What A Waste: The Truth About Plastics Pollution
Turtles, plastic bans, and waste management
So, you’ve probably heard that America has a problem with plastic.
You know what? Scratch that. We have multiple problems with plastic.
But the one that most directly affects you involves the kinds of products you use every day—things like straws, water bottles, or shopping bags.
Up until a few years ago, it didn’t seem like a very big deal. And then, suddenly...everything changed.
So what happened? Why did we all suddenly start worrying about something we had taken for granted for decades?
While we’ve known for a long time that there’s a problem with plastic waste winding up in the ocean, the tipping point came with a viral video that showed a sea turtle...having a plastic straw removed from its nose... with pliers. And...it’s just as terrible as it sounds.
Now, when people saw that video, they wanted to take action, and rightly so—because, when it comes to creatures that the human brain can’t bear to see in agony, turtles are right up there with puppies and Betty White. You watch this video, and you’d do anything to make the suffering of that innocent creature stop.
There’s good reason to be upset. About 11 million metric tons of plastic end up in the world’s oceans each year.i And it’s estimated to have negative effects on over 800 different species.ii So it didn’t seem unreasonable when people started making the argument that if Americans want less plastic in the ocean, they need to start banning plastic on land.
But, see, this is where we’ve got to be careful. Because “doesn’t seem unreasonable” isn’t the same thing as “is actually true.”
There’s a lot of misunderstanding about plastics, partially because in the initial rush to make things better, some of the sources we relied on to explain these things were a little...imprecise.
For instance, when the bans were first proposed, we were told that Americans use 500 million plastic straws a day—which is pretty remarkable for a country of 330 million people.
So where did that number come from? Well, from the National Park Service—and they obviously know what they’re talking about...except they got it from a recycling company, which probably knows what it’s talking about? Except the recycling company got it [deep sigh]... OK, they got it from a nine-year-old boy...who called some straw companies. iii
So how many straws do we use every year? Here’s the surprising answer: it doesn’t matter. Because here’s what we got wrong: The problem isn’t plastic waste itself—it’s how it’s disposed of.
You may have heard that the United States produces more plastic waste than any country in the world except China, and that’s true.iv But there’s a more important statistic there. Nearly 75% of China’s plastic waste is mismanaged, meaning it’s so poorly secured that it may end up in the ocean. The percentage in the U.S.? Less than 1%.v
America might be one of the world’s leaders in generating plastic waste, but we’re also one of the world’s leaders in not treating the planet like our dorm room.
[Don’t get too full of yourself. Your grandparents defeated the Nazis. You just successfully threw away some Funyuns.]
The real problem when it comes to plastics pollution is quite literally half a world away. Over 80% of the plastic waste in the ocean comes from Asia, where improperly disposed trash is often dumped into rivers that allow it to drift out to the ocean. In fact, nearly half of the plastic in our oceans comes from just two countries—the Philippines and India. vi
We could ban all plastics in the U.S.—not just bags and straws, but everything from Legos to traffic cones—and barely make a difference.
Now, here’s the catch. We’re not totally blameless here. If we really wanted to make a difference, one thing we could do is to stop exporting our trash to the countries causing the pollution.
For years, many of these countries made money by taking some of our waste for processing—meaning that, despite our positive track-record domestically, we were indirectly contributing to the problem overseas. The good news, however, is that we’ve already cut those exports by more than 2/3 in just the past five yearsvii—but we could still go further.
And we can help out at the individual level too, though the most effective method may surprise you. According to the government’s National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, the most valuable thing we can do...is clean up our local beaches.viii Because in a country that properly manages its waste, the biggest problem...is us, as individual litterers.
As for bans on plastic: not only do they not do much to solve the problem, they’re also riddled with unintended consequences.
Research has shown that consumers who can’t get plastic grocery bags just tend to buy more plastic trash bags.ix Substituting paper bags for plastic ones actually results in higher carbon emissions.x And if you ever try to drink a milkshake through a paper straw...you’re gonna break a rib.
Keeping plastics out of the ocean is an important goal—which is why we should focus our efforts on the approaches that are most likely to make a real difference.
The turtles will thank you.
And so will Betty White.
- Confronting Ocean Plastic Pollution — Pew Charitable Trusts
- Marine Debris: Understanding, Preventing, and Mitigating the Significant Adverse Impacts on Marine and Coastal Biodiversity — United Nations
- ”How a 9-Year-Old Boy's Statistic Shaped a Debate on Straws” — New York Times
- Plastic Pollution (Hannah Ritche and Max Roser) — Our World in Data
- Where Does the Plastic in Our Oceans Come From? (Hannah Ritche) — Our World in Data
- Exports of Scrap Plastic From the United States From 2015 to 2020 — Statista
- Garbage Patches Explained — National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration
- Bag 'Leakage': The Effect of Disposable Carryout Bag Regulations on Unregulated Bags (Rebecca L.C. Taylor) — SSRN
- Bag Leakage: The Effect of Disposable Carryout Bag Regulations on Unregulated Bags (Rebecca L.C. Taylor) — Journal of Environmental Economics and Management
SOUND | ARTLIST: “CONGA DISCO” (MATT STEWART-EVANS), “FLOATING POINT” (ROIE SHPIGLER) // MUSICBED: “LUCKY DAY - INSTRUMENTAL” (LOUIS II), “FALLING IN” (SHAWN WILLIAMS) // PREMIUM BEAT: “HONOLULU BOARDWALK” (HARPO MARKS) // PROSOUND EFFECTS: ODYSSEY COLLECTION, SONOPEDIA 2.0, SONOPEDIA 3.0
FOOTAGE | GETTY: CREATAS VIDEO, FIVEPOINTSIX, TAWATTIW, COMMANDOXPHOTO, DAVID LIVINGSTON // STRINGER, VLADZAKHAROV, CONSTANTINIS, PIOLA666, DKFIELDING, MIKROMAN6, SPIDERSTOCK, JAMROEN JAIMAN / EYEEM, VIDEOLOGIA, AUSVIDEO, JAMES R.D. SCOTT, KEVIN WINTER / STAFF, MD AMMAR ALAM / 500PX, VIDEOLOGIA, ANDRIY NEKRASOV, PLACEBO365, VIDEODIVE, PHAITOONS, UNDERWATERPICS, GINCLEARFILM, CINOBY, PHUUCHAAYHYBRID, OCEANFISHING, SONICBOX, JUSTIN LEWIS, CASPAR BENSON, EDDIE BRADY, DANIEL VIÑÉ GARCIA, PETER UNGER, JACOBS STOCK PHOTOGRAPHY LTD, PETER DAZELEY, JOSE LUIS PELAEZ, JOSEP GUTIERREZ - CAMERA CREW BARCELONA, SKY NEWS / FILM IMAGE PARTNER, GALITSKAYA, FLY_DRAGONFLY, OVERFLIGHTSTOCK LTD, ERLUCHO, MIKE KEMP / CONTRIBUTOR, NURPHOTO / CONTRIBUTOR, JAY DIRECTO / STRINGER, SCIENCE PHOTO LIBRARY, VLADWEL, BJOERN BREMER, BRIAN TO / CONTRIBUTOR // ABC LOCAL 22 // BBC // BUSINESS INSIDER // CBS NEW YORK // CBSDFW // GLOBAL NEWS // NBC NEWS // NEWS-PRESS // THE SEATTLE TIMES // RAWPIXEL: JUBJANG // UNSPLASH: SIGMUND // PARAMOUNT PICTURES // THE LEATHERBACK TRUST: CHRISTINE FIGGENER // KRDAN // NOAA MARINE DEBRIS PROGRAM // CITED SOURCES AND NEWS OUTLETS ARE NOT AFFILIATED WITH THIS PRODUCTION.
- Pew Charitable Trusts
Confronting Ocean Plastic Pollution
- United Nations
Marine Debris: Understanding, Preventing, and Mitigating the Significant Adverse Impacts on Marine and Coastal Biodiversity
- New York Times
"How a 9-Year-Old Boy's Statistic Shaped a Debate on Straws”
- Our World in Data
Plastic Pollution (Hannah Ritche and Max Roser)
- Our World in Data
Where Does the Plastic in Our Oceans Come From? (Hannah Ritche)
Exports of Scrap Plastic From the United States From 2015 to 2020
- National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration
Garbage Patches Explained
Bag 'Leakage': The Effect of Disposable Carryout Bag Regulations on Unregulated Bags (Rebecca L.C. Taylor)
- Journal of Environmental Economics and Management
Bag Leakage: The Effect of Disposable Carryout Bag Regulations on Unregulated Bags (Rebecca L.C. Taylor)
Learn more with a sampling of expert analysis and opinion from a wide variety of perspectives.
- “Are Plastic Bag Bans Garbage?” (NPR)
- “The Perverse Panic Over Plastic” (City Journal)
- “The EPA Blames Six Asian Nations That The U.S. Exports Plastic Waste to for Pollution" (Pacific Standard)
- “That Statistic About How Many Straws We Use? It Came from a 9-Year-Old” (Reason)
- “Plastic Straw Ban Won’t Do Enough to Help the Environment” (New York Daily News)
- “Plastic Bag Bans Are Spreading. But Are They Truly Effective?” (National Geographic)