Fred LaSor: Ban plastic straws to save Gaia
Our luncheon group recently discussed California’s latest teapot tempest: plastic straws in our garbage, and eventually in the oceans, where they can kill sea creatures. This is not to make light of real problems, it is to point out how our elected betters manage to come up with matters of little importance and turn them into opportunities to lecture us, the common people, on the need to “do something.” What? Why re-elect them, of course, so they can fight the straw scourge.
Just imagine arriving at the fruit and vegetable checkpoint on I-80 near Truckee and learning the inspectors are now checking not only for bananas or oranges that might have found their way into your car, but also the presence of another fiendish device. “Hands on top of the car, ma’am, so we can perform our straw inspection.” One shivers at the prospect that these agricultural checkpoints might someday be staffed by TSA inspectors, who are not known for their social sensitivity or ability to laugh at themselves.
Plastic straws from American restaurants are not an environmental threat requiring hazmat teams, border inspections, or fines for waiters who offer one to a customer. Yes, they are made of plastics that last a long time, but we don’t now how many straws are used nationwide, nor do we know how many make it out of landfills and into the ocean. What we do know about plastics in the world’s oceans is that little of it — less than 5 percent — comes from the developed world: the USA, Europe, Australia, New Zealand, and other countries. By far the largest part comes from the developing world — those countries which are rapidly turning the corner from rural agricultural societies to urban developed countries where people are experiencing plastic wrapping for the first time.
When I travelled in Africa I was often struck by the lack of litter on the roadsides. In most of Africa there was little to throw out, and what was discarded was frequently picked up for re-use. An empty glass beer bottle was as sought after as its original contents, as it then became a kitchen utensil. But when I arrived in Nigeria for the first time in the mid-70s, I knew instantly I was in a wealthy country — there was litter on the roadside. The change was remarkable: Dahomey to the west had no litter; just across the border in Nigeria I saw the first litter I had ever seen in Africa.
Scientists who study such things tell us most of the plastic in the oceans comes from China, Vietnam, Indonesia, and other Asian countries which are rapidly leaving Third World (underdeveloped) status. Citizens in those countries are experiencing plastic trash for the first time, and their municipalities do not have landfills that can capture and contain plastics. It’s a classic example of people undergoing a major social transformation with little preparation.
As for the number of discarded straws in America, the half billion annually that is cited comes from a 9-year-old student who called straw companies as part of a school project, and extrapolated with no understanding of statistical analysis. It is not a reliable number for creating legislation.
It is easy to laugh at California’s straw ban. But legislation is created all over this country, at the county, state and federal level, on just such weak analysis. Voters are partly to blame: they allow candidates to sell legislation as a cure to a problem which is all too often not a problem at all, or not amenable to legislative resolution. The California straw ban is a classic example of this.
Fred LaSor retired from the Foreign Service to Minden after nearly 30 years in the Third World.