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Banning plastic straws and other acts of environmental suicide

By Eric Claus - posted Wednesday, 20 June 2018


There is a general feeling among supporters of Environmental Legislation and advocates of "Green" policies in general, that anything done to reduce pollution or reduce impacts on the natural environment, regardless of other costs and impacts, is a good thing. This feeling is endorsed with statements like the one below by Woolworths when they announced they would not be selling plastic straws anymore.

"Today's initiatives represent further small, but important, steps in our commitment to make positive change happen. We understand the journey towards a more sustainable future has its challenges, but together with our customers and industry partners we are committed to moving our business, our country and our planet towards a greener future."

Nothing about this statement is overtly false and Woolworths doesn't feel the need to answer the question "What good is this going to do?" because nobody is asking that question.

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Four other articles (links below) appeared in recent weeks regarding solutions to the problem of plastics in the ocean and not one answered the question "What good is this going to do?" The likely reason is that there is a general consensus that anything that reduces pollution, regardless of other impacts, must be good.

The specifics about how the new legislation or new policy will actually help solve a specifically identified problem are usually just implied, rather than quantified. It's all about what the customer wants and if the customer wants meaningless gestures, customer focussed businesses like Woolworths are ready to jump in with as many meaningless gestures as the customer wants.

Another general feeling that is at least as widely held by the broader community, is that most environmental legislation is "a waste of time and money," or by some less generous souls, "a total wank."

Banning plastic straws in Australia could be rock solid evidence that the "total wank" crowd has it exactly right. Using the figures developed by Denise Hardesty and Chris Wilcox plastic straws make up about 0.003% of the total quantity of plastic waste that might potentially get in to the oceans. To get a feel for how small this percentage is, if you went to your doctor and said you thought you were 0.003% overweight and you wanted to do something about it he could tell you to eat one less apple PER YEAR and that would solve the problem. Similarly if you told your financial advisor that you were spending 0.003% more than you wanted to, she could tell you that as long as you buy one less apple PER YEAR you will be back on your spending budget.

But wait it gets better. Most of the plastic waste entering our oceans doesn't come from Australia (where waste management systems are good) it comes from Asia (where many waste management programs are horrendous), so the ban on straws is even more useless.

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The June 2018 National Geographic highlights this futility:

"Let's say you recycle 100 percent in all of North America and Europe," says Ramani Narayan, a chemical engineering professor at Michigan State University who also works in his native India. "You still would not make a dent on the plastics released into the oceans. If you want to do something about this, you have to go there, to these countries, and deal with the mismanaged waste."

In the same National Geographic article:

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About the Author

Eric Claus has worked in civil and environmental engineering for over 20 years.

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