of bone, etc.

There's reasonable empirical evidence that plastic accumulation in fish causes them to reproduce less than they otherwise would[1]. The prevailing theory is that most plastics leach at least some of their chemicals in seawater.

[1]: https://www.scientificamerican.com/article/from-fish-to-huma...


Don’t worry, the only people saying that are the scientists who are studying it.

“When Browne experimented with blue mussels back in 2008, many researchers thought animals would just excrete any microplastics they ate, like “unnatural fiber,” as Browne called it—but he wasn’t so sure. He tested the idea by placing mussels in water tanks spiked with fluorescent-tagged microplastic particles smaller than a human red blood cell, then moved them into clean water. For six weeks he harvested the shellfish to see if they had cleared the microplastics. “We actually ran out of mussels,” Browne says. The particles “were still in them at the end of those trials.”

The mere presence of microplastics in fish, earthworms and other species is unsettling, but the real harm is done if microplastics linger—especially if they move out of the gut and into the bloodstream and other organs. Scientists including Browne have observed signs of physical damage, such as inflammation, caused by particles jabbing and rubbing against organ walls. Researchers have also found signs ingested microplastics can leach hazardous chemicals, both those added to polymers during production and environmental pollutants like pesticides that are attracted to the surface of plastic, leading to health effects such as liver damage. Marco Vighi, an ecotoxicologist at the IMDEA Water Institute in Spain, is one of several researchers running tests to see what types of pollutants different polymers pick up and whether they are released into the freshwater and terrestrial animals that eat them. The amount of microplastics in lakes and soils could rival the more than 15 trillion tons of particles thought to be floating in the ocean’s surface alone.”

https://www.scientificamerican.com/article/from-fish-to-huma...


Ha.

Let me know when the ocean has .5grams of nano-sized plastic particles per Liter.

That would be around 300000000000000 Tons of plastic, all in the form of nano-sized particles.

Then — and only then — would you begin to see an effect on Mussels.

But, of course, long before that, the world would have ended.


That's interesting - is that from a paper? Would love to read it as it's contradictory to others I've read


It’s from the article (and study cited therein) cited in the post I responded to.

Apparently few actually read the ‘evidence’ they knee-jerk cite to.

Specifically, the Brown study examined mussels who were kept in containers with 0.51 g/L of micro particles of plastic. And, surprise surprise, some of the micro particles found their way into the mussels. Shocker. That density of particles is nonexistent in nature. But, as long as you get the grant money...

The same Scientific America article also makes this claim:

“In a surprising study published in March, not only did fish exposed to microplastics reproduce less but their offspring, who weren’t directly exposed to plastic particles, also had fewer young, suggesting the effects can linger into subsequent generations.”

But, if you read the study it (a) has nothing to do with fish, but rather plankton, and (b) the exposure to micro plastics INCREASED the number of offspring!

People should read the studies. But, it’s easier to smugly downvote.


Still, it is mostly a cosmetic problem, while we are supposed to believe that global warming will kill us all in a short amount of time. So the priorities should be clear.


Have you gone to a beach lately?

I don't live in the US but it's certainly not a developing country. Beaches are absolutely covered in plastic waste and it's noticeably worse each time I go. Forests are steadily becoming filled with plastic that either gets tossed there or blown there. Animals eat garbage and die. It's horrible. Assuming I live a very long life and die in 70 years, that plastic will still be there. New plastic will be there as well.

America and the EU "manage" their plastic waste by literally shipping it to other countries, then blaming them for mismanaging it. Most was sent to China, then it was banned by China.[1] Now the EU and US ship it to other countries, claim they manage their plastic, and blame new countries. The US and EU have yet to manage their plastic, though. They're just dumping it on their neighbor's property.

My worry about paper bags is that, corporations doing what they do and going for the lowest bidder, they'll be made with clear-cut rainforest wood from Indonesia and Malaysia instead of sustainable sources. I'm sure a lot are.

I just reuse bags and never use paper or anything unless it's forced upon me. I bought some durable bags 5 years ago. I keep a couple in my vehicle, a few at home, and others in other places so I almost always have a bag with me.


I live in NYC, we actually have tons of beaches here in the metropolitan area, and they're certainly not covered in plastic waste. Nor are our forests -- the hiking trails around here are great. And I'm talking about the single most populated metropolitan area in the US.

Sure there are a few strewn candy wrappers or something, but there really isn't any big problem. It's all quite nice.

What country do you live in that your beaches are so bad?


NYC probably has people actively cleaning trails and beaches.

Japanese beaches that aren't ultra popular tourist destinations are currently flooded with trash. Going through Shizuoka, Aichi, and islands of Kagoshima, they're increasingly looking like dumps. Some are completely covered in pieces of trash, and most of it isn't Chinese. It's washed up laundry detergent bottles and toys and stuff all from here. Some places like Okinawa and Kamakura beach are generally cleaned, but having visited Kamakura 4 years ago and again a year ago, it's noticeably filthier.

Major beaches are maintained and cleaned daily. Walk a few hundred meters beyond the crowds and there's a good chance you'll see trash everywhere. Two weeks ago I visited a beach I last went to a couple years back, and it was depressing seeing the state of it. The beach used to have crabs and isopods roaming the sands and crawling around the rocks. Now it's covered in shards of plastic and washed up tires and other things. Not a crab to be seen.


> NYC probably has people actively cleaning trails and beaches.

> Japanese beaches that aren't ultra popular tourist destinations are currently flooded with trash.

This is exactly my experience as well. Every place that I have been, if it is a remote site that no one is actively cleaning up, then it has weeks, months, years, or even decades of accumulated garbage. Popular destinations, like beaches around resorts, well-maintained hiking trails, private beaches; these all have people regularly picking up garbage.

Some of the most "pristine" beaches I've seen were on outer islands of Fiji. But they were pristine because they had resorts on them, or near them. Kayak over the other side of the island, where no one picks up, and it's trash city. The global ocean system deposits garbage everywhere, on every beach. Depending on where you are in the various gyres, that beach gets more or less washup. I've been to beaches in New Zealand, Australia, Japan, Hawaii, Fiji, Africa, Europe, and both coasts of the US. The primary discriminating factor on how much garbage you see is how regular and thorough the pickup is.


Yes, agreed. I lived in Matsue a couple years ago and found a couple nice spots that were covered in ocean trash. Loads of plastic bottles both from Japan and other countries (there was a milk carton from Australia), styrofoam, polyester apparel, some random other stuff.

Pic: https://blog.qiqitori.com/wp-content/uploads/2017/08/DSC0249...

Boring blog entry: https://blog.qiqitori.com/2017/08/beach-cleaning-in-matsue-j...


I found your blog entry very interesting, thanks!


The outer banks of North Carolina has miles of beaches linked to nature reserves that don’t get cleaned or accumulate such trash. Japan is surrounded by a sea of trash due to the countries surrounding it.

Litter ends up in streams, rivers, and eventually the ocean. You can argue it’s an issue with plastics, but it’s equally an issue with trash.


>Japan is surrounded by a sea of trash due to the countries surrounding it.

I'm seeing mainly trash from Japanese companies that are Japanese products with Japanese labels. It's easy to recognize. Externalizing blame isn't the solution because it's not the problem.

Currents likely help carry trash away from certain regions. Japan's east coast isn't really being affected by trash that would be coming from, say, China, because currents don't carry most of it to our beaches. It's stuff being washed out locally and brought back by waves here. Much more is likely being passed out into the middle of the ocean.


Ok, a little digging shows Japan has a much larger littering problem than I thought it did.

That said, Asia really does have a much larger issue here than the rest of the world. 90% of plastic pollution comes from “Asia: the Yangtze; Indus; Yellow; Hai He; Ganges; Pearl; Amur; Mekong; and two in Africa – the Nile and the Niger.”

https://www.weforum.org/agenda/2018/06/90-of-plastic-polluti...


The link in the very first post I made was about the US and EU literally shipping their plastic to other countries as part of their "waste management" program.

> Upon implementation of the policy in 2017, plastic imports to China plummeted by 99%.[9] This led to waste stream backlogs across Europe and North America.[9] When they could find buyers, most European plastic was diverted to Indonesia, Turkey, India, Malaysia, and Vietnam.[9]

Western governments are sending trash to these places knowing it's finding its way into rivers just so they don't have to spend money processing it themselves. These impoverished countries are overwhelmed with trash that isn't theirs. It's a problem because Western countries are selling trash that they claim is recyclable and a valuable resource, but is literally useless trash. The moment one country bans the system (such as China), the EU and US find another place to dump it instead of processing it on their own.


No, this is a sadly common misconception.

Trash in rivers in Asia is from local littering, pure and simple.

Trash that Western countries send over is simply buried or burned. It's not the source of plastic pollution in rivers. There's real concern with it being a source of air pollution when burned... but it's simply not turning into litter.


The import bit was: “When they could find buyers”

The US and EU have plenty of landfills, their exporting plastic which was actively separated from the waste stream for recycling which can be profitable. If nobody wants to pay for it then the default is to burn it domestically for energy.


The link mentioned that a lot of it was "contaminated" recyclables.

Contaminated recyclables are just garbage. Countries are getting fed up with the EU and US sending supposedly separated recyclables because it's pure garbage falsely labeled as usable plastic. [1]

[1] https://www.bbc.com/news/world-48444874


Contaminated recyclables isn’t the equivalent of garbage.

The issue is the degree of contamination. Different municipal waste streams all have their own internal systems a 98% plastic stream and a 99.9% plastic stream are very different economically.

Completely separate from that it’s a political issue as nobody wants their country to be thought of as a dumping ground. “Malaysia says up to 3,000 tonnes of rubbish will soon be returned to the UK, US, Japan, China, Canada, Australia, the Netherlands, Germany, Saudi Arabia, Singapore, Bangladesh, Norway and France.” what’s not mentioned is this represents 1% of plastic sent to the country. The don’t want to ban the process because the other 99% is quite valuable domestically.


The problem seems to be that the trash is getting into the water. Who is dumping laundry detergent bottles into rivers and oceans? Solve that problem. If the bottles switch to some other material, whoever is dumping them now will keep dumping them. Get trash into landfills and the water will be fine.


> I'm seeing mainly trash from Japanese companies that are Japanese products with Japanese labels.

My experience has been the exact opposite: https://news.ycombinator.com/item?id=28025358


I was in North Carolina in 2019, in the outer banks. I did see plastic bags and such washing up on the shore, like I've seen everywhere else. They weren't "covered" in garbage, but it's there. It's a sliding scale, a spectrum, which has a lot to do with ocean currents. But yes, there are regular cleanup efforts for these beaches run by the parks service. They'd look much worse if it were not so.


Sitting at the bottom end of that scale you’re mostly seeing litter from tourists. North of Corolla is a long stretch of beach that lacks road access, it’s shockingly pristine and doesn’t see regular cleanup efforts.


Ok, I haven't been to those specific spots. But I bet you'll find small plastic debris (1-3cm in size) at the high tide line on beaches. They're everywhere in all oceans.


That’s possible. I never specifically went looking for it and could easily mistake something that small for bits of shell etc.


This is the unfortunate thing about giving a beach a deep clean. Now you start to see it everywhere.

It can also be under the sand.

I once spent a morning cleaning ~50 plastic bags in the wet sand of the beach at low tide. They were empty shopping bags, but had opened up and filled with sand, so they were basketball-sized and really deep; they required _digging_ every single one to get them out. Next day, 50 more were there. There was no way that many washed up in one night. So I did a little digging with a spade, as deep as I could go in the sand, all the way down to my armpit. And I brought up piece after piece of plastic from the depths, punching through bags on the way down; I don't know how many layers deep. Then I realized these "new" 50 bags had just been there under the surface. The layer of sand made free by yesterday's cleanup was now washed away by the tide to reveal them. That was just the worst feeling, knowing that that beach was basically a 1km-long landfill, riddled with garbage at least a meter deep. An extreme example, but it kind of broke me.


> Some places like Okinawa and Kamakura beach are generally cleaned

As for Okinawa that seems to depend on the island. When I was there some years ago, many beaches on the smaller islands were covered in trash (mostly of Western origin – one could often still decipher the letters on e.g. beer and shampoo bottles).


That doesn't necessarily discount it being local waste due to the large number of foreigners on Okinawa (American military, mainly) who get familiar products shipped in from abroad. The military base even has its own mall that locals can apply to visit and buy American products.

Personally, I'm not surprised Japan has a plastic waste problem, the shops and manufacturers here are addicted to plastic, and the culture is one of appearances above truth so I'm not surprised to hear about the differing levels of care dependent on whether tourists frequent a place.

I've also lived in other parts of Asia and I've seen some shocking things to do with waste. India was the worst. As another comment mentions, it's probably best that developed nations export knowledge and attitude towards waste, not just waste.


Vietnam. Cambodia. Laos. I spent 4 years living and traveling all over those countries by motorbike.

Not just the beaches, but every single waterway, alley, forest, jungle. Literally everywhere.

I have pictures of the waterways in Saigon at low tide and the ground is covered in plastic. At high tide, there are government run boats that go up and down some of the waterways to collect a fraction of the trash that people just dump in there.

Every single little town/commune/village has a spot on the way in/out of town with mounds of trash (mostly plastic). Usually partially burning, smelly and covered in bugs.

It is tragic.


Even worse in Indonesia. Cities like Jakarta and Malang are almost unlivable.


"By 2025, the ocean will contain around one ton of plastic for every three tons of fish. By 2050, there will be more plastic than fish"

It washes up on beaches. Uninhabited islands thousands of miles from the nearest settlement are covered in plastic:

https://www.nationalgeographic.com/science/article/henderson...


You also live in one of the richest cities in the US, so I think your experience may be slightly skewed.


Im on the east coast and Ive never seen more than a plastic bag or two on any beach. Even less in forests. Any plastic waste Ive seen outside of a city area is an isolated incident.


Hong Kong. Beaches are littered with plastic garbage including bottles, bags, and wrappers for about 5 meters off shore. After that its microplastics. This is across the street from the Ferrari showroom.


Not GP but Maybe Somalia? Yeah the hysteria about environmental degradation in the USA is among some online people who don't even bother to go outside is absurd. Within 50 miles of NYC are pristine woods, mature second growth trees, deer and black bear. And yeah near the road side you may see a plastic bottle every couple hundred feet. The sky is not falling.


As others have said, the fact that beaches and trails are kept tidy near one of the world's wealthiest cities proves nothing. There are plenty of American beaches that are filthy with plastic. Look outside your bubble.


As an American, one of the things that shocked me the most in visits to Europe was how much litter there is. I lived in Italy, and it was astonishing how there was just trash everywhere, even though Italy is a wealthy nation. I’ve traveled all over Western Europe and the only part that felt relatively “clean” to me was London - clean as in comparable to NYC or other major US urban centers in terms of litter level.

By comparison, I’ve lived and traveled all over the US, cities and rural areas, beaches, forests, etc. Litter is rare. Where you will find it are freeway underpasses, neglected urban or near-urban waterways and railways: places where people aren’t really “supposed” to go, and are therefore loitered in and rarely cleaned.

There are many areas where the US lags Europe, but in my experience when it comes to litter, we have far less of it.


You must be going to different parts of Europe than I have. American cities (not suburbs, the actual cities) are absolutely filthy with trash and litter. European cities feel squeaky clean in comparison.

And what's with all that trash on freeways? I've seen a whole couch casually waiting to biodegrade by the side of the freeway. Discarded bumpers and tyres aren't even worth mentioning anymore there's so many everywhere. Large debris like that gets cleaned up immediately in Europe because it's a hazard.


Evidently making blanket statements about two geographically huge and economically / culturally heterogenous areas is misguided.


I had the same experience in Spain... we were doing some climbing around Costa Blanca and parked/walked along a few random stretches of highway and they are all covered in trash thrown from cars. That was really surprising, I had a stereotype of EU being more civic-minded/civilized than the USA, and there isn't much litter on US highways that I've seen in similar remote-ish areas.

I just don't even understand what process operates in a head of someone tossing an empty bottle out of a car... sometimes, I feel like I have trouble recognizing them as a fully-formed human, more like someone who needs house-training, like a dog.


Italy isn't that wealthy though. Wealthier people care more about a ton of things, like rates of automobile accidents and fatalities, the environment, etc.


Don't know what you're talking about. You can walk down any highway I've ever seen in America and pick up trash for miles and miles.


It's better than it used to be. The anti-littering "crying Indian" and "Give a Hoot" ad campaigns in the 1970s actually worked.

Perhaps things are trending the other way lately. I do seem to notice more litter now than I did when I was younger. But there are more people now also.


A huge part of modern litter isn't people throwing out, like it was in the 70s and 80s, but it blowing out of the back of vehicles, even trash trucks.

Another big issue I see around where I live is when storms hit on trash night. They'll pick it up around 6AM so people bring it out the night before, but on a regular basis we'll get a strong thunderstorm that blows trash everywhere.


I just learned that depending on what reusable bags are made of, they can be many orders of magnitude worse than plastic. Cotton bags need to be reused thousands of times to make up for the additional environmental impact it takes to produce them. Organic cotton, even moreso. https://qz.com/1585027/when-it-comes-to-climate-change-cotto...

This last bit is not directed at you but re: the issue in general: I get really frustrated with how distorted the notions of “right” and “wrong” behaviours are among many environmentalists — rather than being rooted in fact, they’re all about virtue signalling.

My local grocers are all eliminating plastic and switching everything to paper, and I highly doubt that decision was informed by a thoughtful analysis of potential environmental impact.


> Beaches are absolutely covered in plastic waste and it's noticeably worse each time I go.

No disrespect but I don’t think anyone can uniformly sample all the beaches. There might as well be prevailing currents that fill certain places disproportionately more, and leave others disproportionately pristine.

This “making a global inference based on the beaches we’ve personally been to” is going to be deceptive in either direction of the argument.


> This “making a global inference based on the beaches we’ve personally been to” is going to be deceptive in either direction of the argument.

I've been to beaches on four continents and every. single. one. The only place you do not see[1] trash is where someone has specifically picked up there, recently. That tends to be places around resorts and people's homes. Unless someone does it out of their own goodwill or is paid to, the trash just floats up and accumulates.

There's a place for healthy skepticism, but not denial.

[1] You don't see it, but microplastics are thoroughly distributed through the ocean by this point. There is literally no way of cleaning up microplastic pollution at this point. We can only improve the optics at our scale.


> There's a place for healthy skepticism, but not denial.

I’m not saying I’m necessarily denying your premise, at least not wholesale, but what is the point of skepticism if it doesn’t include the possibility of rejecting a premise?

It’s like saying “I’ll allow you to ask questions but ultimately you have to come my conclusion”

We can be passionate and rational at the same time.


We're in the middle of a discussion about plastic waste, and some people add to the discussion by posting their personal experiences as counter to people who have clearly no personal experiences, and some other people push back which what sounds like rational skepticism but is really just shifting the burden of proof to an absurd level, like they are going to dedicate years of their life to visit a representative sample of beaches to even post a comment.

There's a point where skepticism becomes more than just irritating, but entirely subtractive from the discussion. It's hard to know what your intentions are from that pushback, but it was borderline IMHO, and it certainly muddies the waters.

I'll be completely open about my intentions. I want people to stop fucking up my river and, damn it, it's not China or India's fault. OP is a complete distraction from a real problem that exists where I live. I'd like to dump a few bags of garbage I picked up from the river on their lawn and see what they think about some vague plan to clean up the Ganges.


I'll try to be as clear as I can.

There were several weaknesses with your argument that I was hoping you to strengthen;

- you were making yourself prone to availability bias; I've been to beaches recently and none of those have the problems you mention. That doesn't mean the problem doesn't exist, it means we don't get to make sweeping generalization from the partial reality we contact. Your original rebuttal to the OP was "have you ever been to a beach lately"

- appeal to emotions; I'm personally sorry to hear your local beach is in heartbreaking condition, but that alone does not amplify the strength of your claim that "beaches are covered with litter". In fact it makes it more easy to refute for anyone who doesn't readily sympathize with your story, and that would harm what I assume to be your ultimate goal which is a reduced pollution.

- overgeneralization: you're perfectly entitled to talk about your personal experience, but when you assert that as a method of establishing the global truth, that is the motion that brings the burden of proof on you, not me pointing that out. Maybe keep the strength of your assertion in proportion to the data you personally have.

It might look like waters are muddied for you, but I think you might be the only one in confusion probably because you seem to be very emotional about this topic. Which is OK, like I said being passionate is OK, but the weaknesses in your argumentation will only hurt your cause.


This exactly the kind of snooty academic dialogue that is subtractive. A personal attack couched as some kind of psychological diagnosis. "You're being emotional." Please deal with the substance of arguments, and don't make the person the subject of discussion. That's textbook distraction and is a logical fallacy.

I'll be getting back to my representative sampling of the world's beaches. And you made a mistake in that I didn't claim that "all beaches are littered". Someone else posted that. I wrote, "I've been to beaches on four continents and every. single. one." That's about my experiences.

> appeal to emotions; I'm personally sorry to hear your local beach is in heartbreaking condition

You also misattributed this as an appeal to emotions. I have a local problem. People are arguing about problems in other countries as excuse to block action here. Stop doing that.

> overgeneralization:

Again, I didn't. I pointed out the scale of the problem is at least as big as my personal experience. It is, in fact, larger than that.

This side turn is subtractive from the discussion and I hope you would consider not replying again with how wrong I am and how my arguments are so bad.


> This exactly the kind of snooty academic dialogue that is subtractive.

It might feel like it is subtracting from your sense of being right, which I am not saying you’re definitely not, but I think some readers might find it valuable in terms of reaching to more well-thought-out conclusions.

> A personal attack couched as some kind of psychological diagnosis. "You're being emotional."

I'm sorry you felt attacked, that wasn't my intention. Having emotions is a human condition, not a psychological diagnosis, and I thought I made it clear that I didn't find anything demeaning about it. You just can't base your arguments mainly on it though.

> Please deal with the substance of arguments, and don't make the person the subject of discussion

It so happens you made your personal experience and your feeling about it the grounding of your argument; making rebuttals on that basis is not making it personal, it is actually an argument against making things personal. And at no point I invalidated your experience or emotions or your personhood.

> You also misattributed this as an appeal to emotions. I have a local problem. People are arguing about problems in other countries as excuse to block action here. Stop doing that.

Maybe the readers were mislead when you talked about 4 continents, especially after an opener of "have you been to any beaches recently". It wasn't clear, at least to me, you were interested in talking about the local phenomena. But thanks for clarifying that.

Let's get one thing clear though, since we can't read people's minds, it is equally undesirable ascribing intentions of blocking action and other negative predictions salient to you in your mind, to others. So I'll kindly ask you to refrain from that first.

> I hope you would consider not replying again with how wrong I am and how my arguments are so bad.

I've considered and still I think it would be to the benefit of the community to remove the confusion between the local-global, personal-general, emotional-rational. If you are upset about receiving responses, you always have the option of removing yourself from the discussion first. Asking others to stop talking is a bit censor-y.


> especially after an opener of "have you been to any beaches recently"

I didn't write that, please check the thread. That was someone else.

> > don't make the person the subject of discussion

Each time I replied I brought the discussion back on topic and strengthened my arguments but your entire reply is about me again, and there is precious little that steer it back to a good resolution.

> you always have the option of removing yourself from the discussion first. Asking others to stop talking is a bit censor-y.

There is a different, meta-level dialog embedded in our dialog, but this terribly ironic juxtaposition is exactly the kind of distracting, subtractive, thing I meant. I regret this exchange terribly at this point. I'll go back to picking up garbage, since in my experience, that is the only activity that reliably has impact.


> > especially after an opener of "have you been to any beaches recently" I didn't write that, please check the thread. That was someone else.

Sorry I was confused about this, but the context to which you seemed showed up in defense of; namely a personal "observable"ism as a sufficient means to define the nature of a global phenomena, makes the point stand.

> There is a different, meta-level dialog embedded in our dialog, but this terribly ironic juxtaposition is exactly the kind of distracting, subtractive, thing I meant.

I've been following that meta dialogue very closely and here's what I wish we can agree on. Distraction and subtraction hinges on our personal formulation to solve the problem at hand.

My formulation strongly presupposes that rational argumentation can scale through time and people better than an emotional and personal appeal, at least in forums similar to this. Your formulation seems to presuppose that concentrating on the emotionality of your personal experience and impressing the audience to action through that is a better way to get results. You seem to feel any poking holes in the logic is a disservice because it takes away from that concentration of emotions and impressions.

To the extent these approaches are at odds (and I don't think they necessarily are) any one could accuse the opponent formulation of being subtractive, distracting, action stopping etc.

My plea is for you to see that you're willfully asserting a supremacy of your particular formulation in this meta-dialogue, without clear evidence that it is the case, and with a desire to evacuate alternative formulations out of an open forum.

> I'll go back to picking up garbage, since in my experience, that is the only activity that reliably has impact.

Since you've shared this, it is fair game to ask about it, and I know it might piss you off but bear with me because it has a point; is it an impact to the environment or impact to your conscience? One could cut their arm to feed the hungry, but how far could that go for making a change?

I'm bringing this up because it ties back to my original point of taking time to make sure we have the right formulation. The observable, the immediate, the emotional is super-salient to us but that doesn't automatically mean more true, more effective and ultimately the best thing to follow.


There is a huge difference between seeing a piece of "trash" like a soda bottle or two every couple acres of sand and a beach "covered" in trash. In my life I have only seen one "beach" "covered" in trash in person and that was Race Point at Fishers Island New York. It is where much of the water exchange with the open ocean and the eastern end of long island sound occurs so it stands to reason that stuff would collect there. A mile away there is a pristine sand beach. At race point there was also a lot of drift wood when I visited including whole tree trunks that had washed up. Much of the human created waste was old, including metal debries like very old very rusted rifle bullet casings presumeably from soliders at the now abandoned pre world war two fort behind the beach. Who knows the beach may have been the fort's dump.


But the question was about why there was such an obsession with plastic waste. If a lot of it was accumulating at your beach, that would be all the sample size you need to form an opinion.


The US had problems with littering that were mostly quashed with some public efforts in the middle to later periods of the last century. Our beaches are mostly clean and our forests and wild places are too. Not pristine and littering still happens but so do efforts to cleaning it up like “adopt a highway”.


The vast majority of plastic doesn’t last that long when exposed to the elements. Micro plastics are a significant concern but their extreme surface area to volume ratio is associated with a short individual lifespan. What’s going on is new plastics are introduced from littering and fishing nets which continuously replaces the plastic which is breaking down.


>Micro plastics are a significant concern but their extreme surface area to volume ratio is associated with a short individual lifespan

Isn't the whole issue that they DON'T break down? Yes they can wear into smaller pieces of plastic, but chemically they're still plastic. And when they get to a certain size, they become small enough to easily absorb into the body.


More that the don’t break down fast enough. Most individual plastic molecules on their own doesn’t last that long. Polyethylene the most common plastic is simply a very long chain of carbon and hydrogen it’s a ready food sources for many different kinds of bacteria and is broken down by sunlight etc.

There are of course more and less chemically stable plastics, but they all last much longer in a landfill than the vastly more harsh aquatic environment.


True, and educating all people in a country to not leave their trash where it does not belong is a part of managing our trash as well, which is very neglected.

It is just assumed, that everyone knows what to do with plastic bags and stuff, but the reality is, that many people do not have any sense of responsibility and throw stuff everywhere. Every week I see new heaps of trash in forests, which were definitely not there the week before. We need to start educating dumb/lazy/irresponsible people not to throw their trash everywhere, if needed by leveling up punishments and rewards.

If anyone is caught throwing trash into the forest, there should be hefty fines for that. If anyone takes time, for example on their weekends, to clean the forest, there should be rewards.


I’m posting this from an east coast (U.S) beach. I’ve walked up and down multiple beaches in the last two days, and I haven’t seen any plastic trash at all, although I did see someone find an old rusty fish hook today.


>> Forests are steadily becoming filled with plastic that either gets tossed there or blown there

The forests would be a lot nicer if we spent more time raking and cleaning them, like in Finland.


OK, the greenhouse-gas argument is correct, but misses the point of plastic recycling. The point is not oil use, it is plastic use and plastic pollution. If you've ever been to a beach in some countries that's completely covered in plastic bags, you'll instantly feel differently about disposable plastic, which just seems to blow in the wind and float up to the beaches. If oil were free and environmentally friendly, I'd ask them to burn more of it to give me a solution to plastic -- not more plastic.

Glass is sand -- throw it in the deep ocean or pile it up I don't care. Aluminum is recycled because it is cheaper than mining new aluminum. That's a win.

Still, your comment is spot on. Many, many environmental initiatives have feel-good effect (Straws!?) and many, many legislation efforts are not based on sound math.

However, _trying_ to recycle plastic is noble enough, especially if we're trying some fairly advanced methods. A sound recycling method that produces usable fuel would go a long way for those third world countries. I can think of no greater incentive for recycling than a little cash in the pocket of those who collect and return. Hell, every Tuesday some poor soul comes and steals all the aluminum cans out of our recycling bins for precisely this reason. Imagine if plastic were equally reimbursed.


The beaches covered in plastic bags are exactly my point. The problem is plastic waste being mismanaged.

Recycling is not a solution to mismanaged waste streams, and yet for some reason everyone loves talking about recycling plastics and nobody talks about ensuring that the other 80% of plastics that aren’t recycles or burned are properly disposed of in landfills.

The entire reason glass and aluminum are reimbursed is that they are orders of magnitude more energy intensive to produce.

If the current recycling technology can’t make a profit recycling plastic bags then the solution is making sure each and every piece of that plastic is properly disposed of in an engineered landfill.


I'm actually not disagreeing with you ("Still, your comment is spot on."), just clarifying the motivation to remove plastic and trying to show how recycling efforts do make sense.

> The beaches covered in plastic bags are exactly my point. The problem is plastic waste being mismanaged.

Yes, I agree.

> Recycling is not a solution to mismanaged waste streams,

Well, it can be. Incentivized collection (e.g., aluminum and glass) motivates consumers better than providing passive options that don't work well (like expecting perfectly non-contaminated and sorted plastic from everyday consumers).

> If the current recycling technology can’t make a profit recycling plastic bags then the solution is making sure each and every piece of that plastic is properly disposed of in an engineered landfill.

One solution is doing that. Another solution is not using plastic or using less. A third is fixing current recycling technology with (4th option) perhaps involving the plastic producers and making plastic easier to recycle.

You made an excellent point about waste management being a very good cost effective solution to reducing plastic pollution. You're fundamentally right, but absolutism based on assumptions about people you disagree with doesn't help. We can fix waste management, improve recycling, and reduce supply all at once which _also_ reduces oil use at the same time.


> everyone loves talking about recycling plastics

Who's everyone? I've read more about economists and environmental scientists outright calling out recycling, and then proposing a complete abandonment of plastic altogether.


It's very popular with old people in my area. They love the feeling of doing something good by putting their rubbish in separate bins. I think they were indoctrinated in the 70s or 80s or something.


The aluminum cans are stolen because they actually have a intrinsic value. The plastic bag does not and there is no way to artificially add value to it so people collect and return them.

>Glass is sand -- throw it in the deep ocean or pile it up I don't care.

But who gonna do that? And why would someone do that but not do it for plastic?

The reason we dont have a floating patch of glass in the ocean is not because humans piled it up on land its because its sinks and rather fast reaches a destination where it stays for hundreds of years. Unlike plastic which falls apart floats around get eaten by animals etc. etc.

The oceans must be full of human made glass its just not visible and has no known severe effects. But replacing all plastic with glass/aluminum just for the small fraction that will ends up in the ocean makes no sense. The extra pollution cased by not using plastic is far far grater. Instead we should focus on the moment plastic turn to pollution. Ive used thousands of plastic bags in my life and none of them ended up in the ocean. This is true for most people so where do the bags actually "leak" into the environment. I would assume there are places where rivers are used as garbage trucks to move the trash away. This is the real problem. Not people who actually use the plastic bags. Its people who intentionally "dispose" trash in the environment.


>"Ive used thousands of plastic bags in my life and none of them ended up in the ocean."

99% chance this is wrong, just because you placed it into garbage big does not mean it wasn't shipped off to china to a poorly managed facility and didn't end up in the ocean

>"But replacing all plastic with glass/aluminum just for the small fraction that will ends up in the ocean makes no sense."

Do you remember when milk was delivered to your door, and you returned the bottles, and they were reused? Reused glass products make perfect sence.

We now use inefficient, plastic laden and polluting processes because we are lazy. Most people don't have a real coffee machine, they buy shitty overpriced plastic pods filled with second rate coffee that then pollute the environment for 'convenience'


>99% chance this is wrong, just because you placed it into garbage big does not mean it wasn't shipped off to china to a poorly managed facility and didn't end up in the ocean

My trash is burned locally there is zero chance it is moved somewhere else. The plastic bag is not separated from other (non-recycling) trash and the energy released from burning is actually used to heat buildings and water. This is not true for different trash like e-waste which could be moved far far away and there is no way to know where it finally ends up but its 100% true for the normal trash.

>Do you remember when milk was delivered to your door, and you returned the bottles, and they were reused?

That was never the case here. Like 30 year ago you could bring your own bottle and fill in milk form large containers. However you would need to go to a place where they fill milk in bottles an not to you local shop where you would usually buy milk. This was only feasible if you lived near such a place. Also dont think this is possible anymore due to hygienic regulations and most likely also because it did not generate enough revenue.

>Reused glass products make perfect sence.

Most dont. Glass is heavy and moving glass bottles around especially empty bottles (return for cleaning/refilling) is a huge waste of energy. It may not cause the visible kind of pollution but it indirectly burns way more oil than plastic bottles would.

There are also aseptic packages with significantly reduced the amount of plastic needed compared to plastic bottles.

>We now use inefficient, plastic laden and polluting processes because we are lazy. Most people don't have a real coffee machine, they buy shitty overpriced plastic pods filled with second rate coffee that then pollute the environment for 'convenience'

I agree with the fact that single portion packages of many products are needlessly resource wasting. But nowhere in the western world these plastic pods go in to the environment at any significant rate. In many places these are actively collected for the bio material inside which actually has value. The plastic is then likely reused for something or burned an used as fuel. There is simply no finical incentive to somehow move this kind of "trash" over long distances (which is expensive) and possibly dump it in the environment if people can make money by re-using/burning it locally. Even in places like the US where they would dump it into a landfill, it makes no sense to move it further than the next landfill.

So I agree reducing the energy and plastic needed is good. Replacing it with glass however is nonsense. And assuming the plastic goes in the environment simply because it exists is nonsense too.


>"There is simply no finical incentive to somehow move this kind of "trash" over long distances (which is expensive"

But thats the whole problem, we have built an idiotic system for shipping plastic around the world. Now we export it to turkey from Uk:

https://www.bbc.com/news/uk-57680723

Before we used to ship it to China, and when China banned exports, it triggered a massive crysis in UK recycling industry.

Maybe where you live, its different. But significant amount of western world plastic does end up in the environment. I personally involved volunteered to clean up forests from plastic in Europe.


The plastic recycling-lie is the reason and the problem here.

See https://news.ycombinator.com/item?id=28025475


>The aluminum cans are stolen because they actually have a intrinsic value. The plastic bag does not and there is no way to artificially add value to it so people collect and return them.

Sure there is. When you buy a bag have it cost $1. If you return the bag you get that back, or maybe $.90 to cover the cost. Not sure about the US, but this is done with glass and plastic bottles in a lot of countries.


All this would do is incentivize fraud. Clearly I can find a way to buy these bags for under $0.90 since their real value is almost zero so I could generate money by wasting bags.


Given how prevalent and light they are, I suspect some of “your” bags have actually ended up as pollution (blowing out of trucks, being mis-managed in waste processing, or otherwise escaping the system that you dutifully turned them over to).

It’s not like all the trash out in the ocean was dropped off a boat by the original users.


See https://news.ycombinator.com/item?id=28025410

Even if blew out of the the garbage truck (which is not possible they are closed) it would just end up on the street which is then cleaned with another truck or washed into the sewerage collected and disposed. There is no feasible way that my properly disposed trash would end up in the environment. Even if I would dump it somewhere in the woods it likely will gets cleaned up and properly disposed within weeks if its anywhere near civilization. I would need to find a large river so the trash has a realistic chance to reach the ocean. Its completely absurd.


>Its people who intentionally "dispose" trash in the environment.

In the US and Europe we tend to have well developed municipal waste systems and only a small portion of our plastic waste ends up in the ocean.

The problem is the rest of the places that do not. There are many places in the world that will gladly sell you a plastic soda bottle, but after that point it's your job to burn it or bury it.

In addition, you had plenty of 'recycled' plastic waste end up in the ocean by proxy. Before 2017 or so, if you were 'recycling' plastic, it was getting shipped overseas on a container where it had a very high chance of just being dumped.


>In the US and Europe we tend to have well developed municipal waste systems and only a small portion of our plastic waste ends up in the ocean.

Thats exactly what I said

>The problem is the rest of the places that do not. There are many places in the world that will gladly sell you a plastic soda bottle, but after that point it's your job to burn it or bury it.

And to solve this problem the people in this thread what to replace plastic bottles on the other side of the world (in the west) with glass/aluminum bottles. See how that does not work?

>In addition, you had plenty of 'recycled' plastic waste end up in the ocean by proxy. Before 2017 or so, if you were 'recycling' plastic, it was getting shipped overseas on a container where it had a very high chance of just being dumped.

This is a side effect of the whole "recycling at any cost" nonsense strategies. Plastic was carefully and labor intensively separated form trash to be sold. But only very specific plastics have accentual market value. The rest does not have value or maybe it sometimes has but supply and demand fluctuates so there could be many month where no one wants to buy it. Consequentially the US companies would need to pay for it to have it burned or land-filled. But that would destroy their "recycling goals" so what they instead do is they sell it with the valuable stuff by offering it only together. Whoever buys it then dumps the worthless stuff somewhere. The whole recycling-mania created the incentive for this. There is no way moving the plastic trash so far away is cheaper than the local landfill. They are simply not allowed to landfill it due to recycling goals which if they reach it probably gives them taxpayer money to do do more useless recycling.


> Then when you look at plastic pollution and see that for the most part North America is quite good at properly disposing of plastic you wonder why we are so obsessed with this as a problem.

Go to any waterway in the US and you will find it. Plastic bottles, bottle caps, chip bags, cpu lids, straws, milk jugs, food containers, chewing tobacco cans, lighters, ping pong balls, syringes, milk crates, fishing line, bobbers, clothes hangers, insulation, O-rings, tires, fishing nets, pens, pen caps, grocery bags, six pack rings, chew toys, fake flowers, buckets, handles, 55 gallon drums, soccer balls, the broken plastic housing of almost any consumer product you can imagine.

I have with my bare hands picked up over 500 bags of this shit off coastlines and waterways and highways on three different continents. Based on my experience, every single mile of ocean coastline and nearly every waterway is littered with plastic waste to a greater or lesser degree.

The problem is so bad that unless you are in a national park a hundred miles from civilization, you cannot walk more than 100 feet along a waterway without seeing some kind of garbage, unless someone has specifically detrashed there, thoroughly, in the past week. The water is full of our junk.

> Don’t get me started on plastic straws. They make up 0.03% of plastic waste in the ocean.

The tone of this comment really raised my hackles. I'm not going to unload on you, but I am so tempted to right now. But holy shit, if you'd dragged 5 tons of shit out of the creek you'd not complain from behind your keyboard that they want to take your stupid straws away.

I say ban all single-use plastic.


I’ll be honest, I spend a lot of time outdoors in New England. Plastic waste is not nearly as endemic as you describe in North America. The only area that gets comparable to what you describe are waterways in major population centers such as the Charles river and Boston harbor.

Banning single use plastic is still a great way to cut down on


It's a sliding scale, which is why I mentioned the national parks. More people = more trash. Take a little plastic bag with you next time and pick up every piece of trash you see. Suddenly it will pop out of the woodwork. Waterways collect and concentrate it.


> Plastic waste is not nearly as endemic as you describe in North America

Plastic waste isn’t really endemic to North America. Surely there are some locations with plastic waste problems, but I do a lot of hiking and local travel and I can’t remember the last time I saw huge swaths of plastic waste. People around here are generally good at picking up behind themselves and even picking up waste that others mistakenly leave behind.

That said, I’ve been to some developing countries and been absolutely shocked at the quantities of plastic waste I encountered in certain locations. Unfortunately these are the same places least likely to switch to use degradable plastic bags if they’re more expensive.


> I say ban all single-use plastic.

The alternatives are worse. They use much more energy, and you can't go outside without seeing how bad global warming is now, and how devastating it soon will be.

We need to forget plastics recycling entirely, and spend all that effort on redirecting trash to landfills.


If plastic that's "properly" disposed of still ends up in the environment, how do you dispose of all the trash you collect to ensure that it doesn't end up back in the environment?


> North America is quite good at properly disposing of plastic you wonder why we are so obsessed with this as a problem.

Yeah, about that, North America ships garbage to China and to poor countries in Southeast Asia to be burned there, or to be dumped in a forest/farmland next to low-income rural communities.

> we should be helping developing nations to better manage their plastic waste so that it doesn’t end up in waterways

I don't know why you say that like it's easy, but in the first place, maybe plastics just shouldn't be forced upon developing nations as conditions of trade if we already know that they don't have the infrastructure to manage it, in the first place?

> The Yangtze and Ganges are releasing plastic into the ocean at a rate far greater than all of North America combined, and our response is to expend huge amounts of energy produced by fossil fuels trying to recycle our plastic instead of burying it in a landfill where it is unlikely to pose a major ecological threat.

I never understood this line of reasoning, to be honest. So you have a ton of problems, some bigger than others. Why does the fact that you have bigger problems in your backlog negate working on the smaller, quicker wins first? Also you keep talking about "North America" as if it's a single, sovereign, unified country that has no conflicting interests.

> Like many environmental initiatives I worry that we’re more concerned about making ourselves feel better than actually solving the problem.

Didn't we already make ourselves feel better by arguing ourselves into what is effectively indifference about the problem of pollution?


> Why does the fact that you have bigger problems in your backlog negate working on the smaller, quicker wins first?

One should pick the tasks with the best cost/benefit ratio first. It seems intuitive enough to me that the same amount of $ will go much, much further around the Ganges than in an effort to ban plastic straws in developed countries, or whatever else I see political capital being burnt on.


Is it just the cost/benefit ratio that you have to consider? How about the quality of being realistic? Tell me, and in the context of the previous responses--how realistic is it that North America will be able to carry out and enforce its agenda in the Ganges?


A good cost/benefit analysis would have to include this. And yes, I personally think that the developed world can drive change in other countries, otherwise I wouldn't donate to an NGO that attempts to do just that (not for plastics though).

One problem is that what I'm saying could easily be framed as "white people telling brown people what to do", and then everyone would drop it like a hot potato because it smells like colonialism. So it's politically safer to stay in my lane and buy a MacBook pouch made from recycled PET bottles instead.

(What I agree on is that the developed world should not export its trash or otherwise sabotage foreign countries.)


The problem isn't just "white people telling brown people what to do", though that's certainly one aspect of it. The more important issue, though, is that there's no way for developed countries to significantly "drive change" in other countries without undermining the sovereignty of the latter through some kind of bribery or debt trap or predatory trade deal.


> we should be helping developing nations to better manage their plastic waste so that it doesn’t end up in waterways

>>I don't know why you say that like it's easy

Are they saying that like it's easy? How should it be said? Your tone is so defensive...


Buddy, that wasn't even a comment on his tone.


I agree.


Agree on your first two points. That’s what I mean about helping developing nations. We shouldn’t be exporting billions of pounds of plastic waste to places that cannot ensure proper disposal.

By focusing resources on waste management and international cooperation we would be focusing on 90% of the ocean plastics problem instead of directing our resources at well managed waste streams that do little environmental damage by comparison.

Being pragmatic is very different than being indifferent. At the end of the day a plastic bag in a landfill is a way better outcome than a plastic bag in a waterway, and also arguably better than spending 43-250x more energy mostly from fossil fuels producing paper/glass/aluminum instead.

When there are no perfect solutions, you must choose the least harmful.


And the least harmful is not to dump plastic in a landfill, but to not produce plastics at all. :) Similarly, we can put more money into research on how to produce paper/glass/aluminum/others with less energy, and also redesign consumerism and normalize bringing refillable containers to the grocery down to the household level. There's a lot that can be done that doesn't involve polluting the environment.


And the least harmful is not to dump plastic in a landfill, but to not produce plastics at all.

And all of the human advancements in sanitation, food safety, and transportation energy afforded by plastics? You'd significantly increase CO2 output of transportation if every plastic item was replaced by something heavier. Stopping all plastic production would be very harmful.

As for people bringing reusable containers to the store, this was stopped because it's a health hazard.


OK, we need to be specific that most of the plastic that end up in oceans and landfills are those called "single-use", mostly used in food packaging.

> all of the human advancements in sanitation, food safety, and transportation energy afforded by plastics

The pollution negates the health benefits of sanitation and food safety though, especially in the places where they are dumped, which are in rural communities in developing countries, whose people are somehow expected to make a living out of it for themselves and for their children.

Besides, there are so many uses of plastic in food packaging that aren't even necessary to begin with, and which shouldn't exist. How much of single-use plastics are just bags of unhealthy junk food and candy wrappers and carbonated soda? Is it even necessary to have such a large economy based on unhealthy food sources?


> redesign consumerism

Better: eliminate consumerism


Absolutely, I just made the wording a little bit """moderate""" to avoid debates I'm not in the mood to have, but I agree.


No, there is no such thing as "proper disposal" of plastic.


good


> Turns out you have to re-use a paper bag 43 times for the energy use to be the same as plastic grocery bags

But that’s okay. Energy is not the issue with bags but the fact that they don’t decompose. Using more energy to switch to something that decomposes is a good enough deal.


A plastic bag in a landfill is less harmful to the environment than a paper bag that costs 43x more energy to produce.

The former is trapped underground in a location engineered to prevent seepage and runoff, and will be sitting there for a thousand years where it only poses a threat to the bacteria and worms in the landfill.

The latter required a tree to be cut down and used 43x more energy, and therefore it’s waste is in the atmosphere warming our planet.


Multiple misconceptions here:

1) We don't cut down old growth trees to make paper products - we cut down fast-growth trees that are farmed for exactly this purpose. Cutting down these trees is not a problem, and in fact pulls some carbon out of the atmosphere because the trees captured it and the paper product end of life is usually getting buried where the carbon is mostly trapped.

2) You're ignoring that renewable energy can be used for production.

3) You're also ignoring that common plastics start with oil, which isn't just used for making plastic products. If you see a bunch of plastic bottles, you should also be thinking about the other oil products associated with them that got burned and turned into GHG.


The paper industry ranks #5 in carbon intensity and is responsible for something like 9% of global CO2 emissions.

Do you honestly think that industry uniformly manages their forestry in an environmentally friendly manner?

You could use renewables but the fact is that most of the input energy into paper mills is natural gas co-generation because you need both heat and electricity.

Petrochemicals are used in 90% of the regular every-day items we live our lives with. Clothing, furniture, our homes, cars, personal belongings… banning single use plastics isn’t going to change that.

I’d rather plastic waste in landfills than more CO2 emissions.


You really need to provide sources for claims like that. Here's the EPA saying that land use and forestry is a net carbon sink in the US [1]. If you're talking about international then that's a completely different conversation entirely, especially since the US exports about as much paper product as it imports, and unlike plastic, paper is actually recycled really well [2]. If you want to talk about countries that don't give a shit about the environment... not giving a shit about the environment, then there's really no conversation to be had here.

[1] https://www.epa.gov/ghgemissions/sources-greenhouse-gas-emis...

[2] https://www.epa.gov/facts-and-figures-about-materials-waste-...


Yes I’m talking international. The impact varies depending on land use, so the forestry piece is vastly different depending on where you look.

https://www.ucsusa.org/resources/wood-products#.VxfvaJMrJZ1

On paper recycling:

https://doi.org/10.1038/s41893-020-00624-z

https://www.ucl.ac.uk/news/2020/oct/paper-recycling-must-be-...


> A plastic bag ... is less harmful ... than a paper bag ...

This is a strawman: you insist comparing two harmful options and ignoring others.

For example, in many countries own reusable shopping bags made of cotton.

They last a decade and are even more comfortable to carry.


Most sources say that cotton is worse than plastic or paper.

https://qz.com/1585027/when-it-comes-to-climate-change-cotto...

Intuitively, this makes sense to me: cotton comes from a plant that can be harvested and replanted, just like paper. The main difference is that you use a lot more cotton to make a cotton bag.


You are missing the key point: reusable for hundreds of times.


Why limit your analysis to the cost of production, rather than a full lifecycle?


Its the same reason as allays, some kind of subsidies. Created by politicians who are fooled/bribed by lobbyists. Same reason the US replaces certain % of fuel with bio-fuel. It does make any sense. It pollutes more to create the bio-fuel than if you would use normal fuel. Its also not carbon neutral and it destroys incredible amount of land and the soil and even fossil water is used up sometimes.

Obligatory PENN & TELLER: BULLSHIT S02EP05 Recycling https://www.bitchute.com/video/j0Hd6UfA4MKo/


> Plastic waste really isn’t a big problem unless you’re talking about developing nations. North America is responsible for about 3% of mismanaged plastic waste. Asia and Africa account for 86% of it.

Because North America sends all its plastic to be recycled in Asia. See Canada-Philippine waste dispute: https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Canada–Philippines_waste_dis...


I haven't seen any reliable data yet on what portion of the plastic waste that ends up in the water originates in NA/Europe and what portion comes from the population of Asia and Africa themselves.

But given that several billion people live there and one-time plastic use is really widespread (just travel there and see), plus the waste management systems are subpar, I would be very surprised if local waste wasn't a majority of those 86 per cent. Have you been to places like the Philippines? Everything comes wrapped in plastic and waste plastic is not really managed at all.

IDK about Indonesia or India, but perhaps HN users from there can chime in.


https://advances.sciencemag.org/content/6/44/eabd0288

> The United States generated the largest amount of plastic waste of any country in the world (42.0 Mt). Between 0.14 and 0.41 Mt of this waste was illegally dumped in the United States, and 0.15 to 0.99 Mt was inadequately managed in countries that imported materials collected in the United States for recycling.


Unless it’s our plastic waste that’s ending up in the ocean I’m not sure this matters.


It is.

> The United States generated the largest amount of plastic waste of any country in the world (42.0 Mt). Between 0.14 and 0.41 Mt of this waste was illegally dumped in the United States, and 0.15 to 0.99 Mt was inadequately managed in countries that imported materials collected in the United States for recycling.

https://advances.sciencemag.org/content/6/44/eabd0288


I'm not an expert, but a plastic bag takes longer to disappear naturally than a paper bag.

Your energy accounting and waste source/destination issues are just the top of the iceberg. The elephant in the room is the plastic.


Yeah and haven't microplastics been found in basically every organism by now? I feel like this is something which we may look back on like lead in 30 years.


Radioactive particles from nuclear testing are in every organism too. Just because something exists doesn't mean it's a disaster. You'd need science to back up a feeling like yours otherwise you're probably just regurgitating what popular opinion has indoctrinated you with and that's whatever's widely emotionally satisfying to believe.


Oh sure, I'm just speculating. But if you always waited for concrete evidence to conclude that something might be a risk, you would have may have been wearing hats coated in mercury in the 19th century, and eating of uranium-infused plates in the early 20th century.


Just a quick search shows how even though it might be just 3%. 3% is a huge number with the US being the biggest plastic waste generator. 3% = 1.25 million metric tons.

And in 2016, more than half of all the plastic collected in the US was shipped abroad. To places that supposedly "mismanage" plastic waste.

I have personally seen the impact when China banned all this waste from landing. It moved to places like Malaysia and Indonesia. I got more than a few calls to try and see if they could move that plastic from Malaysia and Indonesia to other countries. It is still a massive ongoing problem.

Basically the US and a lot of western countries have outsourced pollution and then blame developing countries. This happens when discussions about CO2 emissions also comes up. When most of that pollution is generated production cheap goods for the west.

Source: https://www.nationalgeographic.com/environment/article/us-pl...


> This happens when discussions about CO2 emissions also comes up. When most of that pollution is generated production cheap goods for the west.

87% of Chinese emissions are attributable to domestic consumption. https://www.carbonbrief.org/mapped-worlds-largest-co2-import...


> Turns out you have to re-use a paper bag 43 times for the energy use to be the same as plastic grocery bags.

This sounds way too high. And indeed, this BBC article cites paper bags being just four times as energy intensive as plastic bags: https://www.bbc.com/news/business-47027792

That's a difference of an order of magnitude. It would be very interesting to hear where you sourced that number from.

As others have pointed out, the whole equation involves also recyclablility. Plastic bags - unlike paper bags - are very hard to recycle, as this article demonstrates. Therefore efforts to reduce the amount of waste generated in the first place are preferable.

Before we can begin to solve plastic waste problem abroad we need to first develop lasting and scalable solutions at home. Caricaturizing the problem to encourage people to close their eyes of the issue might make you feel better but is entirely unhelpful.


It was a study from the Danish EPA on grocery bags. It wasn’t energy use but total impact actually, so I mis-remembered that a part.

https://mst.dk/service/publikationer/publikationsarkiv/2018/...

I’m not trying to get people to close their eyes to the issue. I’m trying to get them to ask questions.


Thank you for providing the source. The study does not support your original claim at all. On page 79 the study specifically notes that unbleached paper bags had the best CO2 performance across all of the numerous options surveyed!

The ridiculous "43 times" number was only obtained when considering "all environmental factors", not just energy use/climate change. The methodology chosen required offsetting the worst individual factor compared to conventional LDPE bags (pp. 80). For paper bags, this was "Freshwater eutrophication" (pp. 119). So this ridiculous number is only a) due to questionable methodology used in this study (clearly chosen to give plastic bags an unrealistic environmental performance), and b) because plastic production has negligible impact on nutrient content of lakes compared to forestry.

The study seems to have altogether omitted to consider the impact of persistent plastic pollution on the marine environment. This is where recyclable/biodegradable materials, like paper, really do shine compared to nonbiodegradable and hard-to-recycle (TFA) plastic.


I think OP needs to edit their post lest many be led astray


Would if I could. HN doesn’t let me edit after so many hours.


I must say I can't blame you too harshly for misreading this. The way they arrived at the "43 times" figure is truly baffling and prone to misunderstanding and mischaracterization. Not the shiniest of work from Denmark's EPA, I am afraid.


Disposable plastic versus disposable paper is the wrong choice. Buy half a dozen reusable cloth bags and leave them in your car, and you don’t need either.

We’re obsessed with finding the best disposable option, trusting our ingenuity to find a way to make our conveniences responsible, rather than starting with responsible stuff and trying to make it convenient. As the article covers, we’re failing at that.


I personally think you are spot on. I am yet to find any major environmental issue with landfill plastics or any health issues with micro plastics - especially compared to the harm caused by GHG. If using paper bag produces significantly more GHG compared to plastic then using our green political resources to reduced plastic use not only detracts us from focusing our resources into something more useful, but it may be more harmful by producing more GHG in the long run.


>If we want to make a difference here we should be helping developing nations to better manage their plastic waste so that it doesn’t end up in waterways.

>The Yangtze and Ganges are releasing plastic into the ocean at a rate far greater than all of North America combined,

It should start by developed countries not dumping their garbage in developing countries, China has banned the practice recently, But other developing countries do not have that luxury yet.


> One thing I’m always curious about is why we are so concerned with plastic waste.

Because of virtue signaling.

That's literally it, it doesn't matter how effective or ineffective something is, what matters is that politicians (and companies) are seen to be taking a stance against pollution (regardless of how sincere or effective that stance may be)


Mostly because it is clearly visible and enduring pollution I think.


> Then when you look at plastic pollution and see that for the most part North America is quite good at properly disposing of plastic you wonder why we are so obsessed with this as a problem.

As someone who was struck by the magnitude of careless resource use when visiting the US this felt wrong when reading it. But I thought commenting did not help anyone.

Ironically not even a day later the first link on HN is titled: "U.S. generates more plastic trash than any other nation, report finds" [1]

[1] https://www.nationalgeographic.com/environment/article/us-pl...


"generates more plastic trash..." isn't comparable to "properly disposing of plastic".


> Like many environmental initiatives I worry that we’re more concerned about making ourselves feel better than actually solving the problem.

Either way, instead of reifying the relevant facts and statistics and iterating on them (or upturning them when invalidated), we tend to debate them repeatedly, even over decades as manufacturing methods and trends in society change.

(this is me pining for a system like arguman[1] with the critical mass of wikipedia to help forge these debates into more reliable, long-term results)

[1] - https://github.com/arguman/arguman.org


A large chunk of the recycled materials in Canada and the US is not recycled domestically and a majority of that is sent to countries with inadequate controls. So the culpability starts with the users/manufacturers.


I often see this claim but never any evidence for it. How do we know it’s Western plastic being dumped in rivers instead of their own thrash?


That doesn't matter.

Until the countries have processes and infrastructure in place to properly handle it, it should not be sent there as that is relying on inadequate laws to reduce costs. And here we are.

But here is an article that talks to some of it, single source so grain of salt. https://www.plasticpollutioncoalition.org/blog/2019/3/6/1570...


Energy is one dimension of resource utilization. Plastic bags clog sewers, kill wildlife and generate a lot of rubbishy.

Paper bags are reusable, made of a renewable material, and break down in weeks or months. They are a better solution.


While the point about the energy consumption of paper -vs- plastic is certainly worth considering seriously, you might need to take a more careful look at your assumptions about plastic disposal.

Mismanaged plastic waste in Asia/Africa and really clean numbers for North America are two sides of the same coin -- flawed accounting. The developing world certainly does not consume, or generate anywhere close to the same amount of waste, (per capita) as North America.

Part of the reason North America appears to have such clean numbers for "properly disposing of[f] plastic" is that garbage is exported to poorer countries, either for "recycling" or more likely burning/landfills (thereby externalizing the accounting, and also most of the damage).

Eg, see: https://www.theverge.com/2020/10/30/21542109/plastic-waste-u... and https://www.npr.org/sections/goatsandsoda/2019/03/13/7025017...


We're obsessed with plastic waste because the main input is petrochemicals, the producers of which have a lot of political power. If they didn't, then we'd just implement what the scientists recommended all along (i.e don't use it when you don't need to, use as little as possible, recycle what you use, burn what can't be recycled for energy, charge the producers based on these externalities to incentivize changes at the top of the chain to make all the other steps easier and/or encourage consumers to choose something else).

Similar to how we'd have have dealt with climate change back when crazy environmental radicals like Margaret Thatcher and Newt Gingrich accepted a) that it existed and b) there was a clear path to co-operate on fixing the problem by putting a price on carbon and enforcing global standards.

But then politics happened. And now you could say, "Why are we so obsessed with climate change?" It's almost like a Trillion dollar industry has waged a highly successful misinformation campaign and made what was previously common sense a big debate.

And as far as they're concerned, you thinking "well maybe these hippies are going too far and haven't thought of this drawback" is just as much of a win for them as the guy "coal rolling" a Prius because his political tribe is now pro-pollution, like some kind of absurd parody of a Captain Planet cartoon villian.

For the record, recycling and burning plastic for energy are both better for the planet and economy than landfill. Well, that's the "scientific consensus" but what do those eggheads know, eh? Neither sounds good for the bottom line of fossil fuel companies and so...


Energy is only one issue. There is also that plastic is a petroleum product. Also even if "managed" well ultimately ends up in the landfills, and its resources don't get recycled by the environment for thousands of years. It also wreaks havoc on the environment if it ends up in the wrong place; paper largely doesn't.


Could you provide a credible source for those 43x and 170-250x numbers?

Trying to find some numbers for CO₂ in paper production, numbers vary a lot depending on source, and I assume that they also vary a great deal between different paper products and manufacturers. In any case, this paper https://www.transitionpathwayinitiative.org/publications/49.... would suggest an average of around 0.7 tons of CO₂ per ton paper produced.

Meanwhile polyethylene might be cheaper and less energy intensive to manufacture (depending on how much of the refinery process you include), but it emits 3.14 tons of CO₂ per ton plastic when decomposed.

A paper grocery bag might need to be a bit heavier than a plastic bag to have equal utility, so in total I guess they are not wildly different.



> Then when you look at plastic pollution and see that for the most part North America is quite good at properly disposing of plastic

As in selling it to other countries. China used to buy this shit btw, since you were wondering why they has so much plastic. Ever heard of the law of preservation of garbage? No you wouldn't have, I've just made it up.


Of course, to make plastic you need oil and that either means dirty fraking or sending cash to some particularly horrendous regimes.

I'm not sure how we compare human rights to polluted land to dead fish or trees to Co2E, so I won't say you're wrong. I think the lack of a single measure is why we make so little progress. I wish I had an answer...


I live in the US on the coast. The top waste I see in the brackish waters are plastics and car tires.

People (everyone from consumers to scavengers) tend to recycle glass and metal because they’re valuable. And paper seems to break down quickly.

Paper may be bad for energy usage. But energy consumption is not the only environmental issue to be concerned about.


If you want to view this from an entropy perspective, then fossil fuels are basically cheating because their use can’t be used as part of a closed system (closed with respect to the sun’s lifetime) unless we factor in the energy and time required to convert sunlight into crude oil or natural gas.


Ummm... the USA exports a lot of plastic recycling.

https://www.nytimes.com/2021/03/12/climate/plastics-waste-ex...


I think like a lot of this stuff it is virtue signaling by stores and local governments. To be fair it does cut down a bit on them flying around the neighborhood though. The plastic bags in grocery stores aren't the real problem. The real problem is plastic recycling is a joke and that we need to get people more involved in reusing like we used to with glass or just using your own containers. The fact is that Asia is the one dumping 80% of the plastics into the ocean. Obviously Asia has a lot more people than North America so the amount per capita might not be all that different. We all need to adjust our ideas of consumption.


> for the most part North America is quite good at properly disposing of plastic

Shipping trash to piss poor Asian and African countries is not adequate disposal


Yangtze plastic waste includes imported plastic from North America's fake-recycling, doesn't it?


The Plastics from the North America is being shipped to south and southeast Asia, probably. So what good it does to them.


It also ignores having to double-bag stuff, or losing produce when the bags get wet and split.


> My local grocery store recently switched to paper bags. So I got curious. Turns out you have to re-use a paper bag 43 times for the energy use to be the same as plastic grocery bags. This is impossible since they are made of paper.

This is true, but thats just one side you of a tradeoff you have to make. The main concern with plastic waste is the duration it takes until it degrades. Also, microplastics are an issue too. And even the plastic waste that makes it to recycling facilities is often impossible to recycle due to the material composition, its often just burned instead, releasing Co2 in the air.

> Then when you look at plastic pollution and see that for the most part North America is quite good at properly disposing of plastic you wonder why we are so obsessed with this as a problem.

> Plastic waste really isn’t a big problem unless you’re talking about developing nations. North America is responsible for about 3% of mismanaged plastic waste. Asia and Africa account for 86% of it.

So are most parts of Europe, but properly disposing the waste is just one part of the equation. The other more challenging part is actually getting rid of the waste we produce. And an important cornerstone of the waste strategy is to export it. In January to June 2018 the US alone exported 150,000 metric tons of plastic waste to Malaysia, 90,000 to Thailand, and a considerable amount to other nations [1]. With the EU countries, its even more extreme with 362,000 tons plastic waste being exported to Malaysia in 2020 [2].

So I'm going to take a wild guess and assume that a significant portion of the plastic waste that is sent to the ocean in developing countries is actually the export of developed nations.

> Don’t get me started on plastic straws. They make up 0.03% of plastic waste in the ocean.

thats true, thats just virtue signaling.

> If we want to make a difference here we should be helping developing nations to better manage their plastic waste so that it doesn’t end up in waterways.

The best way to go into the future is to just quit producing so much plastic waste. Plastic is a great material, its super durable while also being super cheap. That makes it useful for a lot of purposes, but also pretty unsuited for many others. Look at how much (unnecessary) product packaging is made of plastic. It's a material that can easily last decades and is instead used massively used to produce single use items just because of the low price.

My best guess as to why plastic is so massively used:

As the world moves towards renewable electricity sources and away from fossil fuels, plastic production is one of the biggest (growing) markets that will remain interested in oil. Stopping to use plastics that excessively would of course hurt that growth. [3],[4],[5]

> Like many environmental initiatives I worry that we’re more concerned about making ourselves feel better than actually solving the problem.

Unfortunately, that is very often the case. I guess it's easier to make one feel better by sacrificing something like plastic straws instead of actually trying to change the own lifestyle to drive actual change.

[1] https://www.statista.com/statistics/892470/us-exports-plasti...

[2] https://www.statista.com/statistics/1235938/annual-plastic-w...

[3] https://www.reuters.com/article/us-petrochemicals-iea-idUSKC...

[4] https://www.statista.com/statistics/664933/oil-demand-plasti...

[5] https://www.vox.com/energy-and-environment/21419505/oil-gas-...


Has north america stopped shipping it's plastic waste to Asia now?

Otherwise, that properly disposed of American waste likely counts in Asia and Africa's mismanaged waste. Tacking somebody else's name on the problem doesn't put you in the clear


This is why I like glass deposit bottles.


[flagged]


Nationalistic attacks and name-calling will get you banned on HN, regardless of which country you have a problem with (or belong to). No more of this, please.

https://news.ycombinator.com/newsguidelines.html


Because the US is not the problem.

The lobby is So strong against US that even if we take photos, investigate where is the problem people will come and say:

"The evil US made they do it."

Because maybe the US Pay and ship a fraction to be recycled outside US. But still US is blame for other countries corruption too.

It really does not matter.

"Green" will became a hidden tax on middle class to power elite.


Added to what you said is the fact that the most commonly used plastics like polyethylene are biological inert. Thus most plastic is about as harmful as sand which only really harms life in a mechanical way if at all.

I think it is a mass hysteria fueled by social media. Plastics are not bad for the environment in of themselves and certainly not worse than chopping down trees to make paper or burning coal to make glass.

Solar produced polyethylene could be a terrific carbon sink if there was not a mass hysteria about "plastics."

It is so fascinating how the general public can demonise something they don't even understand.

"Plastic" in general is harmless to the environment. That is because it is chemically inert. Plastics are used every day in medical proceedures and medical devices. Plastics provide habitats for small organisms. Ever find a discarded plastic bottle that has been sitting in the woods for years? Usually it is teeming with life, from algae to spiders, to worms and other invertabraes.


I don't disagree with everything you're saying here, but some plastic products (especially bags, polystyrene boxes and small pieces of plastic) are definitely harmful to some animals, who of course form part of the environment.


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