The last straw

I admit, I don’t understand why people are so adamant about abolishing plastic straws. I get that no one really needs to use straws but if you think you can save the planet by abolishing plastic straws, you are sadly mistaken. All the plastic straws in the world make up just 0.025% of all the plastic that ends up in the ocean each year. By not using straws, we aren’t even beginning to make a dent in our environmental path of destruction. In fact, I will show in a future blog post that small acts of environmental-friendly behaviour provide us with moral credits that lead to less environmental-friendly behaviour in other areas and to lower investments in ESG assets. And the ability to help save the environment with ESG investments and impact investments is multitudes greater than by saving on plastic straws.

That is not to say that I am against reducing our consumption of plastics. In fact, plastic consumption is one of the major environmental damages we humans cause because plastics never degrade and pollute the environment forever. And the amount of plastic we recycle is minimal. Plastics have been around since the beginning of the 20th century but became ubiquitous only after the Second World War. Since 1950, an estimated 8,300 million tonnes of plastics have been produced out of which 2,500 million tonnes are still in use. But only 600 million tonnes have been recycled, and out of these, only about 10% have been recycled more than once. True, we are changing our habits with regards to plastics, but in 2014 only about 30% of plastics used in Europe were recycled, 25% in China and a tiny 9% in the US. We still have a long way to go. 

Total plastics production since 1950

Source: Geyer et al. (2017).

But have you ever wondered how our society became a throwaway society? If you go back to before the Second World War plastics were hardly used at all and almost all packaging was made out of paper or glass, from the milk bottles that got filled up by your milkman to the vegetable and fruit that your grocer handed you in a paper bag. Our society was predominantly a re-use and low waste society.

As the fantastic podcast Throughline recounted in a recent episode, the plastics industry had to literally teach people to throw away plastic cups and plates as well as plastic wrapping. The arguments the plastics industry made in radio and TV spots as well as in magazine ads like the ones shown below were that single use plastics were more convenient, more hygienic and saved work. After all, the plastic cup was never used before and would never be used again.

Advertisements teaching people to throw away plastic items

Source: Tabitha Whiting, Medium.

This was done mostly out of profit motives. After the war, the manufacturing industry got a massive boost from the rising demand for consumer and capital goods. The plastics industry looked like it would be left behind since back then the only use for plastics was for industrial purposes and construction. But they understood that if they could convince people that consumer goods could be made out of plastics and then thrown away after use, it would create an ever-growing source of demand for their products. 

So, they embarked on a massive lobby campaign to introduce wasteful plastics in every area of society. And they were successful. The share of plastics in solid waste rose from less than 1% in 1960 to more than 10% in 2005 in developed countries. And because solid waste grows pretty much in line with real GDP, this also means that the growth of the plastics industry was a multiple of GDP growth over the last fifty-plus years. Is it surprising that the plastics industry is keen on getting us side-tracked into recycling plastic straws while continuing to produce harmful packaging material and plastic consumer goods? Follow the money and you understand why our society is the way it is today.

The sources of plastic waste

Source: Geyer et al. (2017).