[UPDATED] Single-Use Plastic And Why Nine Out of Ten Statistics are Wrong

    This one is surging — or, I should say, re-surging, since it’s not at all new — and you will watch it go stratospheric.

    You will also watch the Texas-sized exaggerations and outright prevarications spread across the globe with pretty much the exact same speed as legal bans on single-use plastic.

    Here Dr. Tom Hartsfield, physicist and associate Editor at RealClearScience, mathematically debunks the often-repeated claim about Texas-sized islands of garbage in the Pacific:

    First, we can do a quick feasibility calculation. The mass of polyethylene terephthalate (PET), the plastic from which most water bottles are made, required to create a two-Texas-sized island just one foot thick is 9 trillion pounds. That’s 15 times more than the world’s annual production of plastic. Even if a year’s worth of the world’s spent plastic bottles could be airlifted out over the ocean and directly dropped in one spot, this island could not be made.

    So, here are the facts. Much of the ocean contains little to no plastic at all. In the smaller ocean gyres, there is roughly one bottle cap of plastic per 50 Olympic swimming pools’ worth of water. In the worst spot on earth, there is about two plastic caps’ worth of plastic per swimming pool of ocean. The majority of the plastic is ground into tiny grains or small thin films, interspersed with occasional fishing debris such as monofilament line or netting. Nothing remotely like a large island exists. Clearly, the scale and magnitude of this problem is vastly exaggerated by environmental groups and media reports [source].)

    You may or may not know, as well, that the debate-driving statistic that Americans use “500 million plastic straws a day” was the product of a nine-year-old’s guesstimations, and the truth behind this “wild lie” is morbidly fascinating.

    Reason Magazine has listed several major media outlets explicitly perpetuating this particular lie:


    The Washington Post




    Al Jazeera

    National Geographic

    The Guardian

    The Independent (UK)

    Seattle Weekly

    San Francisco Chronicle

    The Sacramento Bee

    The Los Angeles Times


    Canadian Broadcasting Corporation

    And activist groups also promoting the claim:

    The Lonely Whale Foundation

    The Plastic Pollution Coalition

    The Sierra Club

    The National Park Service has also touted it.

    So has California Assemblyman Ian Calderon.

    It’s also in the text of a Hawaii bill that would ban the distribution of plastic straws in the state.

    If you’ve ever wondered how a propaganda campaign begins and then surges across the world, you’re watching it in real-time with single-use plastic.

    Keep watching.

    It is instructive.

    Watch how people, whether in real life or on social media or both, who didn’t really think about the issue one way or another before, are suddenly perfervid — though they know little of the actual data but a lot of the major media talking-points.

    As David M. Perry, whose son has Down syndrome and relies on straws, recently wrote for Pacific Standard Magazine:

    The oddly singular focus on straws may date back to a a viral 2015 video of a sea turtle with a bloody plastic straw embedded in its nose. The video is horrific. But again, scholars have not identified straws as a particularly grave threat to marine wildlife.

    (Michaela Hollywood, who has muscular dystrophy, also wrote an article for The Huffington Post titled “Straws Save Lives Like Mine — Don’t Ban Them!”)

    None of which is to diminish the problem of pollution but only to present the actual facts and, most importantly, possible solutions.

    Quoting microbial oceanographer Dr. Angelicque White, professor at Oregon State University, after a 2011 expedition to the mythical “Great Pacific Garbage Patch,” which lies between California and Japan:

    You might see a piece of Styrofoam or a bit of fishing line float by at random intervals after hours or 20 minutes…. There are not floating towers of milk jugs, toilet seats and rubber duckies swirling in the middle of the ocean. The majority of plastic in the sea consists of confetti-like specks that are spread out widely and nearly impossible to see with the naked eye.

    The nonprofit The Ocean Cleanup has taken perhaps the closest look at the problem and how to solve it.

    Recently, they produced the most comprehensive assessment of the problem ever, which they detail in the 5 March 2018 issue of Scientific Reports — and here is where it gets very real and very interesting — and I ask you to ask yourself why this isn’t commonly reported:

    The Ocean Cleanup study estimates that “up to 20 percent of ocean garbage mass resulted from the 2011 Tohoku tsunami,” which indeed pushed an enormous amount of trash out to sea.

    Also, the primary items were not plastic straws, plastic cups, or plastic bags — not even close.

    “In The Ocean Cleanup’s Pacific patch sample, 46 percent was fish nets. When combined with ropes and lines, it amounted to 52 percent of the trash. The rest included hard plastics ranging from large plastic crates and bottle caps to small fragments referred to as microplastics, which comprise 8 percent of the mass. Obviously, this is not simply a consumer waste issue…. Some of the waste, such as food packaging, included written material that indicated a significant portion came from Asia. Of these, 30 percent were written in Japanese and 30.8 percent were in Chinese.”


    I modestly suggest we ban fishnets and rope and bottlecaps, before we ban plastic straws and plastic bags.

    Incidentally, I once briefly worked in recycling, and recycling, if you don’t know, is a thoroughly industrial process.

    Other studies indeed confirm that Asia is a very substantial source of ocean pollution:

    China and 11 other Asian nations are responsible for 77 percent to 83 percent of plastic waste entering the oceans because of their poor disposal practices. A 2017 Environmental Sciences & Technology study reported that up to 95 percent of plastic waste enters oceans from one of 10 rivers — eight in Asia and two in Africa….

    Of course, other nations should do their best to reduce their contributions, no matter how small. The Science article placed the United States as 20th, but its contribution to ocean plastics was just about 1 percent, even though the United States is among the top plastic producers and consumers. Credit goes to modern waste management practices — landfilling, incineration or recycling — and litter control. (Ibid)

    The Ocean Cleanup, which is a good organization founded in 2013, says it’s “developed and can deploy cleanup technologies which could remove more than 50 percent of the waste from the Pacific patch within five years.”

    Technological problems require technological solutions.

    Another nonprofit called Keep America Beautiful (the weeping Native American man from the old television ads was theirs) has in America been among the foremost fighters of litter since 1953. And they’ve done well: their reports show that U.S. litter has declined by over sixty percent since 1969.

    Why do you not often hear that?

    I don’t know. Perhaps because it’s not sensationalistic enough or scary enough to make the uncritical masses think we’re on the very brink of destruction.

    Malia Blom Hill, a Hawaiian and policy director at the Grassroot Institute, recently wrote a decent article titled “State Legislatures Clutch at Plastic Straws” — which reads, in part:

    In the last few weeks, the internet has enjoyed a hearty laugh at a California bill that would ban the use of plastic straws and throw violators in jail. Sneaking under the radar, however, is a similar proposal from Hawaii. The Hawaii version is slightly less draconian, in that it requires fugitive straw users to pay only up to a $500 fine and do community service.

    It’s also closer to actual passage, having moved through the Senate Committee on Agriculture and Environment with three “aye” votes and none opposed.

    The testimony in favor of the straw bill was focused primarily on the environmental impact of straws. People unfamiliar with Hawaii might be led to believe that the streets and beaches of our islands are littered with plastic straws. I assure you that is not the case….

    Advocates for the disabled have commented that a plastic straw ban would be especially difficult for those with special needs. But why let a little practicality interfere with the warm glow that comes from legislating environmental morality?

    The real problem here is not the straw bill. Every year, the Hawaii legislature has at least one proposal that is driven more by emotion and political trends than hard facts and research. The problem can be found in lawmakers who can’t pass a poster in the corner Starbucks without thinking, “There ought to be a law….”


    In a counterpoint to this article, one of the commenters, who, though I don’t actually know, did not strike me as particularly partisan either way, put it well:

    Every article I read on this subject seems to leave out the actual problem to ocean pollution. It’s no[t] manufacturing less plastic and its not consumers using less plastic. It’s people (and businesses) who litter. Indeed, the vast majority of this littering comes from a few so-called ‘underdeveloped’ countries…. I grow weary of the constant barrage of blaming plastic manufacturers for this dilemma. Plastic applications continue to provide useful and economically beneficial products to citizens of all countries and employs millions worldwide. I do not wish to diminish the impact of any possible impact upon the environment, but keep in mind that there is a growing plastic recycling industry and it seems that there is a new innovation every day that will improve the sustainability of new polymers. Next time you contemplate plastic pollution in our oceans, remember how it got there.


    Reader, every single time you see a cause — whether right-wing or left — surging or re-surging, I implore you to ask yourself the following question first, last, and always:

    What will the proposed solutions do?

    Like smoking bans and CO2 bans and virtually all other legal prohibitions, banning single-use plastic and fining or jailing (!) people who use it will not address the problem — not remotely — and supporters and legislatures admit that openly. Until these groups and bureaus actually get serious about addressing problems — instead of all this feel-good talky-talky, which is ultimately meaningless but for all the gigantic and ever-growing bureaucracy it spawns — they cannot be taken seriously, nor should they be.

    “Let’s say you recycle 100 percent in all of North America and Europe,” Ramani Narayan, a chemical engineer at Michigan State, tells National Geographic. “You still would not make a dent on the plastics released into the oceans.”

    Why do it, then?

    Read more here:


    June 28th, 2018 | journalpulp | 9 Comments | Tags: , ,

About The Author

Ray Harvey

I was born and raised in the San Juan Mountains of southwestern Colorado. I've worked as a short-order cook, construction laborer, crab fisherman, janitor, bartender, pedi-cab driver, copyeditor, and more. I've written and ghostwritten several published books and articles, but no matter where I've gone or what I've done to earn my living, there's always been literature and learning at the core of my life.

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