August 31, 2021
The sea turtle squeezes its eyes in pain. A drop of crimson blood drips out of his left nostril as a pair of needle nose pliers are used to tug at something lodged in his nose. Off camera, a voice inquires, “Is it a hookworm?” Five minutes later, after one final tug, the object is dislodged. Dr. Christine Figgener focuses the camera so we can get our first look at the culprit: a bloody, 6-inch-long plastic straw.
Dr. Figgener’s video has now been viewed by over 42 million people on YouTube. It’s almost impossible to watch that video without feeling a mixture of heartbreak, guilt, and anger. After I watched it for the first time a few years ago, I wanted to do something to make sure a plastic straw never harmed another sea turtle. It turns out that most of the 42 million people who watched that video felt the same way.
Starbucks announced their new straw-free lid in March 2019.
From the surface, the anti-straw movement seems to have been wildly successful. The truth is murkier.
In 2019, 0.25% of the plastic entering oceans around the world came from the United States. 36.4% entered the ocean in the Philippines.
Click here to explore ocean plastic output around the world.
Many assume that since rich countries produce the most plastic waste, they also contribute the most plastic waste to the ocean. In fact, the opposite is true. It is nearly 51x more likely that a plastic straw from India will be lodged in a turtle’s nose than one from a Starbucks in Seattle. And it’s 1,850x more likely that this straw came from the Philippines than from Spain.
You're 1,850x more likely to see a scene like this in the Philippines than in Spain.
I do not say this to let rich countries like the United States off the hook. However, it is vital to understand a problem fully before diving head first into a seemingly intuitive solution that may or may not be effective. Imagine if Dr. Figgener has stopped pulling at the straw and instead decided to treat the turtle with hookworm medication!
It is just too simple to say that our problem is straws. The turtle in Figgener’s video could have just as easily been choking on a disposable K-cup. Yet even as Starbucks has moved to completely eliminate straws from its stores, K-cup sales have skyrocketed 13% in the past year! (By the way, you can get a reusable K-cup on Amazon for under $6 that makes better coffee, saves you money, and requires just 10 more seconds of preparation.)
"The UN predicts that by 2050, there will be more plastic than fish in the ocean."
Our plastic problem is too important to focus time on anything but the most effective solutions. The UN predicts that by 2050, there will be more plastic than fish in the ocean (by weight). We simply don’t have time for small, incremental improvements. We need to go to the source.
People like easy answers. If fossil fuels are warming the atmosphere, let’s stop burning them. If 50% of fruits and vegetables are going uneaten, let’s start eating them. If straws are getting stuck in turtle’s noses, let’s stop using them.
The real world is more complicated. Just as reducing food waste is more complex that simply using “imperfect” produce, eliminating ocean plastic is more complex than restricting use of plastic straws and bags in cities like Seattle. Unfortunately, a video on global waste management infrastructure is unlikely to go viral on Youtube or galvanize a global movement. The only way to change that is through education.
The correlation between the wealth of a country and its contribution to ocean plastic is not linear. It’s a bell curve. The richest countries and the poorest countries produce the least plastic. Most plastic comes from those countries residing in the middle. Why is this?
The richest and poorest countries contribute the least plastic waste to the ocean. Click here to explore how pollution varies with income.
The answer is actually pretty simple. The world’s poorest countries have not reached the economic threshold where it is possible to regularly purchase single-use plastics. If your family has to hike a mile every morning to get water from the local well, you’re probably not throwing very many plastic water bottles into nearby rivers.
Meanwhile, if you finish a disposable water bottle in a rich country like the United States, you will probably find a recycling bin nearby to dispose of it. Even if you throw your bottle in the trash, it will most likely end up in a well-maintained landfill rather than a river. The reason rich countries have such low rates of ocean plastic contribution is not because they use less single-use plastic. It’s because we have the money and resources to invest in waste disposal infrastructure.
"The single greatest indicator for a country’s contribution of ocean plastics is not plastic use, but waste management. "
Middle income countries like India or the Philippines are currently facing a tough transition. Their citizens finally have reached the point where they can afford some of the luxuries they’ve seen used widely in rich countries, like disposable water bottles, packaged snacks, and grocery chains. However, their infrastructure can only grow so fast. Waste management systems made to dispose of the 1990 levels of waste can’t keep up with 2021 levels of consumption.
The single greatest indicator for a country’s contribution of ocean plastics is not plastic use, but waste management. The United States is responsible for 0.43% of the globe’s mismanaged waste. Nearly all of our waste waste is recycled, incinerated, or sent to well-managed landfills. Meanwhile, Indian trash is 46x more likely to get lost in a system of poor waste management and end up diverted to nature.
Following the viral spread of her turtle rescue video, Dr. Figgener was interviewed by Time Magazine. “I’m of course happy,” she said. “But I don’t want the corporations to feel like they’re getting off easily just by eliminating plastic straws. I hope this is the first step.”
My intention in writing this blog was not to let companies like Starbucks (or even The 2050 Company) off the hook, nor to to shift blame from the United States to India or the Philippines. It is unequivocally a positive development that people who were struggling with extreme poverty just decades ago can finally enjoy the conveniences that we take for granted in America. More than likely, the technologies and policies that our companies and governments enact today will more than likely determine the fate of single use plastics across the globe.
I share Dr. Figgener’s hope that we can harness people’s desire to be more sustainable and expand it beyond simply declaring war on straws. Global infrastructure is a harder problem to understand than regional straw use, and companies like to keep it this way so that their customers feel good about saying no to a plastic straw and don’t think too much about the plastic cups, bags, and coffee pods they use every day. Our intention in building The 2050 Company is to do the opposite.
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