Sam Sugerman: A bad solution to pollution

Sunday, January 13, 2019 - 6:01pm

Throughout history, society has frequently utilized the band-aid method – we love a quick fix. In 1863, William Banting wrote the “Letter on Corpulence,” popularizing fad diets for the first time. Instead of promoting a reduction in sugar intake or encouraging exercise, Banting believed the cure to corpulence, or obesity, was a low-carbohydrate diet. Banting’s work precipitated the rise of the dieting industry, now worth $66.3 billion per year; however, even today global obesity is on the rise. For centuries, society has sought a single quick-fix to multiplex issues, like obesity, by creating oversimplified solutions that erroneously promise easy results instead of focusing on the situation as a whole.

Today, the complex issue we confront is plastic pollution in our oceans and the need to preserve these vital bodies of water for the future of our planet. Plastic in the oceans has begun to infiltrate our food system and kill sea life with no end in sight. Over the last 65 years, plastic use has increased 200-fold. Instead of addressing the crisis as a whole, we have fragmented the issue. Following the 2015 video “‘No’ to Plastic Straws,” society has shifted its attention to the elimination of plastic straws, the biggest trend of 2018. In doing so, we have ignored other more significant perpetrators of pollution that are killing the oceans.

The eradication of plastic straws intends to prevent the pervasive issue of plastic pollution in our oceans, but there is no such thing as a simple solution to a complex issue. Multifold problems cannot be fragmented. The oceans cannot be salvaged strictly by getting rid of all plastic straws, a small part of the problem.

As a society, we have to fully evaluate the causes of plastic pollution and take responsive actions targeted toward attaining the most efficacious and positive outcomes while mitigating the effects, no matter how arduous the process may be. The complete eradication of plastic straws is unlikely because people living with disabilities rely on plastic straws to assist in their dietary intake. However, even if activists succeed, plastic straws only make up a lowly 0.025 percent of the estimated 8 million tons of plastic that pollute the oceans annually. According to USA Today, straws were seventh on the list of items collected on 2017’s International Coastal Cleanup Day, far behind wrappers, bottles with caps, and bags. It is not plastic straws that are the issue, it’s plastic in general. Society is magnifying the issue of straws and, in doing so, distracting attention and remediation efforts from more significant polluters. In fact, the abatement of plastic straws will not lead to a concurrent decline in pollution as total plastic pollution is projected to triple by 2025.

Supporters of “The Last Practice Straw” movement, however, assert plastic straws are a gateway to the larger issue of global plastic consumption and pollution, an issue so grave that by 2050 plastic is projected to outweigh fish in the ocean. Except it is just not working. People are evidently rationalizing their use of other plastics because they no longer use plastic straws. Travis Bradberry, author of "Emotional Intelligence 2.0," recognizes this human tendency as the compensation effect. "Humans use good deeds to balance out bad deeds, or alternately, we give ourselves breaks from goodness," Bradberry writes. Therefore, when a person stops using plastic straws, they accumulate an assumed moral capital that they then use to justify other environmentally-damaging actions.

I myself have fallen victim to this effect. Earlier this year, a friend noticed my metal straws leaning against my box of granola bars, each individually covered in a plastic wrapper. He commented on the irony of this display. I irrationally justified the excess use of plastic, touting my refusal to use plastic straws. I had assembled so much moral capital that I blinded myself to how my other choices detrimentally affected the environment. This mindset begets disaster for our oceans.

We are fighting a losing and distracting battle. Even if we eradicate plastic straws, total pollution in the oceans will become only a scintilla less. It is time we create a strategy to actually curtail total plastic pollution. The elimination of plastic straws is a simple solution that, while positive in its minor impact on the environment, merely focuses on a single and small aspect of all oceanic plastic pollution. Regrettably, this focus on just a facet of the problem detrimentally increases an individual's assumed moral capital and prevents a more comprehensive solution.

It is estimated there are 15 to 51 trillion pieces of microplastics in the ocean and an additional 5.25 trillion visible pieces of other plastic. The Pacific Ocean has an “island” of plastic that is three times the size of France. For real change, it is critical that we confront the plastic epidemic head-on, instead of fighting a minimally-impactful battle on the side.

I recognize plastic straws are unique in the fact they are lightweight and can slide through mechanical recycling sorters. I acknowledge they are a contributing factor to plastic pollution and I applaud every person and company that has phased plastic straws out, but we must consider this only a first step, not a finish line. To establish real change, we cannot just focus on straws. Since the first recorded fad diet in 1863, we have focused on creating simple solutions to complex societal problems and it has not worked. Society must learn from its failures and focus not on the easy fad response, but rather the often more difficult, comprehensive solution. The campaign to #StopSucking is not entirely cutting it, instead, we must #StopUsing. Decreasing our plastic footprint will take diligence, from refusing a plastic-wrapped snack to carrying a reusable bag and bottle.

It is vital to the longevity of our oceans and humanity that we change the norms of our everyday lives and challenge those of others. Eliminating plastic straws is not enough, because there is no such thing as a simple solution or magical elixir to resolve the issue of plastic pollution.