Glenn K. Beaton: Plastic straw feel-goodery

Glenn K. Beaton
The Aspen Beat

Teachers here recently put children up to sending a letter to this newspaper proclaiming that “plastic straws are toxic and are destroying our planet” because they wind up in the oceans. The letter asked Aspen to ban them.

Not that I really care about straws. I don’t like straws — or vegetables or little umbrellas — in my scotch anyway.

But notice that the kids weren’t asked to make any real sacrifice. I’m guessing they too don’t like straws or vegetables in their scotch, though they may like the little umbrellas.

I wonder if the kids would have completed this assignment from theater class (I hope it wasn’t from science class, for reasons I’ll get to) if they’d been asked, say, to sacrifice their rides in mom’s gas-guzzling SUV each day and instead take that icky bus.

Aspen Skiing Co. also has jumped on the plastic bandwagon. Always on the lookout for a cheap gesture to signal its virtuous (or is it virtual?) greenness, their marketing gurus boast of banning plastic straws in their restaurants.

They evidently think this little plastic straw ban buys them green indulgences to consume gigawatts of electricity generated by burning fossil fuels (elsewhere of course) to haul people up snowy hills so that they can slide back down on plastic skis, over and over, till they get cold and sit by a fossil fuel fireplace before burning barrels of fossil fuel to fly home.

OK, before someone pries my plastic keyboard out of my cold dead hands, let’s look at some facts.

The average American uses about 300 pounds of plastic a year, or nearly a pound a day. According to the most extreme estimates of plastic straw usage, that includes 1.6 plastic straws a day. (That sounds high, but I’ll go with it.) One plastic straw weighs about 1/67 of an ounce.

Do the math. Plastic straws account for about 0.15 percent of the average American’s use of plastic.

Hardly any plastic from America winds up in the oceans because American law generally prohibits dumping trash in the ocean. American trash is instead put into stable landfills.

And so according to an oceanographer’s report in the respected scientific journal, the great majority of plastic in the ocean doesn’t come from America but comes instead from third world countries. Over half of it comes from just five countries — China, Indonesia, Thailand, the Philippines and Vietnam. And 90 percent of it comes from just 10 rivers in Asia and Africa.

Of all the plastic that winds up in the ocean worldwide, only about 0.02 percent is plastic straws. The few American straws who are illegally dumped in the ocean are a tiny fraction of that 0.02 percent — they’re a tiny fraction of a tiny fraction.

Of those few straws, I doubt a single one came from Aspen where the nearest ocean is 1,000 miles away.

So why the local hate-fest about plastic straws?

It’s for the usual reasons. By banning plastic straws, people can feel and show that they personally are saving the planet, and it costs them nothing they care about. It’s the perfect enviro cause du jour.

Of course, they could just stop using plastic straws themselves, rather than forcing others to stop. But feel-gooders and virtue-signalers drunk on their feelings and virtue (I wish they would just use scotch) always feel extra good and extra virtuous when they not only feel and signal their supposed virtue but impose it on others.

Here’s an alternative approach. First, let’s note that the environment is cleaner than it’s been for generations, though most school children are taught the opposite. When I was a kid, city air was often opaque, country highways were lined with litter thrown out car windows and oil-polluted rivers sometimes caught fire.

Today, city air is relatively clear, highways are mostly tidy and salmon have returned to the Connecticut River where they swim past moose and an occasional bear.

We can make it even better, and we should. With regard to plastic in the oceans, let’s start by insisting in trade talks that those five countries listed above stop their dumping.

That might entail some actual sacrifice. The parents of school children might have to pay a few extra dollars for their children’s iPhones assembled in China, and the ski company might have to pay a little more for the foreign-made steel in its ski lifts. Those costs would be passed on to phone users and skiers.

People like the easy feel-good of preening, parading and pontificating. Some will even use children to satisfy their craving for it. But solving the real problem of plastic in the oceans will require more substance and sacrifice.

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