What Broke The Camel’s Back

camel 3Maybe it wasn’t that last straw that broke the camel’s back, it was the long-term accumulation of straws and other materials that did it. Can we reverse things by banning straws? Undoubtedly, no, but maybe we can slow the damage and take a little time to fix the problems.

Plastic pollution in the rivers and oceans is a worldwide catastrophe. We rely on the oceans for everything from climate to sustenance to serenity. Plastics are killing the oceans.

I don’t object to banning plastic straws or returning to the paper straws of my childhood. In fact, I fondly remember having the straws collapse as you tried to suck down a thick chocolate malt, or making a folded chain by flattening the straw on alternate sides and joining the two ends. Or you could chew the end before it fell apart, getting a final taste of the beverage.

Numerous efforts are underway to minimize plastic pollution and clean it up from our rivers, beaches and seas. The latest campaigns are directed at banning plastic straws — a problem if they reach the environment through littering or improper disposal. Certainly, we need to stop these practices.

But let’s not fool ourselves. Plastic straws represent only a small portion of the actual problem. Most plastic pollution isn’t from the straws given out by Starbucks or McDonald’s. Melissa Breyer reported startling results of a study that evaluated the sources of both micro- and macro-plastics in the oceans. “Research reveals that rivers deliver up to 4 million metric tons of plastic debris to the sea every year, with up to 95% coming from just 10 of them.” Here’s the list of the ten biggies that Melissa found:

In East Asia: Yangtze, Yellow, Hai He, Pearl, Amur, Mekong;

In South Asia: Indus, Ganges Delta;

In Africa: Niger, Nile.

Not mentioned in the top ten are the Mississippi, the Columbia, the Mackenzie, the St Lawrence, the Colorado, the Rio Grand, the Parana, the Amazon or the Volga. We know those contribute to the problem because we can often see the trash and debris for ourselves, but we need to understand that the vast majority of ocean trash is not from North America or Europe.

So, locally banning straws or plastic beverage lids and bottled water isn’t going to solve the world’s problem. These may each be a good thing to do, just like getting rid of six-pack rings. But if we want to stop getting plastics into the oceans, it’s going to require different and international approaches.

We take trash collection for granted in the US, but that’s not true elsewhere. We have long recognized that trash can be a problem on many levels, including public health, and have committed public funds and regulatory resources to managing it. We also have a history of successful anti-littering campaigns that helped shape our culture. It wasn’t too long ago that discarded cigarette butts were ubiquitous, but now they are far less prevalent. (I will note that the military was among the first organizations to inculcate the proper disposal of cigarette butts into their members. I still remember men of my dad’s age stripping their cigarette butts and pocketing the paper and filter.)

Meanwhile, we should address littering, and clean up the beaches, rivers and seas through whatever efforts we can create and support. Multiple groups and individuals are actively collecting trash from the oceans and beaches, and several are attempting to develop technologies that pull trash from ocean bights, where the trash conglomerates. However, it is going to take international diplomacy and funding to stop the big sources of the trash. Given our current administration’s world view, I suspect it will be a while before that happens.

I have some beach time coming up, and I plan to walk every day and collect the trash I encounter. However, I will use plastic grocery bags to carry what I find, and throw them away when I’m done. I must believe that my properly-disposed trash will end up in a landfill or incinerator and not in the ocean.

If I’m wrong, wouldn’t that be the straw that broke the camel’s back?

Additional information:

Melissa Breyer, These 10 rivers likely the source of millions of tons of ocean plastic, November 6, 2017, TreeHugger Daily News

Steve Tarlton, Writes of Nature:

Plastic, Plastic Everywhere, and Not Just Straws, I Think, 7/26/18

The Last Straw?, 3/08/18

Plastic (not so) Fantastic, 8/29/17

Littering, 1/12/17

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