Plastics were once perceived to be at the cornerstone of contemporary life, breaking some of the limits imposed by natural resources and making consumer goods more accessible to the masses. How come that, decades later, they have turned from heroes to villains? This article offers a brief look at how the mentality and political decisions around plastics have evolved over time, so far culminating in the global call for the ban of plastic straws, that may advance towards the prohibition of most single-use plastics.

Plastics as heroes

In 1863, a prize worth 10 thousand dollars was put up by the billiard ball company Phelan and Collender[1], a value roughly equivalent to 200 thousand dollars in 2019. Its objective was to find an alternative to the use of ivory in the manufacturing of balls, seeing as the material was quite expensive and that one elephant tusk could only be used to produce 4 or 5 balls, which posed both a logistical and ecological problem in the long run. Newspapers at the also time began to openly question the sustainability of continuing to use the material.

Inspired by the challenge, US-born inventor John Wesley Hyatt spent years making attempts at producing a material that could replace ivory, going through many iterations until he arrived at a composition that he and his brother named “celluloid”, the first man-made plastic. The material proved decent enough to create balls that were similar to ivory and had a reduced cost, but it was not ideal, especially because it was volatile, which would also lead to it producing a gunshot sound when two balls collided in-game.

However, celluloid was ideal to replace some other products of animal origin, such as the comb, previously made of tusks or tortoise shells. In the marketing of the company he eventually set up, Hyatt declared that the “celluloid [has] given the elephant, the tortoise, and the coral insect a respite in their native haunts; and it will no longer be necessary to ransack the earth in pursuit of substances which are constantly growing scarcer.”[2]

Yes, the arrival of plastics was a boon to the environment. It provided an alternative to the dependence on materials produced by animals, a trend that would continue with the arrival of Bakelite in the 1920s, a man-made plastic that could be used to assemble almost any product, which paved the way for a true revolution in consumer goods. The more products that could be produced in plastic, the cheaper they would become, democratizing and expanding the access to many goods.

Plastics as villains

With the scalability of the production of the material and subsequent lowering of cost, it became more common to assemble plastics into one-use products. This subverted the way of thinking about plastics in earlier times, which was more focused on, for example, producing a plastic cup that would see the same long-term use as a glass one. Instead, thinner cups meant to hold drinks a single time and be disposed of started to be produced in scale for the convenience of costumers.

The accumulation of such debris in public places first became noticeable in the 1960s, and as the environmental movement took shape in a significant manner in the Global North, the 1970s and 1980s saw much research into the pollution of the marine biome, particularly on the impacts of plastics on animals. As a result, the plastics industry itself spearheaded the adoption of recycling to help alleviate the problem[3]. While successful to some degree, research has shown that a chain of mismanagement still results in around 80% of that waste mounting up in the natural environment[4].

After a timespan of lowered interest, probably associated with the hopes placed on recycling efforts, there was resurgence of the theme in the 2000s with the documentation of “garbage patches” in the ocean. While these are not the solid masses of debris that they are often portrayed as, the patches are still dangerous, as they incorporate a significant volume of smaller, constantly disintegrating particles of plastics. The most notable of these exists to the north of the Pacific Ocean, being made up mostly of debris originating from Asia[5].

As the theme picked up steam again, plastic bags became a priority target for environmentalists, as reports about the potential hazards they posed to the planet intensified. An advantage of targeting plastic bags is that they are not desirable even by those on the recycling end of the chain, as the thinness that makes them useful for everyday use also makes them a hassle to recycle. Nevertheless, the plastic industry fought to keep the bags in circulation, and there has been a mix of bans, limitations and taxes associated with their use. As of 2019, 15 countries have enacted a ban, while several states and cities also did so in an independent manner[6].

Destroy all straws

Are single-use plastics necessary? Some of them may be desirable. The fundamental reason for this is that they are cheap, reliable and sanitary, often mitigating concerns over hygiene and maintenance, and this comes at little cost to the seller of the goods. This includes sectors that are not thought of when these discussions come about, such as health and hospitals. On the other hand, it can be argued that these costs have just been externalized, and that the damage to nature carries an extensive unseen cost. Be as it may, single-use plastics are advantageous to a variety of people across the world, and there is a balance that needs to be achieved in the policymaking efforts around them, something that is not necessarily being accomplished in this debate.

The next item on the list of targets for eradication are plastic straws, which make up just 8% of the total plastic waste around the globe. These items are important in the promotion of hygienic consumption of liquids in the developing world, but have come to be labelled as a luxury good in the developed world, as those countries benefit from stricter sanitary regulations and more reliable means of storage and consumption of goods. Groups and representatives of persons with disabilities that impact coordination of the mouth have affirmed that plastic straws being available in restaurants is what is ideal for them, instead of some “bring your own” policy, but reactions to that by companies and legislators have been inconsistent[7].

The movement to outright ban or severely limit plastic straws continues to pick up momentum, but where did it come from? A boy named Milo Cress gained notoriety when at the age of 9 he started to advocate for straws to be made available only upon consumer request, using as a key argument an estimation he came up with that 500 million straws were used every day in the USA, a soundbite that has since seen broad use in media outlets in spite of having been contested by a myriad actors[8]. Most sources, however, point more conclusively to a 2015 viral video, that has picked up over 35 million views as of 2019, and depicts a sea turtle with a straw up its nostril and the painful removal process that followed; the opposite of turtles being saved by plastics earlier. This led to increased sensibility around the issue, on which environmentalists capitalized, making it the next priority of the campaign against single-use plastics.

The tipping point came around 2017, as activist groups pressured establishments and lawmakers about the issue to get the conversation on the elimination of plastics going. Celebrities such as Neil deGrasse Tyson, Russell Crowe, Tom Brady, and Tom Felton pledged to “#StopSucking” in their social media outlets and magnified the visibility of the question, helping establish the non-use of straws as a virtuous position to take[9].

This resulted in a relatively cheap proposition to improve optics and be seen as environmentally positive, leading to interesting situations such as that of Starbucks eliminating their plastics straws and replacing them with a lid for drinking straight from the cup that uses more plastic overall; the company affirms that the advantage is that the lid is actually recyclable, as opposed to most straws[10].

Not wanting to be perceived as lenient, the traditionally more environmentally-friendly European Union pushed the issue further, enacting a ban on all single-use plastics that have alternatives in other materials by 2021, with those that have no alternatives needing to be reduced by 25% by 2025, in a motion that saw strong political support[11]. The plastics industry itself moved to form “The Alliance to End Plastic Waste”, with 1 billion dollars of initial investments and promises of acting fast to combat the issue[12].

Thinking economically, it is not hard to outline some of the winners and losers of this process. With the reduction of credibility of the plastics industry, the industry that is most readily picking up the slack is that of paper products, followed by the metal and glass industries. Some of the companies that had been producing more degradable plastic straws saw a surge in demand in 2018 and onwards, but those pose problems of their own. Their wide variety is bound to cause confusion as to what method is supposed to be used to break them down, coupled with the fact that if recycled together with other plastics, the final material ends up with inferior quality and consequently becomes less valuable.

At the heart of it all, a more palpable and less ethereal matter shies from the headlines: China has almost stopped importing recycled plastics in 2018 as a result of its new “National Sword” policy. The country used to be the final destination of many of the recyclables in the world, but in an abrupt manner increased the standards it required to accept them, in such a way that for many in the recycling industry, the profits became too slim to make the business worth it. China now absorbs only 10% of the plastics that it did in previous years, posing the question of what is supposed to happen to the other 90%. The policy change has already resulted in an increased observed level of sea debris in South-East Asia[13].

As plastic recycling became a less viable economic option, it makes sense that players would move in to dampen that industry and look for other viable sources of revenue in industries that have less of a stigma attached to them. The war on straws does indeed have its backbone supported by social forces for change, but the final push comes as the Chinese variable made the plastics business a messier and less attractive affair to handle than it was previously. The migration towards non-plastic materials will move the industry, create and destroy jobs, and at the end of the day will end up creating yet unknown problems of their own, the same as man-made plastics once did.

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