A little over a week ago Malibu California became the latest area to ban single use plastic straws. Seattle Washington, Fort Myers Florida, and other coastal California cities have also banned, and there is a bill moving through the Hawaii state legislature to ban them state wide. Testimony supporting these measures is often filled with impassioned pleas about sea turtles and plastic waste in the ocean. These are valid concerns; sea turtles and other marine life can be harmed and killed by plastic straws and other plastic debris. There is estimated to be over 250,000 tons of plastic floating around the ocean right now, some of which is plastic straws.
The arguments currently being used to fight for straw bans were also used in the wave of single use plastic bag bans that have been implemented in various places over the last couple years. And these arguments will be used again in the coming bans on plastic bottles that have just started cropping up and seem likely to become more popular in the near future.
Regional piecemeal single product bans are the new conscientious consumerism; they may make people feel better and may even make a miniscule dent in the problem, but they are not realistically going to fix waste and pollution problems. Actual solutions will require systematic national and even global shifts in the very idea of waste, and then large scale changes in policy, infrastructure, and human behavior.
For instance, some of the plastic used in the U.S. is made out of petroleum, that’s oil, the stuff that American service men and women are sent to the Middle East to fight and die for. It seems wildly illogical to turn that commodity into something that will be used by a consumer for a few minutes and then bury it in a landfill, especially when plastic can be recycled or even incinerated to create power. It’s possible to create a waste management system where no petroleum products become “trash” but rather are reused, recycled, or turned into energy, and where petroleum products are manufactured specifically with these ends in mind. Same goes for things like paper based products, natural and synthetic fabrics, food scraps, and basically any other kind of waste.
Food waste and other biodegradable items also have the handy option of being compostable, if municipalities build commercial compost facilities. These could not only handle food waste and other normally composted products but could accommodate some of the new plant based plastics which will break down in specially designed composting facilities. Beyond just keeping waste from taking up landfill space, composting facilities also create soil which is a valuable resource in itself.
Of course all this is only possible if people are willing to make significant behavioral and policy changes, and sizable financial investments, which a lot of people are not going to want to do. For those who are even interested in making things better it’s much easier to work to try and pass a straw ban, bag ban, or a bottle ban, and these do have some benefits. But they are not going stop all the plastic that isn’t straws and bags and bottles that’s also going into the ocean. Unfortunately, sea turtles dying from eating plastic is not going to compel the kind of massive change that’s needed. Even the fact that when people eat seafood now they are also eating plastic with it may not be enough to force change. But the fact of the matter is that petroleum is a finite resource, the ocean is a finite resource, and landfill space is a finite resource, so eventually there is going to be the last straw.