Many readers of this blog are concerned about plastic waste. I understand why. We pass discarded water bottles at concerts and games; there are disposable cups overflowing street bins; we see plastic bags blowing along streets and streams; and any visit to the beach reveals all kinds of plastic waste in the sand. We have seen images of sea life entangled in our trash and starving from swallowing too much plastic. Only last month, researchers reported finding microplastics in freshly fallen snow in Antarctica, impacting life on the other side of the Earth. Our plastic problem is pervasive, persistent and pernicious.
We are angry that plastic manufacturers have promoted the myth that plastics can be recycled, encouraging us to continually buy their single-use disposable products when in fact little is recycled and much of it harms our environment. A recent article in The Atlantic, written by a former EPA regional administrator and chemical engineer, asserts that “plastic recycling does not work and never will work”. They report that only 5% of post-consumer plastic waste was recycled in the United States in 2021. Recycling is too complicated to sort properly (too many incompatible plastic types), too expensive to process, and often limited in its use by due to toxin contamination. .
Some photos from this morning’s dog walk.
Our state knows this, even though lawmakers have consistently failed to pass laws to limit single-use plastics. And our cities know it, many of them refusing to take the most difficult plastics to recycle (the so-called rigid plastics #3-8). We are drowning in plastic that we don’t know what to do with, and we are surrounded by the visible and disturbing evidence of this.
So I understand why it bothers people. It bothers me too. And yet, when people were celebrating Palo Alto’s ban on straws, utensils, and plastic bags a few years ago, I backed off. I had tried the compostable product bags and they were terrible. When I stored my produce there in the fridge, it quickly went bad and the resulting food waste was its own problem. These days, I rarely bother to use them and bring home bulk produce that I store in old bread bags. (1) Apparently I’m not the only one feeling this. Councilor Alison Cormack calls the bags a “disaster” and regrets her vote to replace them.
Likewise, I avoid using paper straws, or really any straws, even though I never used them much to begin with. Reader Joseph E. Davis, who seems particularly attached to straws in his drinks, calls the paper versions a “gooey mess” and threatens, “Every time I’m forced to use a gooey mess of a paper straw, my willingness to be subjected to the arrogant micromanagement of climate activists diminishes even more.
And that’s why I cracked up. In the grand scheme of problems we need to solve, I place global warming far above plastic waste, given its ability to disrupt and endanger virtually all life on the planet. And while banning plastic food utensils is a start to changing our throwaway culture, do we want to cash in on whatever goodwill we might have over relatively small and inefficient efforts like this?
Reader BobB expressed a related concern about promoting “solutions” that are impractical: “In my view, this gets to the root of the problem of garnering support for effective environmental and climate action. Practical solutions are the best solutions. We should stop talking about plastic straws and instead talk about what is important and what works. »
I agree with that, but at the same time I’m afraid it could lead to inaction because convenience is not an absolute. We’ve seen this with mask-wearing – what some see as a minor inconvenience, others see as a big imposition. The same thing happens when people consider stealing less, eating less beef, living in less space, or switching to LED lights. Overall, these changes would have a considerable impact. But a small change for some is a big hurdle for others. There is a long list of disadvantages that may apply in different cases. Electric vehicles have insufficient range. Native plants are ugly. Heat pump water heaters are noisy. Reusable cups are a pain to return. Water restrictions brown lawns. It costs 10% more. And yet a rapidly warming planet with more fires, floods, heat waves, rising seas, melting permafrost and intense storms is also not practical. So what does it mean to avoid inconvenience?
Our approach has been to avoid imposing the imperfect and to continue to gently push, persuade and suggest, which annoys a whole other group of people who dismiss it as a “virtue signal” because it lacks biting. If we are lucky, we receive price signals or incentives to move things forward. But it will never be true that prices correctly reflect externalities, or even that manufacturers are held entirely responsible for the waste stream of their products. They have too much influence in our political system and prices are too complicated to set correctly. To cite just one example, see how ineffective California’s cap and trade system has proven itself.
It is true that trying to go too fast causes us to go too slow because of the opposition it generates. But moving too slowly also ends up moving too slowly. What’s the right speed that annoys just the right amount of people while getting things done as fast as possible?
In my opinion, we need to focus more on opt-outs, especially for high-impact items that we need to implement to achieve our goals. The sustainable choice should be easy, the default, and other options may be available but less practical and more expensive. This is how the California building code addresses electrification. You don’t have to fully electrify a new building, but it’s a pain not to. We can apply this approach to other things. Want a water heater? The contractor will arrive with a choice of heat pump water heaters on the truck that can be installed that day. Want a heater that burns fossil fuels? Alright, but it will take another day or two to go back and get a waiver to install. What would it be? (2)
Starbucks would give you a drink in a reusable cup, but you could ask for a disposable cup (and it would be called a “disposable cup”) and pay an extra $0.50 for it. Want a 400 amp panel so you can charge all your cars at top speed at the same time while running your dryer and microwave? Sure, but you’ll have to wait six months and help pay for the transformer upgrade. It would be trivial to design grocery stores, nurseries, car dealerships and restaurant menus to encourage the adoption of more sustainable options, if only the owners were motivated.
That’s why I’m not so annoyed by straws and bags anymore. Yes, we have bigger fish to fry and yes, these changes are going to make some people worse. But they are trivial enough to get used to or work around. These are not hills on which anyone should die. And if you choose to die on this hill, then good luck with the other changes to come.
People are generally very adaptable. We should address this with opt-out policies, which are extremely effective. For example, Peninsula Clean Energy offers a 100% renewable, carbon-free option that costs $0.01/kWh more than the standard option. Portola Valley voted to make this the default, and as a result, over 93% of homes in this city use this option. Neighboring Woodside didn’t vote to make it the default, and less than 3% of households use it. Since most people don’t seem to care too much, we can help them make a more sustainable choice. (3)
Palo Alto is taking this approach by rolling out a smart meter program. Smart meters will help the city and its residents better understand and save on electricity consumption while reducing the risks for meter readers. We lag behind much of the rest of the world in this regard. The city allows customers to opt outbut these households will be required to read and report on their own meter each month and pay a monthly fee for processing these manual readings.
I think we need to embrace this approach with more of our initiatives and less apologies. Sustainable policies with an inconvenient opt-out should be the rule until we can do even better. The question is, do the politicians have the backbone to make this happen?
Notes and References
1. Although our stores no longer offer plastic bags in the produce area, I was surprised the other day to find a cashier at Mollie Stone effectively bagging my loose onions in a small white plastic bag under the counter. Maybe there is some kind of underground resistance?
2. Until HPWHs are compatible with fossil fuel heater prices, contractors responding to these calls should be able to seek out and offer substantial discounts to customers in low-income households.
3. You can find statistics for other cities in the table that covers pages 4-5 of this report.
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