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The campaign against plastic is harming the planet and the public (www.city-journal.org)
54 points by prostoalex 26 days ago | hide | past | web | 59 comments | favorite

The argument of this article is basically "The problem with plastic waste in the ocean isn't as obvious in countries with lower population densities. Other countries make more. That means plastic is fine and it's just a 1970s hippie campaign against it that ruined it." It's a bunch of cherry picked factoids, like recycling is often not properly done in most countries, used as a garnish on top of claims that plastic is actually amazing for the environment.

It also quotes the old study that people barely ever reuse their reusable bags, when I think more people are far more well-aware now and reuse the hell out of reusable bags. Mine have been used for 5 years now, several times a week.

It's a slop-filled hit piece that tries using "environmentalist" as a slur. It's not hard to walk outside and see plastic garbage laying around--increasing by the year--and knowing it'll be there well beyond my lifetime, and knowing some countries are several times worse. I've been to some of those countries and seen piles of plastic bags and wrappers lining streets. It's a problem that will only grow and have compounding damage.

While this article is off base, there is a distinct lack of leadership in demonstrating effective ways to solve the problem. There is way too much plastic used for disposable packaging, from foods to toiletries to the infamous heat sealed plastic clamshells. What does an ideal zero plastic life look like? Is it even possible to conduct such a life in the modern world?

For example, yogurt. Ubiquitous. Comes in nice little plastic cups, which will, at best, end up in a landfill. Suppose there is a wide agreement in society to phase these plastic cups out:

* Do we ban yogurt?

* Do we use recyclable glass instead?

* Do we use recyclable glass, and only dispense yogurt if you bring a recyclable container for an exchange?

* Do we use recyclable glass, only dispense in exchange for a recyclable container, and standardize container shape such that the recycling actually recycles, as opposed to sending the "recycled" container to a landfill anyways?

* Do we limit the amount of yogurt containers one can buy in a given timeframe?

* Do we create a heavy tax on the container, say 10x the price of the content?

Life is short and people may get overwhelmed by too many details. Problem which compounds if there is too much choice. Almost always better to have a standard recipe to follow, than having to figure out a recipe on a case by case basis.

Glass jars are a standard size and shape, and have a 15 cent deposit, redeemable at the collection machines in the front of the store that also handles other glass and single -use plastic drink bottles.

That’s how it works in Germany, but there are plenty of yoghurts sold in non-deposit plastic, for which the seller has to pre-pay the disposal fees.

The fees are one thing, but are those plastics actually disposed? At last burned?

Ideally, there is no plastics. It is glass (it gets washed and reused). The lid is ...a metal sheet or something? Also gets reused.

That is the key idea, it is just a process towards that and in the meantime you got to reduce plastic usage somehow.

As everyone else replying has already said: option 2 is fine.

However, your option list has enough glaring omissions that it seems as much of a hit list as the article:

1. Eliminating disposable packaging is a worthy goal but reducing the harm of individual disposable packaging materials is always going to be part of the solution in the medium term, and there is PLENTY of innovation in this area. Not least in less environmentally intensive disposable yoghurt containers.

2. You keep repeating "recyclable" but never "reusable". e.g. ceramic is also used for yoghurt containers where I live, as well as glass, and it's common to see both types of familiar-looking pots reused throughout households.

3. Other commenters have mentioned larger containers (which incidentally is what I do). Reusing every reusable container might become unwieldy if you're buying a few dozen single-serves per shop but if you're consuming that much yoghurt then big containers are going to be much better in many ways.

4. I haven't seen this happen with yoghurt just yet but it's extremely common to have bulk stores with refill facilities for milk, syrups, honeys, peanut butters, dry foods & washing liquids, so I see no reason this couldn't happen for yoghurt.

Thanks. While I wrote the OP I had 'reusable standardized glass jars' as a possible end goal in mind. I'm heartened to hear this goal is feasible. The question remains on how to move the status quo from 'myriad shape plastic containers' as is common in US to 'reusable standardized glass jars' as apparently is common in Germany. This was also common in the country of my childhood due to poverty: there was a single type of yogurt period, thus standardization was trivial, plastic was rare and glass was expensive, thus reuse. In particular as recycling around here is a sad joke. People are harangued to perform the ritual separation of 'recyclable' stuff, which then the garbage company either sends thousands of miles offshore to unclear fate, or just transports it exactly to the same landfill as the regular garbage. Forget about reuse.


Option 2. Or am I missing something?

Is it more polluting to manufacture or transport glass? If it's transport, our trajectory is heading to EVs, so that would leave the cost of recycling/manufacture which seems like it would scale well and also benefit from lowering costs of green energy in the long-term.

Given how prevalent plastic is, my suspicion is that glass is more expensive than plastic. Single use glass seems like a waste, though I haven't run the numbers.

Unless we can get to reusable glass. Living in US and walking the aisles of the local supermarket, I don't see how that's possible. The glass-packaged foods come from all around the world, with each company apparently intent on having its own distinctive glass shape. As 'recyclable' material ends up in the landfill more often than not for cost reasons, it seems a monumental task to build a 'reverse distribution' path to send back glass containers thousands a miles away to their original producer for reuse.

We use tons of bottles for alcoholic beverages without issue. Most of the problems you state can be overcome with fairly simple processes. Standardisation of jar/pot sizes is one, ease of glass sorting and recycling when compared to plastic is another.

Humans are smart enough to solve this, what we're missing is policy.

And even if it ends on landfill it's not as bad as plastic as far as I'm aware.

Glass is made out of the same stuff that's already in some very common minerals. The two main risks are sharp pieces, and the potential to focus sunlight and start a fire. Otherwise, it's about as dangerous as sand.

> For example, yogurt. Ubiquitous. Comes in nice little plastic cups

Buy yogurt in 1L or 5L reusable buckets and you get rid of a huge part of the problem

I have never seen yogurt in non-plastic containers in the US. There are tiny single-serving sugary yogurts in glass cups now, but that's all we get.

That's true for a lot of products in the US. The "invisible hand" has no options.

Option two exists in Germany. It's basically the same glas shape as a glass of pickles.

Just make your own yogourt it takes like 15 min and costs a little less.

The whole thing, including heating to just under boiling?

> It also quotes the old study that people barely ever reuse their reusable bags, when I think more people are far more well-aware now

I agree, (anecdotally) every time I go to the supermarket I notice that the vast majority of people walking towards the supermarket are carrying reusable bags. This wasn't the case just a year ago when it'd be very rare to see even a single person bringing their own bags.

While I agree that is much more common and the numbers of the study have changed, I'd like to see the actual tally.

Pretty much everyone I ask (including myself) has way too many bags. I've got a full drawer of reusable bags, and it keeps growing. While I'm totally onboard with tote bags, you can't always plan when you'll be buying, so I don't see the disposable bag (maybe not plastic though) as being something that can be eliminated.

I'd bring my paper bags back to the grocery store and fill them again, they'd usually last about 3 runs to the store before falling apart.

Because of the pandemic now, though, the store doesn't want me to reuse the paper ones. But I'll resume once the pandemic is over.

City Journal is a far far right wing propaganda outlet. I thought such political stuff was out of place here.

I cleaned up trash last week for a work project.

The number of plastic bags, bottles, and cups I picked up out of a nature area was amazing. Plastic bags were by far the worst. There was plastic bags in waterways, plastic bags in ditches, plastic bags in trees, just plastic everywhere.

I'd love to know if the person who wrote this article has any financial ties to the oil/plastic industry.

Side note: While I picked up litter, I thought about how I once saw disposable utensils in a grocery store that were mostly made from corn. They were biodegradable, but certainly more expensive. We (in the U.S.) already subsidize quite a bit to corn growers. Why can't we make more biodegradable plastics?

PLA (the corn plastic) is not really that biodegradable. You need an industrial sized compost heap to get it to break down. Otherwise it’s going to be hanging around a long time just like everything else.

That is a really bad argument. Bio-plastic will definitely be degraded in decades, hundreds or thousands years while we are still wondering if it will ever happen to petrol based plastic (while it goes up in the clouds).

Time scale is clearly an issue with your statement (that is repeated over and over).

I wasn’t really arguing anything.

If I was, it would be, don’t rely on supposedly biodegradable plastic. Do they really do anything in a biologically inert environment?

There are a number of "biodegradable" plastics that are scams.


I started photographing it all, as if it would change something.. https://imgur.com/a/5P5f3WC

It's so sad that the people who are growing up with this don't know its not normal, .. for the sea spray to be partially polystyrene,.. for the sand to be stratified with nets,

They cited the Reason Foundation as a source for one ‘fact,’ so that should give the reader a hint as to their leanings.

This is very short-term and ideological perspective. Central planning is wrong and therefore any attempt to influence what materials we produce and use as a society better have a damn good reason that can demonstrate an immediate and clear return on the irksome cost of interfering with the free market.

I think the war on plastic represents our collective awareness of human harms to our planet. Whether the solutions we come up with are expensive, ineffective or even somewhat harmful isn't more important than the fact that we are beginning to factor human impact into our economic models. Dealing with the harms of plastics today isn't really the problem to solve - creating ways for us to factor in those harms and prevent/manage them over the long-term is.

My wife and I were talking today about how people fail to distinguish between a work and its creator. To her this was a great shame, as some art works can no longer be seen easily, or talked about favorably, because the creator turned out to have major personal flaws. I agree; this is a shame.

It is worth engaging with the article on its merits, irrespective of where it appears. One learns most from people who think differently from oneself.

I agree with the article as far as this: -

1. Some (many?) people use recycling as a "license to pollute". "I recycle everything I can. I deserve my twice-yearly holiday that's a six hour plane flight each way."

2. Focusing on recycling takes finite attention away from bigger issues, like meat consumption, flying, and coal power.

3. Recycling is meant to be a last resort. The first thing to do is reduce.

4. Post-consunmer recycling is dirty, dangerous and difficult, and in many places most of what people virtuously put in recycling bins ends up in landfill anyway.


It'd be nice if environmental groups could get together and agree to focus on the big issues: coal usage, passenger flying, and meat. But that's not how humans work, it seems.

Although I agree with your sentiment of embracing contrarian views, this is very clearly a paid for Petro-chemical PR piece.

Now, digging into the points you make:

> 2. Focusing on recycling takes finite attention away from bigger issues, like meat consumption, flying, and coal power.

I have two issues with this:

1. The focus on recycling is itself a deflection maneuver from the Packaging and Petro-Chemical groups. Recycling and the shifting of responsability and 'guilt' from industry to consumers is an incredibly succesful cost externalization for the petro-chemical and packaging industries.

2. All the examples of 'bigger issues' you refer are areas where there is more Carbon/Methane emissions. However, the issue everybody has against plastic was never the issues of emissions but the calamity of microplastics.

Microplastics have created a defacto man made plastic geological epoch. They have by now contaminated our food sources, our water supplies, and have contaminated the whole water cycle to the point that they can be found in alpine glaciar ice. More worryingly there is now strong evidence on the hormonal and fertility disruption in both humans and animals due to microplastic absorption/ingestion.

So Plastic is indeed a _huge_ issue not due to emissions but due to it's disruption in our ecosystems and our health.

> It'd be nice if environmental groups could get together and agree to focus on the big issues: coal usage, passenger flying, and meat.

Wait, but Environmental groups do focus on those things too. So They like Solar and renewables but it has nothing to do with coal?!?!

Why do you think they don’t focus on those things too? They aren’t one trick ponies.

> Why do you think they don’t focus on those things too?

"Too" is the problem. I think they're not enough of one-trick ponies.

Coal. Let's just focus on eliminating the use of coal.

Absent links to research papers confirming outlandish claims on plastic bags' environmental safety. This article reads as a petrochem industry mouthpiece. And we know marine mammals die in large quantities due to ingested plastic trash - bags, bottles, nets etc. My friend lives on Canary islands, and she's observing casual plastic pollution (said bags, straws, cig butts ) with growing despair and disgust; paper bags may contribute to global warming by releasing methane while rotting in landfills, but they won't choke turtles and won't strand dolphins.

> Absent links to research papers confirming outlandish claims on plastic bags' environmental safety. This article reads as a petrochem industry mouthpiece.

Putting on my tinfoil hat...

There were quite a few past posts recently about how plastic is not that economical feasible to recycle, about how the Packaging and Petro-Chemical industry is offloading costs to the 'recycling movement', and about how plastic is creating mass scale health issues with hormonal disruption in both animals and humans.

Those posts gained traction because the issue is beyond obvious and the general population is concerned. This likely triggered the alarms in the industry who then payed to slip some "counter-argument" piece into HN.

I understand that there is no obvious technological solution and that there is no 'economically' interesting replacement for our society's plastic addiction. Nevertheless, going all 'tobacco industry' on this issue is only going to buy them time. They should put the money from their stealth PR into actual R&D instead, in order to solve this mess.

> This likely triggered the alarms in the industry who then payed to slip some "counter-argument" piece into HN.

Data point: the OP has 98K+ karma and has been a member since 2007. His/her submission history also seems to be mostly informative. Tin foil hat indeed.

The same submission was actually posted twice before from greener accounts, one was flagged the other ignored. It only broke through (to the second page of HN) with this submission.

I am not questioning the authenticity of Alex's submission but if you think old accounts can't be bought or rented, for the reward of being able to shape public opinion, then you are in for a surprise.

Any forum, once it becomes big enough and relevant enough to shape public opinion, will eventually be used by lobby/PR people.

That’s why I noted it as a data point, not a fact.

Here’s another data point though, starting with the “Keep America Beautiful” campaign with Iron Eyes Cody in the 70’s, the Petroleum Industry’s PRopaganda position has been to transfer responsibility for the scourge of single-use plastics from their industry to the citizenry. This article, if propped up by Big Oil, would represent a major departure from that position.

BTW, if you leave a plastic back outside for a while in the sun, it'll disintegrate in a month or two. I discovered this because I believed "plastic is not degradable" and used one to patch a leak in my roof.

I have since switched to using soda cans. Cut the ends off, slice up the side, and flatten it. It makes for marvelous leak and flashing patch material. So far it has lasted for years :-)

Plastic is not biodegradable, which is what is desired from an environmental perspective. But it is photodegradable [1], which results in eventual breakdown to microplastics.

[1] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Photodegradation

However marine plastic can get buried, due to seaweed decomposing into soil. Here's[1] a recent story about some students finding 20% of the soil being plastic on a nearby island. On the surface it looks all nice and clean, but the plastic is embedded beneath the surface.

[1]: https://www.nrk.no/trondelag/forskere-fant-opptil-20-prosent...

Yes most things will also magically disappear when burned

Ctrl+f microplastics gets 0 results in the text. Is the author aware of it?


It's an article in a conservative publication by an author with a history of denying climate science. Microplastics don't serve his argument, so he ignores them.

Even if widespread environmentalism only resulted in a populace more aware of environmental issues, then that's worth the hassle - that's how these systemic issues ultimately get changed in a democracy.

The magazine is run by The Manhattan Institute.

“The Manhattan Institute is a think tank whose mission is to develop and disseminate new ideas that foster greater economic choice and individual responsibility.”

It’s think tanks like these actively disseminating dressed up garbage like this article that is a big source of our current political issues.

Literally in other news on their site “ Let’s Hold On to the Throwaway Society Disposable products are sanitary, efficient, and environmentally sound.”

Saying this garbage with a straight face is the most galling part of this whole enterprise.

Here’s the fake news folks.

Says nothing of the tradegy of the commons. Uses the excuse that plastics recycling didn't actually recycle as a justification to not produce plastic waste in the first place.

That the plastics industry lied and deceived the public that plastics weren't being turned into environmental waste is not the justification for continuing to put plastic into the environment.

The author then begins a political attack by calling all regulation elitist and framing them as puritan.

The author describes no solution other than removal of all regulations. This results in the tragedy of the commons and why our waters are filled with plastic particles.

But it does make some rich people richer when they can continue to manufacture and sell cheap disposable garbage.

The irritating thing about the stupid plastic bag ban, is that I often use the plastic bags for my small trash cans at home.

Before, the bags were thicker, and it would survive a trip home. So these were reusable. Then, they made the bags thinner, especially from the supermarkets, and the bag would fail, and get punctured, so you had to throw them away. Thus, these flimsy bags were non-reusable.

Now, I have to buy brand new plastic bags in bulk, just to fulfill my usage needs, when before the ban, we got them for free.

I'd argue there is a case for some single use plastics. I notice for instance that some drugs are prescribed in one-use syringes that are all plastic with a metal needle and possibly rubber stopper.

I imagine there are other use cases as well, not just medical. Being medical waste, it is unlike to be dumped in the sea.

We seem to be conflating an attack on plastic being poorly disposed of (or recycled) and the use of plastic.

This is a distracting argument and it is the same argument the industry used to try and create outrage agains the EU single-plastic ban.

N.B. medical supplies were exempt even in the earlier draft proposals. This was never a discussion point.

Single-use plastics should be banned where they are used purely for economic reasons. For cases where industry chooses to use plastic, then they should also take up the environmental cost of disposal/recycling.

The only reason plastic is economic in the short term is because industry is not paying for all the externalized costs associated with disposal, recycling, environmental and health degradation, etc.

I really like this critique of environmentalism, as an environmentalist myself. While I think it should have ended with an argument in favour of some sustainability law, like a carbon dioxide tax, it clearly remembers us that still we are so much stuck in ideologies when it comes to saving co2 and that this could potentially be, because it makes us feel better than really saving co2.

And that the answer to a lot of global problems is to reduce poverty. People who struggle to stay alive are focused on that. People who no longer have to struggle have the luxury of caring for their environment.

For example: most of SE Asia burns their rubbish in their back yard, because there are no rubbish collection facilities. They also litter, throwing plastic waste into the gutter, because they're too busy dealing with other stuff to care. But the wealthier countries (Singapore is the classic example) don't do this and are fastidious about waste management.

Yes. I'm currently doing my M.Sc. in ecology, with a special interest in conservation, so I think about issues like these a lot. The most important lesson? Life's complicated.

It doesn't matter what issues (or proposed solutions) you look at - it could be GMOs, glyphosate, plastic, electric cars, nuclear power, bio-fuels, you name it - there is no easy answer. Some solutions are better than others, but all have some disadvantages.

It certainly doesn't help the environmental movement that many of its members display a very definite "green ideology". They go around spouting their preferred policies, ignoring or shouting down any objections (no matter how well founded). That really doesn't help our trustworthiness with the rest of society.

The nature of politics is such that we often have to pick sub-optimal solutions, and often on incomplete knowledge. But let's at least have a proper debate before settling on one solution - and not prematurely tout anything as "the only green way to go".

That was interesting and at least sort of intellectually honest for the first three quarters, been then ended as a culture war piece with a pathetic conclusion.

John Tierney is a right-wing hack. All of his pieces can be summarised thusly: 'Pollution is overrated. The world is a big place! Carry on with business as usual! Own the libs!'

Appears to be a libertarian ideologue and ignorant of the Tragedy of the Commons. I bet he would've said there were plenty of trees to chop down at the last stand of them on Easter Island. It's nauseatingly-dishonest and cognitively dissonant in the name of instant satisfaction without self-control or long-term consequences.

Burn it at 2000C and sequester the emissions, boom done. Environmental persistence solved. Anything else is basically just dicking around.

I know this isn't right but the author's most recent post "The Moral Case for Reopening Schools—Without Masks. Achieving herd immunity in this pandemic should be society’s goal right now." Really makes me skeptical about this one.

The website is a publication of a right-wing think-tank. The author pre-supposes his conclusion, that regulations are wrong, and works backwards.

You can see the same thinking in his previous articles, as you noted.

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