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U.S. generates more plastic trash than any other nation, report finds (2020) (nationalgeographic.com)
361 points by DocFeind 53 days ago | hide | past | favorite | 273 comments

This problem won't get fixed without legislation. Single use plastic is cheaper, so of course companies will use that if they can. Most people don't have the income to support "voting with their wallet", and even those who do don't always have the option. IF the best solution out there happens to use single use plastic, you're not going to opt for a worse solution just because it doesn't.

And even if one company cares enough to do something, they will change their tune when they have to start charing more.

The only way this will get better is if the external costs of single use plastic are borne by the companies that make them and consumers are subsidized to absorb the extra cost.

Single use stuff seems easy enough to fix. What seems less obvious to me is what I experienced when shopping for a potty chair for our youngest there were dozens of options at just a single store for a big hunk of plastic that's only useful for a period of months. We ended up not buying one at all.

I had a similar experience the last time I was at CES and was deep into the "South Hall" where there's kiosk after display booth after kiosk of just completely pointless crap of every shape and size. Thousands of practically identical cheap cell phone cases. Thousands of cheap bags and backpacks adorned with battery packs and/or Bluetooth speakers. Each and every booth staffed with multiple people who have to stand there and try to convince you that their big mountain of garbage is somehow special. At the same time as it's astonishingly wasteful and kind of insane when you think about it, it's also completely existentially debasing to the people involved.

If we have a global addiction to anything that seems like it needs fixing, it seems like we're addicted to producing stuff we don't need for problems we don't have just for the sake of doing something.

We've gotten a lot of stuff like this free through Facebook groups

Everybody's got aged-out baby crap taking up space in their house, if you can get them before they get off their ass to throw it out they're usually overjoyed for it to disappear

The way most people in Germany would solve this (we need a potty for some months) is buying it 2nd/3rd/4th hand. Is that not common where you live (I guess USA)?

In the middle class and upward, it's not common, outside of folks who are particularly frugal. The post-WWII American culture is extremely consumerist / materialistic.

It's also that it's just easier to go to Walmart or Target (or Amazon) and buy one and be done with it, than to spend the time hunting around garage sales or thrift stores for something they might not have. Unless you really need to save $10, time is way more valuable than money.

Of course, for immediate-need purchases, nothing beats going to the nearby store or ordering with delivery. But that's not how you handle getting second-hand stuff.

Second-hand stuff is easy to get when you know you need something (or will need it soon), but you're not pressed for time. At any given time, if you look for a second-hand $foo, you may not find it in your area, but there's a good chance you'll find it within a month or two. It's particularly easy with kid stuff - you have ~8 months of advance warning, and most kid items are only used for couple of months, so there's a steady stream of used stuff you can pick from, and a year later, start contributing to, as your kid grows out of their stuff.

What makes second-hand (especially free second-hand) so easy these days is Internet. To start, you want to find and follow three boards for your area: a) Craigslist/Gumtree/equivalent, b) a local giveaway/exchange group, and c) a local "spotted by the side of a trashcan" group. Put stuff you don't need on them, take stuff you need from them, and you're now part of the "reduce, reuse" flow - which is strictly better than "recycle". It doesn't take much time either; following b) and c) is something you do by scrolling through a feed for a minute.

According to Norwegian consumer research, people who save those ten dollars usually spend them on something else (like a travel or another product), so the environmental gain from buying used stuff is not a lot.

Unless people are willing to earn a little less, buttons used is not a solution for an individual’s environmental footprint.

If you spend only a fraction of your budget on new stuff, how is it not a gain?

My experience is different. Almost everyone we know gets most of their baby stuff secondhand. They get a bunch of stuff when the baby is born, from older friends with kids. Then they get specific items off NextDoor/Facebook/Craigslist.

I don't know that we'd get a potty used, but we did get used infant bathtubs, which is about the same from a hygienic perspective.

I agree. All of our friends and us get "kids stuff", as well as most of my furniture 2nd hand. My kids are 12 and 14, and outside of certain shoes, they've never worn brand new clothes (same for me and my spouse when we were kids). Why buy when your friends or siblings with older or bigger kids are looking to get rid of clothes as soon as their kids outgrow them? Come to think of it, I don't remember the last time I bought new clothes myself.

The 1920s one wasn't?

Sure, if you were a robber baron or aristocrat. But most people were too busy just trying to survive.

I'm in the US and tried donating our child's potty chair. The donation spots I tried refused it because they weren't allowed to take anything which a child has to sit in or on for safety reasons. I even tried Value Village, which is a private second-hand store, and got the same response.

Into the garbage it went, sadly.

American safety helicopter parenting culture, ruining yet another thing again.

We bought ours second hand at a consignment sale.

Same; Craigslist, Nextdoor, and Facebook marketplace too.

Couldn’t you chop it up and put in recycling bin?

A lot of plastics that we "recycle" end up in landfills anyway. They are not recyclable because they are contaminated with food (need to wash food containers out before recycling) or they are labeled as "recyclable" but really are not, or are not at every recycling center in the nation. The same is true for cardboard like used greasy pizza boxes with cheese stuck to the bottom are not recyclable yet a heck of a lot of people toss them in the cardboard recycle bin.

> The findings confirm the results of a Guardian investigation last year, which revealed that numerous types of plastics are being sent straight to landfill in the wake of China’s crackdown on US recycling exports. Greenpeace’s findings also suggest that numerous products labeled as recyclable in fact have virtually no market as new products.

> She emphasized that bottles and jugs are indeed worth recycling, but said “our findings show that many items commonly found in beach cleanups – cups, bags, trays, plates and cutlery – are not recyclable. In America’s municipal recycling system, they are contaminants.”

> The US recycling economy was upended in 2018 when China enacted bans on imports of most US recycling, leaving recycling companies at a loose end. The report chronicled how dozens of cities – stretching from Erie, Pennsylvania, to San Carlos, California, – have either stopped taking mixed plastics or are sending them to landfill.


> need to wash food containers out before recycling (...) used greasy pizza boxes with cheese stuck to the bottom are not recyclable yet a heck of a lot of people toss them in the cardboard recycle bin.

People are not being informed about it clearly enough. Not that it would change much, except discouraging most people from sorting trash.

Beyond being a significant burden, having individuals washing their trash is just ridiculously inefficient and wasteful in terms of water and energy use, plus it would more than double the amount of detergent unloaded into the return leg of water supply loop. It kind of already defeats the point of recycling.

And that's without even getting to the whole "recycling things other than metal and maybe glass is a scam" thing.

I’m less in the “people need to be informed” camp and more in the “products need to be designed for easy recycling” camp.

If we want to recycle pizza boxes as a society, there needs to be a grease absorbing layer that’s clearly marked for the trash, and a recyclable layer with clear instructions. A great example of this is Siggi’s single serving yogurt cups. The paper label is easily separated from the plastic body, with clear instructions that they’re meant to be separated for recycling into separate streams. In my case my municipality doesn’t recycle the plastic they use (#5 IIRC), but at least the paper and metal foil get recycled.

Expecting end consumers to stay up to date on this stuff is just a way for companies to avoid the responsibility of making better packaging.

To clarify: I'm in your camp too. I just mentioned it because a lot of people don't know that washing recyclable containers before disposing of them is a thing.

> If we want to recycle pizza boxes as a society, there needs to be a grease absorbing layer that’s clearly marked for the trash, and a recyclable layer with clear instructions.

Agreed. And this needs to be built into the packaging, and not be a flimsy piece of paper the restaurant inserts so that the pizza itself doesn't stick to the box.

> A great example of this is Siggi’s single serving yogurt cups. The paper label is easily separated from the plastic body, with clear instructions that they’re meant to be separated for recycling into separate streams.

I've seen this trend and I like it. Paper label being separable also makes it easier to clean and reuse the cup itself. Containers from the yogurt brand we buy can survive a trip through a dishwasher, which helps. Unfortunately, most recyclable plastic containers are not like that.

> Expecting end consumers to stay up to date on this stuff is just a way for companies to avoid the responsibility of making better packaging.

Exactly. Plus, in this case, it's extremely wasteful.

I also blame the packaging problem on advertising/marketing being the cancer of modern society. Notice how professional equipment tends to come in simple cardboard boxes. None of the triple-layered plastic/paper/plastic + paint non-recyclable bullshit. Just straight cardboard and some anti-shock padding.

Companies need to start paying up front for end-of-life management of their products and packaging. It's the most market-friendly way to align incentives on the topic.

Exactly. I’m not likely to see spending hot water, soap, and time cleaning my trash as a sensible use of resources. If plastics need to be clean for recycling, they’re not realistically recycled.

A better solution for pizza boxes is an industrial composting collection that can take all food scraps and food soiled paper products. instead of adding something that may end up plastic or wax coated trash, we can reduce materials used and "recycle" in a different way.

Even if that would be effective, it is not practical to ask people to "chop up" their heavy plastic items just to throw them away. That requires tools, light skill, and time, that not everyone is able or willing to commit to the cause.

Technically yes, but this would not cause it to be recycled.

Think!. To recycle plastic it must be as clean as new plastic and of the same type of plastic. It then needs to be processed into granular pills of the same.This may mean mixing and melting and adding color to a standard color - usually tending towards brownish = used for hidden or structural parts where color does not matter. You can not have any fiber or fiberglass reinforced plastic in the mix - a little ruins the batch. All this costs $$, usually more cost than new material. The only way to drive this is to add an input cost(refundable deposit or tax) to plastic when made or imported - to pay for the sorting and recycling. It makes sense - works with glass beer bottles, but plastics beer soda bottles etc usually have too much grunge to economically clean to the needs of recyclers. We may have to throw away the false economy of plastic by adding a realistic tax/deposit... This has eliminated much recycling.

I've gone through three potties and never bought or sold any (we got them for free and then gave them away).

Most of our baby stuff comes (and goes) that way. We rarely bought baby stuff at all except for consumables (and even those we gave away when we didn't use them all up, like diapers).

The big issue is that it requires a social circle of people also having kids that are slightly older and younger, and for a lot of people in bigger cities, it's hard for them to build those circles.

There are online forums that help (non-sarcistic Thanks Facebook!) but it's a lot easier if you have a wide social circle already.

I love how in NZ each town have “play centers” - basically hybrid between daycare and playground where parents join and maintain. You are always there to be with your child, tho I’m sure someone would take care for them if you need to run errand for 1 hour. This forms very healthy community of people and friends and trades like above happen. Toys, clothes, car seats - we got it all free…

We do have some friends who were asking “is this newish?” when gifting some item, so not everyone is on zero waste bandwagon.

And by the way, govs should promote zero waste movement way more. Probably starting adopting it themselves.

I was working with a guy from Israel and he asked why the cuffs of my jeans were turned up. I said because I bought them used and they were a little long. He was aghast that I would wear someone else's pants. I was like, "Dude, they're 1/3rd the price of new jeans and they're already worn in, and they are washed!"

I have another friend that would never buy a used car. He's convinced all used cars were totaled and are a scam, despite the fact it is all I've ever owned and they've been fine.

Something about being "used" really freaks some people out. It's this weird purity thing, I dunno.

There is a vibrant 2nd hand resale market in the US, mostly fueled by Facebook marketplace and a handful of specialized apps.

However, Americans in general just don't take good care of stuff. Combined with products being designed from the cheapest possible materials, the quality of second hand goods isn't great. People avoid it if they can afford to buy new.

The problem with 2nd hand is convenience. Maybe I can save a few bucks browsing eBay etc. but it’s not worth the time spent compared to ordering new. I hate doing it though.

I want to plug my company, GoodBuyGear, which is trying to solve this very problem

If you just happen to need a potty now, then browsing is a lot of work.

If you know "oh, we will need larger cloths and a potty and some toys soon and that bed will be to small in a bit" you can monitor relevant sites on the side and see when the opportunity comes up.

Not to mention the social circle with parents a bit older and a bit younger. "Hey, we don't need this anymore. Do you?" - "oh it's a bit early, but I take it already thanks!"

Try nextdoor. I have found that people are often so eager to get rid of things that I need that I can get them for free.

I've lived in the US and now live in Germany, and cannot cosign to this comment. eBay Kleinanzeigen is full of scams, and the side effect of people hanging on to stuff until it breaks is that most of the stuff on the classifieds is half-broken crap that they just want to get rid of. So if people can afford to buy new, they do buy new.

The hidden lede is that Germans are not as rich as some would believe, with fairly low salaries, high home prices and high taxes, and a low level of wealth compared to GDP. Much of the German wealth is held by heirs of big dinosaur companies.

This happens where I am at in the US. Our family and friends pass children's items and clothes around. The same clothing item may have left and returned to us multiple times.

For something like that, definitely not common.

It’s not just for the sake of doing something, it’s to have profits growing constantly and wages been paid.

When we are talking about plastic ending up in the oceans we also must not forget about fishing gear and everything related. This is making almost 50% of all plastic in the ocean.

A handful of items are difficult to get second-hand commercially for either safety or hygiene reasons. But we both bought and sold tons of stuff through local consignment stores.

> it's also completely existentially debasing to the people involved.

Wow, the privilege wrapped up in that statement. Do you think it’s existentially fulfilling to clean public toilets? To drive a bus? To bottle alcohol?

The things you mentioned, clean toilets, bus rides, alcohol are actually things people want. Trying to push something that no one wants or needs is kind of debasing. I agree with OP that we seem to have created a consumer mentality, "shopping therapy", that is sad to be a part of — either as the consumer or the producer. Never mind what it does to the planet as well.

People do want cell phone cases. That’s why they sell. I want cell phone cases more often than I want gin.

I absolutely do not. But unlike driving a bus or cleaning a public toilet are at least socially useful, and those people should be cherished in society for the work they do and the service they provide. Being a "rep" for a pile of completely forgettable plastic pre-garbage is both debasing and utterly pointless.

So is selling alcohol.

What's wrong with driving a bus?

Nothing, but it’s not existentially fulfilling.


Yes, criticizing any profession is actually violence.

> Most people don't have the income to support "voting with their wallet", and even those who do don't always have the option.

I am old enough to remember when there was practically no plastic in food packaging. Twinkies and its ilk were more or less the exception (and fine examples they were of that exception!).

No doubt many remember glass ketchup bottles, glass mustard jars, glass peanut butter jars, glass mayonnaise jars... I swore to continue to buy only glass condiment jars but they no longer exist. I think the exception now is jams and jellies still come in glass jars. Honey too if you look for it.

Cereal? No plastic bag liner, it was wax paper or that weird paper foil stuff that Super Sugar Crisp came in.

I'd love to go back to glass, wax paper, but there just isn't any options any longer.

Is it more ecological to use glass instead of plastic?

With plastic there is trash to deal with, but glass is heavier thus will take more energy to deal with logistically. Recycling is not energy free either, and there is plenty of loss to deal with there. Plastic is very cheap to manufacture partly because its manufacture is so easy.

And right now it seems like energy consumption is a far larger worry than trash at the ecological level.

I don't have the studies at hand, but the answer is a big "it depends"

If you have local production and re-use of glass it can be more energy efficient to use the more heavy glass. The further the transport, the worse it becomes.

But there is a second factor to it, besides energy use: microplastics are a problem and most plastics can only be used for "energetic usage" - being burned in a power plant, which causes probelmatic gases needing filtering and then disposal of those filters ... re-use of broken glass is elementary in glass production and even if not recycled less of a problem for the environment.

> With plastic there is trash to deal with, but glass is heavier thus will take more energy to deal with logistically.

My family has been using the same set of glasses for canning for decades.

Right but is your family an outlier or an average? Anecdotes are not evidence, and what matters is how everything would pan out in the real world.

When we were using glass jars for everything, it's not like glass jars were not actively being produced. I don't think these are unanswerable questions but i highly doubt it's as simple as "replace plastic with glass". Aluminum may be a better solution, one that doesn't use up a lot of sand, for example.

> is your family an outlier or an average?

Well, I lived in a socialist country; as a consequence, DIY was the default for obtaining stuff. So quite average I guess.

Good point. But I suspect we used to produce these things more "locally". And when they were transported we relied on trains, not trucks and highways.

But I'm just guessing.

Also, we really, really need legislation to stop the ridiculousness of over-packaging. The other day I bought some case screws for my PC and they came in a goddamn "nice" foam-padded plastic case. That plastic case was then inside plastic wrap, then some plastic bubble wrap, and then a plastic Amazon mailer. That was completely unnecessary. The screws could have been in a recycled paper packet and thrown into a simple tiny cardboard box and it would have been fine.


This is a thing that only legislation can change.

You also have to think in terms of actual harm. Considering the US has an absurd amount of junk land it can use for landfills, a single use plastic object that has 1/1000 the carbon emissions of the reusable alternative may be the best environmental choice.

I'm surprised every time I hear the concept of "land fill" in conjunction with trash. As if the natural thing to do with waste is... put it in a hole in the ground? It feels like some 50's conception of environment policy to me. Shouldn't things be either recycled as much as possible, and the rest incinerated for energy?

Surprisingly, no - just dumping shit in a big hole is the most environmentally friendly thing to do - least energy used, least pollution created.

The problem is having the space in some place where neither flora nor fauna will be affected.

That’s the problem though isn’t it. Assuming trash will never be without electronics, batteries etc, it will end up in water. As far as I understand, burning in decent facilities should keep most nasty stuff out of the atmosphere and ground water (e.g heavy metals)

Since the late 80's, American landfills are required to be lined and equipped with water treatment facilities to preven groundwater contamination. Doesn't completely eliminate the risk of course.

That's how nature have dealt with trash for as long as earth has existed.

Landfills are "holes in the ground", I won't deny it. But a lot is happening in these holes, will all sorts of microorganisms breaking down stuff. Well managed landfills try to minimise impact to the environment with that knowledge.

In an oversimplified way, our landfills are putting oil back where it came from. Recycling and incineration are good too, but so are well managed landfills. It all depends on the situation/materials/...

The best thing is not to use something at all. Find a way to avoid buying useless stuff. Such as specialised tools. Especially in the kitchen.

Where is the "junk land"? Almost everywhere has animals that likely don't enjoy plastic.

“Do animals prefer plastic or no plastic” is a false choice. The real choice is “do animals prefer plastic or rapid global warming”.

Omg, travel the USA more. So. Much. Land.

Much of Nevada is a lifeless desert. There is a reason it was chosen for nuclear bomb testing.

It's not lifeless. You can look it up but it's more fun to go out and see it for yourself. The desert out there is quite beautiful and there are loads of critters.

Yes, but those critters are a long way away and so they don’t really exist.

I lived there. There is very little life in the Nevada salt flats.

You could restrict yourself to dry lake beds that don't flood in winter, which are nearly as lifeless as Mars, and still have enough landfill area for centuries of waste.

The average American produces 3.5 pounds of trash per day at an average one third of a gram per cubic centimeter. Assuming that holds steady, and we use a normal landfill depth of 400 feet, and the US population doubles over the next century, we need a landfill area of 250 square miles to cover us for the next hundred years.

Compared to available land that's tiny.

Using standard units:

- 1589g of trash per day!

- 4767 cm3 to store it (3cm3/gram)

- 130 m3 per lifetime (75yr)

- 300,000,000 lifetimes.

- 78 km3 storage allocated

- 39 km3 required

~~We're gonna need a bigger boat.~~


> - 39,000,000,000 km3 required

I think something went very wrong there!

4767 x 75 x 365 = I get 130,500,000 cm³/person/lifetime. You got 130,000,000,000,000,000.

There are 10¹⁵ cubic centimetres in a cubic kilometre, not 10⁶. I think all your numbers are for m³, not km³, a factor of a billion out, so your final figure should be 39 km³.

Thanks, I've edited (working from mobile, some copy paste issues with long numbers). I think it's right now? (How do you get the <sup>3</sup>?)

should be 39km2 not km3

Anywhere outside of a city centre, according to many. I live in a rural area. People drive out here from the city to dump their old appliances in the forests of this “junk land”. Almost every road corner has a pile of refrigerators and washing machines next to it. My current refrigerator was rescued from one of these impromptu landfills. Nothing at all wrong with it, just five years old, so it’s trash.

Just because you can’t see it, just because it doesn’t have value to property developers, does not make it junk.

I mean, by this logic, we should just dump our trash in the “junk water” which covers much of the planet.

Ok. I guess if you’re all of the view this is wrong, would you mind if I came and dumped stuff in your city apartment? It looks like junk to me.

I don't know why you decided someone saying the US has plenty of junk land must be talking about your home. I was referring to dry salt flats, abandoned strip mines, and the like. The vast amounts of space under major cities would also make good landfill volume.

Because the entire idea that land can be junk leads to a rapid broadening of the definition of junk. Your NIMBY attitude of “out of sight, out of mind” is exactly how we ended up in this mess in the first place.

Landfill? Somewhere buried?

Nevada. Just fill in old mines?

Bringing jobs back to Goldfield and Tonopah! And we needs more hands down Yellowjacket Mine

How important are those animals?

> a single use plastic object that has 1/1000 the carbon emissions of the reusable alternative may be the best environmental choice.

Is there any data that single use stuff (of any kind) creates less carbon emissions? I would expect it to be the other way around, except for some edge cases.

There's plenty of data. For example, producing single-use plastic grocery bags uses such a trivial amount of energy and resources that it almost doesn't matter—thousands and thousands of times less than an equivalent cotton bag. The bigger problem is disposal. If single-use plastics can be safely sequestered in landfills, that's a mostly solved problem, but that isn't always the case.

But isn’t the way the disposable plastic bags are so cheap actually one of the sneaky ways they are bad? It’s definitely not good for the environment but is a hard to break out or local minima.

What about paper bags?

I seem to remember that paper bags are close to single-use plastic bags, but still use more energy to produce and also require wood pulp. Paper bags can easily be recycled, but "single-use" plastic bags can easily be re-used as household trash bags, or otherwise. So it's a toss-up.

I've seen some grass cardboard pop up in the few deliveries we get. The wood pulp is probably negotiable and increasingly more so.

I think a benefit of paper bags would be encouraging planting trees to make more bags

> re-used as household trash bags

this is what i do, and if they were banned i'd be using some sort of bag and then purchasing trash bags separately using maybe twice the resources?

This is exactly what I've been doing since moving to Austin.

I get paper bags at the grocery and throw them out immediately after a single use, and now I have to also buy plastic garbage bags for under the sink, which I never used to do.

> re-used as household trash bags

But that’s a one-time reuse for something that’s not going to biodegrade when it ends up in the ocean or landfill

It should never end up in the ocean, and nothing really biodegrades in landfill, especially not paper.

I mean, I disagree with both of those statements entirely. Do you have any sources? I do, but not googling at the moment.

EDIT: quick Google search has many sources listing paper degrading in 2-6 weeks in landfills. Plastic in the ocean… I think you need to b by broaden your horizons if you think that doesn’t happen

You think plastics should end up in the ocean? Why? It definitely should not, and if waste is managed correctly, it doesn't.

And I'm not saying decomposition doesn't happen at all in landfills; it very clearly does, but the sort of decomposition that takes place is incomplete and slow, because landfills aren't ideal places for decomposition to occur. But that doesn't matter. Once it's buried, who cares if it takes 300 years to decompose?

> You think plastics should end up in the ocean? Why? It definitely should not, and if waste is managed correctly, it doesn't.

I think that enough people don't give a shit about where their waste goes, that any coastal community will lose a fraction of its waste to the drink. That isn't where most of the plastic in the ocean comes from, but the difference between "should" and "inevitably won't" is vast.

Paper degrades if it is near the surface, mixed with loose dirt, and still getting oxygen. If it's packed down under feet of compacted soil and other trash it degrades much more slowly.

I thought the heat deep within landfills is intense from all sorts of things degrading.

It depends entirely on the content of the waste and the levels of moisture and air infiltration.

Some landfills are known to generate huge amounts of methane, and ooze black sludge at the surface. This famously occured after the 1989 San Francisco earthquake.

In contrast, landfills in arid places can preserve trash like a museum:


If nothing did, landfills couldn't harvest methane as fuel.

Yes, mostly because of the energy used in their creation. For example you have to reuse a cotton grocery bag 7100 times before you break even with plastic bags for carbon footprint.


You're probably not going to do that.

You have not read the document that you link. Else, you would have noticed that it states that a not-organic cotton bag has to be reused 52 times for the same relative impact on climate change. The 7100 is impact on ozone depletion:

p. 18: 'Conversely, for composite and cotton the very high number of reuse times is given by the ozone depletion impact alone. Without considering ozone depletion, the number of reuse times ranges from 50 to 1400 for conventional cotton, from 150 to 3800 for organic cotton, and from 0 to 740 for the composite material bag. The highest number is due to the use of water resource, but also to freshwater and terrestrial eutrophication'.

And as I have commented elsewhere: I have cotton bags that I have easily used 500 times. If I had used an old T-shirt for the bag or later use the old bag for cleaning purposes, the 7,100 becomes very relative.

Aren't the plastic bags mainly a problem because they tend to end up in places where they don't belong at all, like oceans etc.? They can't really decompose or anything like that, they just shred to tiny little pieces that mess with animals (and ultimately also our) digestion, no?

Yup. There are places where plastic bags accumulate. Once it was my doorstep. Every morning there were piles of plastic bags that were delivered to my house.

Just take a trip along any river or stream near a town and you’ll find them swimming by like lifeless jellyfish

And microplastics don't just mess with digestion, they're also theorized to be part of the reason fertility is dropping in humans over time.

The Reason Foundation (which is slightly right leaning of center, but makes its case using actual studies and facts) has a great explainer on how plastic bag bans for example hurt the environment more than help and cost consumers (including low income individuals) an extra $1b/yr: https://reason.org/wp-content/uploads/files/california_plast...

But there’s basically no reasonable way to say that single use plastic is good for the environment. They are clearly a local minima that has seemed tricky for the market to break out of. Unless they make a case that that single use bags are actually the global minima or the global minima is just not worth it, the reason foundation is being rather myoptic when presenting why people attempts to get out of the local minima are bad.

Does anywhere have an actual plastic bag ban? Usually it’s just a minimum price to discourage people from grabbing a new bag on every visit

Reason is a libertarian think tank. Describing them as “slightly right leaning of center” is really sugarcoating things - their whole raison d’etre is coming up with arguments to oppose virtually any and all government regulations. That doesn’t make them wrong necessarily, but let’s call a spade a spade.

The only sustainable way to dispose of plastic is incineration.

Otherwise you poison the land and water that flows through the land.

Is turning plastic into CO2 in an incinerator really the best solution for the planet this century?

I'm down for recycling or burial in landfills, but CO2 seems like something we need to minimize this century.

If it’s 1000 times less than paper/wood then hell yeah

Sorry, but given the “half life” of a single use plastic item with respect to its usability, isn’t it’s environment cost essentially infinite?

Does the US still operate landfills? Some or all EU countries have completely abandoned the practice. So that's just not a harm that matters, unlike some other ones.

In any case, it'd be compounding the problem here, and rather bad economics at the same time. Plastics aren't that hard to collect/separate, especially if it's ok to be mixed with paper. They burn readily and, given high temperatures, cleanly, allowing the recuperation of a significant fraction of its energy content.

Then, there's recycling, of course. Not always possible, but not entirely impossible, either.

Yes, the US still has landfills as does Europe.

“In 2018, 24% of all municipal waste generated in the EU was landfilled.” That said, incineration is a similar option that drastically lowers volume of waste, but still produced ash that ends up buried and vast amounts of CO2.

Source: https://ec.europa.eu/environment/topics/waste-and-recycling/...

The goal in the EU is to reduce it to 10% in 15 years.

The USA landfill was of 50% in 2018. Some more legislation is needed. https://www.epa.gov/facts-and-figures-about-materials-waste-...

Yeah, the news I remembered were about Germany, specifically. it, and a few others, are at <=1% landfill: https://www.europarl.europa.eu/news/en/headlines/society/201...

That’s extremely misleading Germany simply uses incinerators before dumping the ash in landfills.

“One nation now grappling with the legacy of its long embrace of incineration is Denmark. The country, one of Europe’s biggest waste producers, built so many incinerators that by 2018 it was importing a million tons of trash.”


>>Some or all EU countries have completely abandoned the practice.

Absolutely not true, glad you maybe live in a country where landfills are disappearing, but they will always exist in some form - even with burning where do you think the slag goes to? That's right, a normal landfill. Not everything can be burnt, and not everything can be recycled.

And definitely not "all" EU countries - Poland has normal landfills that take everything still, very few operational waste incenerators, and recycling is still unknown to a lot of people.

Is incineration of plastic really better for the environment than a landfill? And would the ash not go to a landfill of sorts?

It's "just" carbohydrates - in theory it's no worse than burning oil or gas for heating/electricity, if you make sure everything burns at high enough temperature to burn cleanly and have filters at the exhaust to catch anything that survived the processes.

I'd say it's a positive, we use oil to produce plastics, if that oil is used to produce energy after its plastic form is no longer needed....that's a plus in my book. But maybe on the other hand it's better if it stays in the landfill instead of being burnt and releasing the bound carbon into the atmosphere.

A modern plant turns plastic into CO_2, electricity, and, often, residential heat. So, yes, that's preferable. Among the sheer ugliness and wastefulness of landfills, burning at high temperature avoids the toxic intermediates plastics give off when degrading in nature, which landfills struggle to contain.

Ash is, by definition, inert. It is the remaining mass that does not chemically react even under extreme heat. It therefore also does not interact with, for example, the human body. Plastics are all carbon/hydrogen/nitrogen/oxygen, and, to a first approximation, do not leave any ash. In reality they do, but it's extremely little and harmless.

(Physical harms can survive an incinerator, such as material giving off radiation, but those should never be in the trash)

Incinerator ash and fume often has a very high concentration of heavy metals, comparable to coal ash. Definitely not harmless.

You're correct that sufficient incineration temperatures ensure the complete destruction of organic intermediaries, such as dioxins.

I cannot put a source to it but I remeber to have heard the ash landfills (that are hermetically sealed) are designed to be resource deposites once they are full. It does not make sense to recycle the involved metals etc. while its almost empty but should be worthwile once a large deposite is established.

From a C02 perspective, if it's burned cleanly and the energy released is used to generate electricity or heat homes, it's really not much different than a natural gas plant. But I agree with your point.

What if single use uses less energy in many cases? Washing uses a lot of power and glass is heavy, using more fuel in transit. Paper is renewable and can often replace plastic, but not always.

If plastics is recycled, it would have a better ecologic balance. Exchanging it with paper will also damage the environment further. It is only better if the plastic remains in the environment.

The problem is food packaging. Even if you use paper here, it often is coated with plastic anyway, any diary product for example.

What is needed is single use items, not necessarily made out of plastic.

Pre pandemic, I'd go often to trader joe, and they would give samples. It was maybe a small bite of a food (ice cream, salat, or whatever else), and use a plastic fork for it.

Just one bite, and you had to throw it out. It was more plastic than food. Whole Foods was the same. I think it is a crime against environment and I started feeling bad about it, and stopped taking samples when there were plastic utensils.

It think behaviour like this should be legislated out. For something like a sample, just a small wooden spoon, or anything else renewable, should be enough.

The externalities of that plastic, is something that neither Trader Joe or Whole Foods pays, but we all do in some way.

Yeah; back in the day it used to be wooden toothpicks to spear stuff, and small wooden spoons for things that couldn't be speared. I can only assume things moved to plastic because of cost, which is nauseating.

Never mind how everything in Trader Joe's is packaged in plastic.

Plastic wrapped fruit. I can't believe it. Fruit comes with its own already biodegradable container!

F Trader Joe's fruit and veg.

While it's more excessive in the US, or at least Trader Joe's in my experience, various fruits and vegetables are regularly found in plastic in the European country I live in and others I've visited. Grapes, packs of apples or peaches, various peppers, etc. I find it unnecessary in some of these cases as well, unfortunately. It seemed better in local stalls that are especially plentiful in certain larger cities.

Is this a regional thing? Ours just has fruit and veggies for the taking, like any other supermarket.

Are you sure they're not biodegradable "plastic" forks?

That's what my Trader Joe's uses. I believe they're made out of cornstarch.

biodegradable plastics are deceiving because the landfill they go into must be specifically tailored to biodegrade the plastics. Otherwise they stay there forever, just like regular plastic.

> biodegradable plastic

This is a distinction without a difference - all forks are biodegradable, the question is over what time-frame.

You mean even in 2018-2019 they hadn't switched plastic forks/spoons for wood? Come on

Most American consumers who find themselves at the local TJs or Whole Foods should probably feel way, way worse about driving to the store than about little plastic spoons.

I’m not bicycling in 20 degrees Fahrenheit to shop for a family of 4, bags strapped to a bike. And there’s no public transportation. I think I’ma pretty regular American consumer. So I should feel guilty about this according to you?

Maybe not guilty but reflect on the many costs involved and try to lend your political voice to improvements. We burn a ton of fossil fuel moving people around with 10-20x their weight in metal; EVs can improve that somewhat but even if you can charge your renewably they still have a substantial CO2 cost in their manufacturing and the massive roads needed due to the intrinsic inefficiency of private vehicles. The associated low-density lifestyle similarly adds a big energy cost and makes transit hard to build. There are also many deaths and life-altering injuries annually, not to mention the way everything is made more expensive to subsidize vehicle storage in addition to the direct costs many people struggle with.

All of that exists because the system is built to encourage it, and building something more sustainable means lots of us need to start calling for major changes. I think it's reasonable to worry about that even if you didn't personally create the problem.

I typically shop on a bike for my family of six at -15 to -25 C in Finland. But I live close to a large store and bike roads are excellent and usually cleared if snow.

You’re a better person than me. Sorry, I’m not doing that. For the record, I’m roughly 6.5 km from a market. I wouldn’t even know how to strap 20 bags to a bicycle. How do you?

This thread has verged into "30-50 feral hogs" territory. I have never, even once, seen a person with 20 bags of groceries.

I suspect that for most people, when they are choosing where to live, environmental effects are way down the list. More important are: Will my kids go to a good school? Are the poor people (and associated social problems) far away from me?

Which is to say that if you choose to live someplace where you can't walk or ride a bike or have mass transit access to daily needs, you made that decision. I'm not going to tell you that you are wrong, though.

Understood, and you are right. I’m just not going to feel blame or guilt that I drive to buy food because our priorities are different.

Just have the sample. Your refusal to not consume it isn't going to change them buying the plastic, because given the choice, people aren't going to stop sampling in the aggregate. And at that point you're just signaling to other people in a really silly way.

If you really care, talk to your local representatives or write to Trader Joes and Whole Foods. Anything else is posturing. Not taking a sample which costs them a few cents on the dollar is not taking action.

I'm not going to stop, personally. They can give it to me in paper wrapping instead if they want to make a difference, and in fact, with their cups, they already do. Let someone invest in paper sampling spoons.

> If you really care, talk to your local representatives or write to Trader Joes and Whole Foods. Anything else is posturing.

Or you can do both.

> Your refusal to not consume it isn't going to change them buying the plastic, because given the choice, people aren't going to stop sampling in the aggregate. And at that point you're just signaling to other people in a really silly way.

This is a strange viewpoint to me. Acting based on your principles in your day-to-day life isn't just about signaling to others. It's about how you live your life, and acting "in tune" with your beliefs can lead you to profound happiness. If you decide that single-use plastics are bad for the environment, and you like the environment, then you try to avoid them. It's pretty simple.

But I don't even think that signaling is silly. Some people are convinced more by actions than words. I've reduced the amount of waste I produce by bringing containers to get stuff from bulk foods sections, literally because I saw someone doing it and realized it was possible. Before that, I would've thought "oh man it sucks that you have to get granola in single-use plastic, but oh well, that's life." As strange as it sounds, I had never even considered bulk food sections, even though I know the mantra "plastic bad".

If you extend your arguments, they imply that acting based on your principles in day-to-day life is pointless (or merely "posturing") because we are all small and insignificant, and the only thing that matters is trying to change laws. But I think you have it partially backward. People acting on their strong beliefs and spreading those ideas to others is what eventually invigorates political changes in the first place.

Even setting aside the importance of principles, every spoon OP doesn't use is a spoon that doesn't end up in a landfill.

And my point is that it's like saying I didn't fill up my tank with gas today: it didn't stop oil refineries from producing gasoline.

If enough people do it, it adds up. If you continuously tried to push it at least a couple more days before using your car, over a year that would add up to a couple less tanks of gas. In a nation of 280 million cars, that uses about 340 million gallons of gasoline a day, you could easily carve off a couple of weeks there. Might not seem like a lot, but that's 56 million tons of CO2 not released into the atmosphere.

There's no ethical consumption under capitalism, which is why I'm going to keep my slaves but vote really hard against slavery.

Is there ethical consumption under any system?

We can't look for the homework to copy, we must study ourselves.

"The pioneering 2015 study of marine plastic didn’t include illegal dumping and export of plastic waste. In the new analysis, the team considered those actions, but only for the U.S. They say data for other nations were inconsistent or didn’t exist."

Doesn't this seem like it's saying illegal + legal plastic waste in the US is greater than legal plastic waste in other countries? That seems like a much different claim to me.

I believe it.

But that doesn't mean we're innocent in the rest of the western world.

One really cool improvement here in Sweden recently, besides "banning" plastic bags at supermarkets, was one store called ICA started selling their burger pattys in cardboard packaging. So the only plastic is a top foil that you peel off to open the package, the rest is cardboard. Pretty cool! That's one area where we're all guilty, namely fresh meat and dairy packaging.

Speaking of dairy and meat I tend to buy from the butcher's section instead of the pre-packaged stuff, just because they wrap it in paper instead of plastic. It's the little things you can do.

And to store it in your fridge, don't wrap it in cellofane, use glass tubs with plastic lids instead. Yeah the lids are plastic but they're amazing at keeping stuff fresh and re-usable.

Not to rain on your parade, but all these "little things" add up to ... a little thing.

Cling film and aluminium foil are both incredibly useful at ridiculously tiny thickness/weight levels. One roll of 30m of either easily lasts a year or two in my kitchen. A glass tub probably has way more embodied energy, I'd need more of them, etc. The full life cycle analysis might not be as clear cut as we'd like.

Those "cardboard" foot containers are usually lined/sealed with stuff containing PFAS and goodness knows what else.

In days of yore, butchers (etc) would use wax paper for wrapping food. Which is ... paper ... and paraffin wax. A hydrocarbon usually derived from, you guessed it, petroleum.

This war on useful food packaging is silly and maybe even counter productive. A box of individually wrapped chocolates is pretty stupid. But a pallet full of those boxes is often wrapped with more plastic than all the other packaging combined, and then some!

That's a pretty good point. Pick your battles as they say.

A lot of cardboard packaging incorporates plastic layers in them -- something people seem not to know.

For example, your Starbucks cup is covered in plastic film and is generally not recyclable. It actually contains more plastic than straws do, which are now being banned in many cities. The same is true for things like milk cartons or juice boxes.

Even your aluminum soda can has plastic in it.

> ICA started selling their burger pattys in cardboard packaging.

Fast food paper/cardboard packaging has a layer of PFAS containing compounds to make them grease-proof. And consumption of fast food is correlated with PFAS blood concentrations so it probably contaminates the food. Hopefully the packaging you're describing isn't, but...


Everything tastes better wrapped in paper, or real wax paper. Like at a butcher shop. The worst is the stiff plastic boxes used for pastries in a bakery. Visual, tactile, taste, aural, all is worse than a classical piece of paper or cardboard box. (Then there is the modern paper stations that a very thin veneer of plastic coating that is horrible too, but pretends to be good.)

Either the EU or just Germany just outlawed Styropors for food packaging. Granted, I had seen it rarely, and the larger chains like McDonald's had abolished it a decade+ ago. But on the occasions where I got stuff delivered with it, I felt kinda dirty.

There are quite a few schemes for reusable packaging for food delivery currently getting started. It's a concept that needs a certain amount of market penetration and concentration to work, but has the potential to make a significant contribution for private sector/household trash and energy use.

Isn't the cardboard 'lined' ?

And how much does it actually differ, plastic vs cardboard?

For the cardboard, the basic ingredient also has to be harvested, or won another way. Then it needs to be transformed into cardboard.

Cardboard dissolves in nature, plastic doesn't. It disposes of itself, for the most part.

Not most of the fluorinated cardboard used for food packaging. It takes a really long time to break down and releases a bunch of nasty stuff in the process.


I think for plastic it's important to note what the usage is. A plastic straw is much more likely than a meat package to end up in the wrong place. Because a meat pack is unpacked in a kitchen so probably 99.99% will end up in a garbage can. If just 1 straw of 100 ends up in a river that's much worse.

(This is assuming the problem with plastic is direct pollution and not CO2)

> they wrap it in paper instead of plastic. It's the little things you can do.

Yet you still eat meat. It’s fucking appalling how easy it is to placate ourselves by rearranging the deck chairs on the Titanic.

When given an option between blaming the individual and blaming multinational corporations, I tend to blame the latter

Idk, I don’t think it matters who we blame. The problem isn’t the multinational corporations that do this, it’s the system that lets them. We need a better system.

Which is the system at fault here? Capitalism?

Captialism (as implemented in many Western countries) can deal with these things, it just doesn't by default. We successfully solved ozone depletion, we made significant progress with acid rain, we got rid of leaded gasoline, our rivers are reasonably clean, ...

Reasonable legislation that sets the right incentives works. But it's difficult to get passed when entrenched interests are against it. The problem isn't capitalism, the problem is the industry influence on politics that prevents reasonable legislation.

I don't think he intended for it to be named. It's just a system. E.g., The system that lets companies pump water out of aquifers from states in drought and sell it back to people marked up 1000x while seeding misinformation that all tap water is evil. That's the system that is at fault: the deliberate exploitation of both consumers and natural resources for extreme wealth.

Capitalism is just an idea. The actually existing system is a complex self-contradicting hydra that is hard to describe. But yes as another commenter said it comes down to governance. How do we as people want to govern human action? I am way more in favor of decentralized governance. I’d say that a lot of our problems come from having a powerful centralized government that can be influenced by the wealthy. That’s not “capitalism” in a libertarian sense at all. It’s more like an oligarchy in practice. Tho many tend to refer to our system as capitalism, which can lead us down all manner of arguments over terminology. What I really care about is power and how it is distributed. I believe in more directly democratic systems. I think oligarchy tends to lead to problems like plastic waste because the wealthy rulers can basically insulate themselves from any problems they cause, while the rest of us have the choice of buying plastic trash or spending more resources to avoid plastic. The third option of zero waste grocery stores (food as one example) could lead to a life without extra burden on the more conscious consumers and without excess plastic trash. These are common in some other countries, but a country flooded by the plastic producers’ public relations machine, US consumers are all to happy to buy more and more plastic trash. A big question on my mind lately is why we allow public relations to manipulate us in to believing these falsehoods. We’ve surrounded ourselves with megaphones of corporate endorsed pseudoscience, as happened with disposable plastics. Sociologists know public relations works, but we’ve allowed the public relations industry to convince us it’s benign. I think we need to think hard about who that industry serves.

By the way, Noam Chomsky uses the phrase “really existing capitalism today” to talk about the system we’ve ended up with.


"Economic system based on private ownership of the means of production and the creation of goods or services for profit" no not capitalism, governance.

Not sure that presenting a definition of capitalism gets it off the hook here.

When you don't have a remote third party (the capitalist) involved in your transactions, things are simpler.

You can just ask: is the person I'm doing business with creating more problems than they solve? And then not do business with them if the answer is yes.

If you acknowledge property rights that justify the involvement of capitalists in your transaction, you now have to also ask the same question of them and weigh those answers against the first. It's much harder to figure out who's agenda you're furthering with your money--so most people just don't bother. Both parties blame this abstraction that hangs over their business and neither takes responsibility for its consequences.

The invisible hand ends up being a scapegoat and nothing changes.

Yeah everyone does, which is why those big oil companies are causing global warming but not me.

You can't cause any real harm to nature without help from corps. But they can, by just setting up an oil drill leaking into the ocean.

They would drill for oil nobody wants? I don’t buy that. It’s a two way transaction between supply and demand.

You're greatly underestimating what people can manage on their own. Even ancient peoples managed plenty of harm to nature. Deforested whole regions, wiped out species, damaged farmland with irrigation, etc.

Now there are vastly more of us, and we have a lot better tools to do damage with.

But they wouldn't be setting up oil drills if there wasn't consumer demand.

Well, you didn’t wage a massive climate change denial / disinformation campaign for decades, did you?

I don’t have any options with regard to how I get to and from work nor how I hear and cool my home.

Is that directly your fault, or am I right to place a fair chunk of the blame on the source of that denial?

In this case, it’s the secret third option; the state. This problem can only be solved by regulation; no market force is going to make it go away.

No single raindrop believes it is to be blamed for the flood

This analogy highlights where the problem lies.

Floods are prevented, or mitigated, not by single raindrops, but by chaotic systems on a much larger scale, and / or infrastructure projects raindrops have little to no ability to action.

Humans need leaders to rally behind, and what we’ve had for too long, and likely will have for longer still, is wet dishcloths masquerading as leaders.

You're not given the option, though.

I also love the 'But you can 'vote' with your dollar!' crowd

We have glass bottles, we have compostable plastic, a company is not incentivized to lose profit by switching to more expensive alternatives until it becomes illegal to not do so and they have more lobbying power than any of us.

I think we'll have to give up particular niceties about how we package things in the western world if we're to generate less trash, but it would come at the cost of removing illusions from the way we market products.

Have you been to less developed countries? They just simply do not package some products. It removes a lot of the allure of buying particular things, but also generates less trash.

Here's a simple example: utensils. In some countries, you just buy the utensil. In America, you buy a box with utensils in them, sometimes with a plastic shell, sometimes with paper wrapping inside of the box. But without the box, it feels like you're buying them from the dollar store no matter how nice the actual spoons and knives are, which commands less of a price mark up.

Totally agree, i moved from a developing country (India) to a developed country (Germany) and the amount of waste me and my partner generate in the latter is around 10x.

In India, we would buy produce without any packaging, you would pay by weight. Whereas in Germany, fruits, vegetables and even fresh leaves come pre packed in plastic. I know Germany has better recycling but the amount of plastic is crazy. Quite the shock for us.

Except it doesnt? Neary all stores in the country (Edeka group + Aldi Nord and Süd) have the option to just grab fresh produce from some kind of box, weight it and pay for the specific amount at checkout. If you're only buying packaged stuff thats because you find it more convenient, not because unpackaged isnt availabe.

There are plenty of fresh produce items only available wrapped in plastic. Fresh herbs for example, and certain fruits, like berries etc. Either way, I'd say that more produce is sold packed in plastic than not, at least in my local stores.

Counterpoint: in Thailand, I was surprised to see the sheer amount of single use plastic. Tiny plastic bags put inside larger plastic bags. Individually wrapped candies put inside larger bags. And of course the usual plastic sleeves around all utensils.

I’m sorry but which German grocery store (I’m already assuming it’s not the farmer’s market) do you go to that has vegetables wrapped in plastics?

The developing world has cheap communal kitchens, and so cooking at home is optional.

In my country (Ukraine) its cheaper to go to a restaurant for 'business lunch' which is soup, potatoes+vegetables+meat, and juice, for $3.35.

As a single guy I can't cook that cheaply at home, which is not surprising when I am buying small portions with a huge amount of packaging around them.

Its really a shame that this concept is not more broadly applied in the West, and that restaurant food has sales tax attached to it whilst grocery food usually doesn't. We could reduce food and packaging waste if we taxed communal kitchens at 0% and shifted more people to eating inside them.

Moved from the US to Iceland. I thought plastic waste was bad before I got here, until I went to the meat and produce sections of the grocery store here.

This might be the case, I don't necessarily dispute it. But with this sort of thing always keep in mind that the US (and other Western countries) tend to be more compliant with reporting actual facts than say.... China (who somehow is ranked 107 in the world for covid-19 cases, despite their huge population).

> China (who somehow is ranked 107 in the world for covid-19 cases, despite their huge population).

I’m always a little surprised that people are so quick to jump to conspiracy here. China is an authoritarian country with recent prior experience of dealing with epidemics, which took extremely aggressive measures against covid, some of which would not fly in a democratic country. You’d _expect_ it to have a low rate.

Would you also assume Australia’s lying about this? Up until a month ago it followed a pretty similar pattern to China, based on somewhat less aggressive tactics.

You might be right, I don't argue against your theory. Do you believe China is motivated to accurately keep and report numbers on cases and deaths?

About as much as any other country; that is, quite a bit, because there’s little obvious gain from downplaying it, and if it came out that they were downplaying it that could cause internal anxiety and strife. Like, no-one is handing out large cash prizes for “least covid-y country”; there just aren’t great incentives to lie.

And again, China has taken extremely aggressive, and very disruptive and expensive, measures on covid where it has shown up, some of which people wouldn’t put up with in democratic countries. It also has a respectable though not world-beating vaccination rate (a little higher than the US and the EU average), and encountered Delta pretty late (in the last week or so). You’d expect good performance based on this.

That said, it may not last; it does look like the Delta cat is now out of the bag, and experience elsewhere has been that suppression measures that are good enough for Alpha aren’t good enough for Delta (see Australia).

I wouldn’t in general trust China’s government much, but the incentives to lie here just don’t seem like they’re there, and their approach to managing covid seems like it should work, on paper.

> [...] there’s little obvious gain from downplaying it

Of course there is. It is to display competency for domestic audiences. A lot of autocracies didn't have a problem with COVID officially. I agree that it is a bad measurement though.


Not arguing your point but I think a fair amount of that likely inaccuracy comes from lack of infrastructure / a large amount of rural communities. I'd guess there's some intention there (for misreporting) but I doubt that's the entirety of the issue

China gets zero benefit of any doubt.

Communist leaders starve millions of their own people, and capitalist leaders starve millions of people in countries that they exploit, but I don't think that the overall death count is especially off balance.

For instance: https://www.aljazeera.com/news/2019/4/1/churchills-policies-...

Nice copium. Who should I trust, my family and friends in China who never heard of anyone getting COVID? or the western press who can't cope with their own failure?

Why would you hear of people getting covid if the government is suppressing it? They would have just heard of people getting the flu or having allergies.

But of course, a conspiracy theory involving hundreds of thousands doctors makes perfect sense, right? :-D

They don’t need to be involved. Just blocked from access to simple testing.

Or the Chinese press who never reports anyone getting covid

My wife and I were just talking about this this morning. There is just so much "disposable" plastic. I'm willing to pay more for non-disposable containers, but a great many people prefer the lower point of sale price, and so market forces move towards "cheaper" plastics. Education coupled with legislation is the only way that I can imagine this getting any better

> The U.S. also ranks as high as third among coastal nations for contributing litter, illegally dumped trash and other mismanaged waste to its shorelines.

I can't access the paper, but can anyone verify: Do I understand correctly that this means the US might be as high as third in terms of contributing trash that ends up on the US's coastline?

I see this as a bigger issue than the use of plastic as a whole. If you properly dispose of it (modern trash burning facility and recycling) , it wouldn't be such a huge environmental issue. Open landfills are a disaster.

The government should focus on proper disposal laws. Banning plastic bags at the grocery store is a bandaid on a blood gushing wound.

I think you misread it. I believe they mean that among the coastal nations, the US ranks 3rd in terms of polluting its own coastline. I also don’t have access to the paper, but the number 2 coastal nation then pollutes its own coastline worse than the US.

The US also has a higher GDP than any other nation. I don't think this is a coincidence.

The biggest issue for me is I can't really buy anything without buying a ton of plastic with it. Want to buy anything on the Internet? It is most likely going to be wrapped in a ton of foil, bubble wrap and that additional to its own packaging.

Does anyone know what it would look like for the US to stop using single use plastics?

Always thought it would be a cool thing for us to try, but can’t quite figure out how practical that really is

In practice we don't really have replacements for a lot of things "single use plastic" is used for. Sterilized medical equipment, storage and distribution of prepared food products for people with disabilities, and probably a myriad of other minor uses that don't get a lot of attention just don't have practical alternatives without making life untenable for a lot of people.

So I don't think there's a world in which we just stop using them cold turkey. At least not a compassionate one. A lot of research and effort needs to go into finding alternatives for these things, but the structure of our society doesn't really incentivize that.

> Sterilized medical equipment, storage and distribution of prepared food products for people with disabilities, and probably a myriad of other minor uses

You're right, there's not single-use material that compares. However, there are plenty of reusable sterilizable materials, like steel, aluminum, rubber, and glass.

We just need to stop being so ready to throw things in the trash and actually think about the backend logistics of bringing containers back and reusing them.

This isn't a materials problem. It's a efficiency/cost problem.

Just look at the Pfand system for glass bottles in Germany. 2 basic beer bottles, different labels. Reused dozens of times. Deposit system.

I think this makes some sense for food storage at least, esp. wrt aluminum and glass (though it creates a burden on people who often can't physically afford it). It gets a lot harder for medical stuff where individual things need to be in sterile packaging until point of use. We're not gonna be individually packaging needles in glass for diabetics to use, for eg. The logistics of that are staggering, and the cost would be very high, yet the economies of scale are not there for it.

That argument feels a little disingenuous. Like when people drive a big truck every day because once per summer they haul a boat.

We can eliminate or at least improve a lot of single use plastics outside medicine and people with special needs.

At my local farmer’s market, for example, all prepared food from food trucks and stands comes in unlined cardboard containers. When you’re done, you throw it in compost because cardboard is compostable. Works great and disadvantages nobody.

You still get plastic cutlery but it says to be made of compostable plastic. I don’t know how well compostable plastic works but I sure hope it does.

My understanding is that most things marketed as "compostable plastic" are only really compostable under extremely specific circumstances and that it's mostly a marketing stunt. And that can be done at the farmer's market because things don't need to be in those containers for very long. Scaling isn't just a thing for computers, it's also a thing for distribution chains.

Anyways the difference between these two arguments is that people use these things to increase the odds of their survival. No one (approximately) hauls a boat for their survival.

And the really sad frustrating truth is that literally the only way to make a lot of these things that do genuinely help people survive economically worthwhile is to make them useful to everyone else too. That's why, as an oft-cited example, pre-cut veggies at your grocery store are simultaneously essential for some people and incredibly wasteful for others.

This is the faustian bargain capitalism forces us to make.

> That argument feels a little disingenuous. Like when people drive a big truck every day because once per summer they haul a boat.

Eh, they also choose big trucks so they'll win in a crash. Remember, safety ratings/requirements for cars are based on collisions with similar cars. If you're in a Fit or Golf or Mini and the other guy's in an F-150 or Tahoe, you're in big trouble.

The solution's probably some form of graduated weight-based tax. Makes sense both on a safety-externalities basis and on a damage-to-the-road basis (which doesn't scale linearly with weight, so the first ton is way less damaging than the second ton, and so on).

> Eh, they also choose big trucks so they'll win in a crash

Eh this is where it gets really complicated. I used to be a car crash enthusiast as a kid (crash science, not crashing myself). The main thing I learned is that big cars are ridiculously unsafe. Especially american big cars.

Long stopping distance, lots of inertia, bad on the moose test, ridiculous amounts of energy to dissipate/absorb in a crash. Terrible.

Give me a Fiat 500 any day.

Anyway, the best thing you can do for crash survivability is to ensure you’re never driving a car that’s more than 5 years old. The engineering advances fast and a modern small car colliding with a 10 year old big car will absolutely destroy the big car. Use it as a crumple zone.

Oh, agreed on small cars being much more nimble and so maybe more safe in practice. I am 100% sure that a lot of SUV and truck buyers are doing so because they perceive them as "winners" in crashes, though. Some also, and relatedly, like the better visibility (but what's that doing to everyone else's visibility? Oh well, who cares).

Source: they'll just tell you, it's not a secret.

(yes, of course, some people actually use trucks enough for real truck-things that it makes some sense for them to own one, I'm not denying that such folks exist, and there are even quite a few of them—there are also plenty of Suburban Commandos, though, and lots of them are women who, again, will tell you that one reason they want a giant car is for perceived safety, so not just your usual "compensating for something" sorts)

Ah if your argument was about what they say not what’s real, then yes I agree. My girlfriend says the same thing and refuses to believe me when I present engineering evidence.

Luckily we don’t need a car so it’s merely a theoretical debate.

Yeah, "will 'win' if a crash occurs" is very different from "likelihood of death or serious injury while driving this vehicle", though the former is (AFAIK) a lot easier to get stats on. I definitely feel safer, as in less likely to get into a wreck, in a smaller, more nimble car, personally.

Desire to be the crusher rather than the crushee is definitely a reason I've been repeatedly given by people—men and women alike—for why they prefer huge vehicles, though. Enough times that I'd stand by that being a significant motivation for people actually buying them, as far as (partially, but significantly) explaining the level of huge-vehicle sales, whether or not it's rational (I really don't know for sure).

This is known as active and passive safety in car engineering.

Active safety talks about how (un)likely the car is to get into a crash. Visibility, brakes, grip, driver assists play a major role.

Passive safety talks about thr survivability of a crash once it happens. Passenger cell, crumple zones, seat belts, airbags, etc.

Most crashes (iirc) are single-vehicle incidents. Amount of energy involved is the biggest factor here.

You’re more likely to survive crashing a small car into a tree than a big car … with some fudginess around a bigger car having more ability to absorb the energy. I think it usually about cancels out.

Most deadly crashes between cars are t-bones in an intersection because of people chasing yellow lights. You are more likely to die in a big car because of rollovers.

Sideways crumple zones are very small in all car sizes.

I haven’t kept up with the science the past 10 to 15 years but this stuff was a big interest of mine for about a decade. Can nerd out for days :)

tldr: please don’t chase yellow lights. It’s among the deadliest common behaviors.

Bonus funfact: Large vehicles are safer for pedestrians because they spread the load across more of the human body when you hit them. That’s why all modern cars have tall flat noses.

So just add a significant tax for plastic usage, reflecting an actual damage to environment? All use cases where it's still necessary will still be able to do so, while price-cutters will switch to alternatives.

Everything would get a little more expensive, basically. It's used because it saves money, same as everything else.

Similar to cheap but non-repairable or non-reusable stuff in general. How do we get rid of it? The answers amount to making stuff more expensive, or making labor cheaper, or some combination of the two.

The original article, not linked from NG, appears to be "The United States’ contribution of plastic waste to land and ocean", available at https://advances.sciencemag.org/content/6/44/eabd0288

Plastic is probably also the reason for our decline in birthrates. Before you say societal changes are responsible for it; we’ve accounted for it and even without those changes, we’d still have birthdate declines.

There's some research on low testosterone caused by plastic materials. I heard of doctors being able to detect plastic in a baby's blood stream.

I think the reason this is not as public as it should be, is that males are sensitive when it comes to the "mannliness hormone", Testosterone. Thus, there's probably a high number of unreported cases.

Some symptoms are lower sex drive and libido.

I imagine this has gotten worse with covid, people ordering food for take-away or shopping online. For what it's worth, I tried the idea of ordering from the restaurant online but then bringing my own (re-usable, washable) tupperware to pick up the food, and it certainly worked out. If you ask, you often get what you want. If the place is not willing to help you reduce your plastic footprint, then maybe it's one place to skip.

How about re-framing the problem?


Reclamation and recycling technology will improve over time. Similarly the economics of processing recycled material are likely to make it more valuable.


Supposing we can protect the surroundings, water table etc.


Supposing, as other comments have pointed out, the availability of land is not really an issue.


Is it crazy to think that there is value to be found in safely storing this material until it is more feasible / valuable to process?

At least it seems like a better plan than incinerating it.

Right, but while raw generated plastic trash is meaningful on a long-term scale, what's far more relevant is how much is getting washed into the ocean or environment, and the US does not lead there by a long shot.

Plastic securely sequestered in a landfill isn't a medium-term concern and I'm optimistic that future recycling or sequestration technologies will help obviate that problem before it becomes acute.

I am also interested in which country pours most plastic trash into the ocean. I am sure no one is working on this.

Are all plastics equal harm?

I wonder if we just legislated taxes on plastics that local recycling centers can't utilize, if we could get the majority of the benefit of banning plastics with few of the downsides?

To what extent would greater standardization of plastics mitigate this issue (and make recycling more profitable)?

Even plastic the ends up in a properly built American landfill is certainly much less harmful than plastic dumped into the river in a third world country. To the point where the comparison itself becomes a little bit ludicrous.

Considering it takes so much less fossil fuels to make plastic containers than to many alternatives, shouldn't we focus on proper disposal in poor countries and otherwise move on to much more pressing environmental concerns, like I don't know, climate change?

Despite the hysteria most commonly used plastics are harmless. The only things I can think of that may be harmful in some plastics are harmful on their own, for example lead which can be used as a plasticiser to soften PVC. Lead is toxic whether or not it is in plastic. Fortunately your PET soda bottle or PE grocciery bag does not contain lead for obvious reasons.

Some other compounds like phthlates may have negative endocrine effects but I believe this is far from resolved.

"Microplastics" to the extent they exist in meaningful concentrations are not anything like asbestos fibers (this is known) which cause mechanical damage to cell structures by their needle like shapes. Rather microplastics are akin to small sand particles. Inert dust. The very reason that plastics do not decompose makes most of them safe to life unless absurdly high concentrations of very small particles are present in which case sand or silt dust would be comparable.

The mass hysteria about "plastics" in just shows how easily human emotions can be manipulated.

Sure, plastic bags floating in the ocean may look like jelly fish sea turtles. This is why we shouldn't throw plastic bags in the ocean. Maybe bags should be made more dense than sea water so if they do end up in the ocean they sink.

Otherwise the solution to the plastics "problem" is really simple: burn it, recycle it or bury it in the ground.

The last option has the added benefit of potentially serving as a long term carbon sink.

I could envision a world where solar power or bioengineered plants perhaps are used to pull CO2 from the atmosphere and lock it up in something useful and stable like polyethylene, which could be used or just burried in shallow pits removing CO2 from circulation for centuries or thousands of years.

A lot of plastic packaging waste on US products originates in China where the products are manufactured (display bubble packs etc). Import legislation would help a lot to reduce this

From a consumer's point of view, what choice do we have? All it takes is a trip to Costco. Everything is wrapped in plastic. Yet, they have the cheapest prices.

Plastic waste should just be landfilled if it can't be safely recycled. Who cares if some additional feedstock is required to make fresh plastic?

The U.S problems with single use plastics aren't on the consumer.

The river systems in Asia responsible for the vast majority of marine trash more so are.

As long as we can keep plastic waste out of the environment, does it really matter?

Is that a sensible phrase? The environment is everywhere.

Yes, as long as the plastic ends up in a proper landfill, it won't cause harm to the environment. In places with good waste management practices, like the U.S., nearly all plastic trash ends up in a landfill. As a result, the U.S. is responsible for only ~0.25% of plastic in the ocean [1].

To put this in perspective, if you got the Philippines to reduce the amount of plastic it sends to the ocean by just 1%, it would have a larger impact on ocean plastic than completely eliminating plastic in the U.S.

[1] https://ourworldindata.org/ocean-plastics

> In places with good waste management practices, like the U.S., nearly all plastic trash ends up in a landfill.

This is not true, see [1].

> As a result, the U.S. is responsible for only ~0.25% of plastic in the ocean.

This is also not true, and your link does not say that. The link is saying that the rivers in the USA are carrying 0.25% of the plastic that ends up in the ocean, the U.S. (as in, the people living in the US) are responsible for much, much more.

Recycling plastic is a mess, so instead of dealing with it, countries like the U.S. or Canada have decided to ship it across the world to countries like the Philippines to be "recycled" over there (see [2]). So now, of course, if you look at where the plastic enters the ocean, you will see that almost all of it happens in Asian countries, that's not because they use more plastic, that's just because that's where all the plastic of the world ends up.

Taking into account the origin of the platic, the U.S. is among the worst offenders:

> "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." [1]

[1]: https://advances.sciencemag.org/content/6/44/eabd0288


To add to this, landfills have a bad reputation but are actually a pretty good solution to trash when operated well. By concentrating waste in a single place and sealing it in hermetically (with constant nearby environmental monitoring), it doesn't end up strewn everywhere.

Also when it becomes economical to recycle parts it in the future, we don't have to go hunting around for it, we can just dig it up and process it in-place or nearby.


Landfills aren’t everywhere.

Why not not focus on building more and better landfills then? Seems like a better solution that shipping trash long distances to other countries only to have it end up in the ocean.

We don’t ship our “trash”, distinguished from our recycling, to other countries.

Nah, the vast majority is trash to begin with or ends up as trash. Only a fraction ends up recycled.

Plastic bags don’t go in the recycling, they go in the trash bin.

It's not a matter of any one thing, the vast majority of "recycling" is trash to begin with, or ends as trash without being recycled.

That’s the goal. You want them to end up as trash. It’s not cost effective to recycle it, and if it were, that would lower costs and create more pollution.

But the giant pacific garbage patch, and any island beach not maintained regularly will clearly tell you plastics end up in the ocean regardless.

I think the only solution is global legislation forcing consumers and businesses to use alternatives.

> the giant pacific garbage patch

Q: Do we know where the plastics in the pacific garbage patch actually come from?

Last I heard, the overwhelming majority of the plastic in the ocean comes from three or four rivers, none of which flow through OECD states.

[EDIT] which is not to say that the plastic was not used and discarded in an OECD state, then shipped elsewhere for "disposal" (LOL).

Even if a lot of garbage can be traced to Asian countries (that might be because of currents into the pacific) there is still a massive problem with plastic elsewhere.

For example in a documentary with Simon Reeve where he tours the mediterranean he visits a conservation center for sea turtles. The staff there show him a bunch of plastic found inside the stomachs of two of their rescues and among the plastic found was a pasta wrapper.

So I think the type of plastic in the worlds oceans is completely dependent on how streams communicate into the ocean.

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