I often write about where things come from, especially products we use in our daily lives, and what they are made of. No consumer products are made out of thin air. They all require manufacturing from raw materials that are either found, mined, or grown. In all cases, the raw elements are eventually returned back to the earth when we are finished.
Some elements are harder to find, requiring drilling or mining, as opposed to raising plants and animals. And some elements recycle back to nature faster than others. Plants and trees decay rapidly, most metals within a few years, whereas plastic can take hundreds of years to degrade. Thus, some trash far outlasts us, with a much greater environmental impact, especially plastic.
Plastic has revolutionized the economy. It is cheap, easy to make, versatile, waterproof, and used in almost everything. Two thirds of all plastic is used for packaging, and for building materials, including plumbing, wiring, siding, decking, and windows. Cars are 20% plastic. Computers and cell phones are mostly plastic. So is much of our furniture, clothing, food containers, and medical supplies.
Plastics have clearly improved human life, but they also pose an enormous challenge in disposal. There has been so much publicity about plastic pollution that banning single-use plastic products has become a political fad. It started with plastic straws, first banned in Seattle, but now in cities across the world.
The plastic straw bans started with a 9-year-old named Milo Cress, who did a little arithmetic and announced that Americans use over 500 million straws a day. The number was repeated in news stories around the world, though there is no such data. That number assumes every man, woman, child, and baby in America uses more than one every day, which is absurd. Even Milo, now 16, knows the number is questionable, and says "Why I use this statistic is because it illustrates that we use too many straws. I think if it were another number, it still illustrates the fact that there is room for reduction." Indeed.
Fuzzy math aside, people use lots of plastic, $400 billion worth annually. Worldwide, National Geographic says 6.9 billion tons of plastic have become waste in landfills. Unfortunately, some of it also finds its way into a floating mass in the Pacific Ocean that is larger than Texas. Activists refer to it as a massive "island" of plastic waste. A non-profit called The Ocean Cleanup has begun an important project to collect the trash without harming wildlife, a major challenge involving 30 ships and multiple planes.
Remarkably, their research is not finding many American straws, water bottles, or grocery bags. Rather, more than half of it is fishing equipment, the rest mostly hard plastics. A 2017 Environmental Sciences & Technology study traced almost all of it (95%) to 10 rivers — eight in Asia and two in Africa. Only 1% came from the U.S. Much of the trash, especially food packaging, still had labels — 60% of which came from China and Japan.
That certainly makes the cleanup of pollution no less important, but it might suggest an approach other than this rush to ban consumer goods that are not the problem. Yet Seattle-style bans, now affecting straws, bags, plates, cups, cutlery, stir sticks, and to-go containers, have been adopted in Boulder, Boston, Chicago, D.C., and the entire states of New York and California. Giant companies like Starbucks, Marriott, Disney, McDonalds, and many others have followed.
Announcing a ban in Canada, Prime Minster Justin Trudeau asked, "How do you explain dead whales washing up on beaches around the world, their stomachs jam-packed with plastic bags?" That is a horrifying mental picture, but there are no actual whales dying from Canadian plastic bags. By the way, most of the bans do not include water bottles, because that industry is much too powerful for the politicians to attack with such reckless abandon. That's ironic, because Americans throw away 1,500 plastic bottles every second, every day, 38 billion a year, only a third of which are recycled. I never buy them. That's my consumer choice.
It is a palpable contradiction that many of the folks so upset about the use of plastics are the same people who oppose mining, logging, drilling, and ranching. They can't have it both ways. I like things made from traditional materials, especially wood, stone, leather, metal, and glass. But we also need our computers and phones, and nothing we use is made from thin air.
Greg Walcher is president of the Natural Resources Group and author of "Smoking Them Out: The Theft of the Environment and How to Take it Back." He is a Western Slope native.