📰 The Last Straw

Humans are technological creatures. We invent new technologies. We embrace new technologies. Quickly. Often before we fully consider the ramifications or consequences. As we’ve seen over the last few years, the Internet is a great example of that. It has enabled marvelous new things. It has allowed us to keep in touch with friends and relatives across the globe, and to write and express our opinions with ease. Perhaps too much. It has also amplified the voices of the haters, enabled them to discover each other and grow their propaganda. It has enabled foreign countries to manipulate our media and propaganda easily to achieve their goals, and we’ve seen who and what those goals have elected to our highest offices, here in America. A two-edged sword indeed — with remarkable benefits, but with a terrifying downside.

But I’m not here to write about the Internet and Trump. I’m here to write about a different technology, one that was immortalized in that famous exchange from The Graduate:

Mr. McGuire: I just want to say one word to you. Just one word.
Benjamin: Yes, sir.
Mr. McGuire: Are you listening?
Benjamin: Yes, I am.
Mr. McGuire: Plastics.
Benjamin: Exactly how do you mean?
Mr. McGuire: There’s a great future in plastics. Think about it. Will you think about it?

Have you ever thought about how plastics have changed the world? Look around you. How much of what you see is made of plastic, or depends on plastic, or has components of plastics? Think about how much of our lifesaving medical marvels depends on plastics, on how much of our technology depends on plastics for cases and insulation and structures. Just imagine what life would be like without plastics — a world where we only had fabric, wood, strone/concrete, metal, rubber/latex, and glass.  Now think about where much of our plastic comes from. Do you know? Petroleum. The big risk of our dependence on oil — a limited resource — is not the fuel for our cars, but that one day we may not be able to make more plastic, or that it will be very expensive. Look around you, and think of that impact the next time you throw away your sandwich baggie.

But our dependence on plastic and our acting like they are an unlimited resource is not the only problem we didn’t consider. There’s also the disposal problem. Plastics last in the environment for a long time. Unless specifically engineering to biodegrade (and that’s a different can of worms, so to speak), plastics will be in landfills for many generations to come. We can’t recover the oil from plastic, just like we can’t recover the sand from concrete. Lightweight plastics find their way to the ocean, together with microplastics from so many cosmetics and containers, and everything we discard in the street that goes down storm drains. There they get smaller and smaller, forming the Great Pacific Garbage Patch and other trash eddies. Sea life eat these and absorb the plastic, and we eat that sea life, and … you get the picture.

This brings us to the actual point of this article: banning straws, and other news about plastics. First and foremost — why are we banning straws? To be precise, they aren’t being banned, but they are moving to “on request only”, as some people need plastic straws due to disabilities (ADA). There are lots of reasons, but the simplest is: it’s a low hanging fruit. Straws and lightweight grocery bags are easy things to ban because reusable alternatives are easily available, or can be made from other substances. They increase visibility of the issue without being a major pain, except from the Conservatives who use the issue to make fun of Liberals. There would be much more impact from banning disposable styrofoam take out containers, disposable cups, plastic eating utensils. But straws and grocery bags are easy. Some companies are even finding ways to thrive.

What may be next? Balloons. True, these are more made of latex or different plastics, but they create significant problems — both for power companies with the mylar metallic coated plastic that causes electrical shorts when they hit power lines, to the traditional balloons that go up so pretty …. and then deflate and come down for animals to eat. There is a move afoot to ban balloons, or to at least ban releasing balloons. Another area of concern is glitter. Glitter is a lot of small pieces of plastic mylar, that easily goes down the drain and to the ocean, to be consumed by animals.

What about all this consumption? We tend to think of plastic as something inert and non-reactive. It isn’t. Research is increasingly showing that using plastic for food — especially heating and microwaving food — is potentially very bad. [ETA: Even supposedly BPA free plastic appears not to be food-safe.] Consider this (from the linked article):

Most of our food containers — from bottles to the linings in aluminum cans to plastic wraps and salad bins — are made using polycarbonate plastics, some of which have bioactive chemicals, like bisphenol A (BPA) and phthalates.

These man-made chemicals can leach from the containers or wrappings into the food and drinks they’re holding — especially when they’re heated. Research released earlier this year found that more than 90 percent of bottled water from the world’s leading brands was contaminated with microplastics, sparking a review of plastics in drinking water by the World Health Organization.

The main cause for concern is that these chemicals can mess with our hormones. Specifically, they can mimic hormones like estrogen, interfere with important hormone pathways in the thyroid gland, and inhibit the effects of testosterone.

There are those who opine that this one reason for the marked decrease in male fertility and births in recent decades. It could also be behind increases in cancer. What ever it is, there are reasons to use glass for food instead. Of course, manufacture of glass requires sand (another limited resource), but glass can be recycled.

Do you feel better now? Do you have a better understanding of why the humble straw is just the tip of the concern?

P.S.: Of course, there’s always more to be worried about. Millennials may killing mayonnaise, and all those pesticides we use on our crops (such as Roundup) may be ending up in our breakfast cereals and granola bars.

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