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Straw Dogs

There has been a big push in environmental circles to ban single-use plastic straws. Seattle became the first city to ban them last year. Santa Barbara recently banned plastic straws from being offered without request and San Francisco just voted to join the movement.

Ostensibly, the reason for this is that plastic straws are contributing to the problem of ocean plastic. However, even supporters of the ban have admitted that the case for saving the oceans by banning straws is massively overstated. As Vox’s Radhika Viswanathan writes:

The Ocean Conservancy’s 2017 Coastal Cleanup Report compiled beach cleanups around the world and found that the most common trash item found on beaches is cigarettes, followed by plastic bottles, bottle caps, wrappers, and bags. Straws and stirrers placed seventh on the list, at about 3 percent of the total trash. Bloomberg News estimates that on a global scale, straws would probably only account for 0.03 percent of total plastic waste by mass. Another study found that an estimated 46 percent of the debris in the ocean is abandoned fishing equipment.

There’s more. Most of the ocean plastic is coming not from the developed world but from the developing world. The majority of ocean plastic comes from five countries: China, Vietnam, Thailand, Indonesia and the Philippines. In fact 86% of the ocean plastic comes from Asia, with only about 1% coming from North America and Europe. If ocean plastic is a problem, addressing it through straw bans is like losing weight by asking McDonald’s to hold the pickles.

So why has the straw ban suddenly become the environmental cause? Why are celebrities like Neil deGrasse Tyson lending their weight to this crusade? Well, it goes back to that concept of “raising awareness”. Viswanathan again:

Several environmental organizations have made straw bans a priority lately — raising awareness, nudging celebrities to come out in favor of them, lobbying cities and states to enact them. But some advocates told me their deeper motivation is to build support and awareness for the need to ban other plastic products that are more significant sources of plastic solution than straws.

“Our straw campaign is not really about straws,” said Dune Ives, the executive director of Lonely Whale, the organization that led the straw ban movement in Seattle. “It’s about pointing out how prevalent single-use plastics are in our lives, putting up a mirror to hold us accountable. We’ve all been asleep at the wheel.”

This crosses me, to be blunt, as counter-productive hokum.

 

Awareness Raising

 

“Raising awareness” is a big thing these days. We are constantly bombarded with awareness-raising campaigns on cancer, human trafficking, heart disease, dementia and the imbecility that was Scrappy Doo. But the effectiveness of awareness-raising campaigns is … dubious. It’s very dubious.

But the funny part about all of this awareness-raising is that it doesn’t accomplish all that much. The underlying assumption of so many attempts to influence people’s behavior — that they make bad choices because they lack the information to empower them to do otherwise — is, except in a few cases, false. And what’s worse, awareness-raising done in the wrong way can actually backfire, encouraging the negative activities in question. One of the favorite pastimes of a certain brand of concerned progressive, then, may be much more effective at making them feel good about themselves than actually improving the world in any substantive way.

Singal singles out the 1980s anti-drug campaigns which raised plenty of awareness but had little actual effect on drug use (although plenty of effect on teenage crushes on Rachael Leigh Cook). And the last few decades have been rife with other awareness campaigns — on obesity, alcohol use, bullying, etc. — that seem to have little impact on the problem other than raising awareness of it. Raising awareness of a problem is nice, I guess, but solving a problem crosses me as a better use of resources. And the most effective “awareness raising” campaigns tend to be those that are paired with more concrete actions — pigovian taxes on cigarettes, for example.

Now the usual response is, “Well what harm can raising awareness do?” Here’s the harm: the public’s attention span is limited. Resources to deal with problems are limited. Manpower and money are limited. By focusing those resources on a feel-good issue like straws, we pull resources away from much more important efforts that face much greater obstacles. So, in this case, we invest massive effort, celebrity clout and political capital into … removing a tiny fraction of ocean plastic. By contrast, a campaign focused on fishing gear would have literally a thousand times the impact.

In fact, there are real reasons to believe that awareness-raising campaigns can actually make problems worse. By making people think they’ve actually done something about a problem just by raising awareness, they can obviate the need to… actually do something about the problem. They give people the impression that issues are fun and easy to solve. So much more complex and intractable problems — like getting developing countries to crack down on plastic waste — seem impossible by comparison.

A few weeks ago, a few of the authors got into a Twitter discussion about what exactly was meant by “virtue signaling”. This was my answer:

This is an example of virtue signaling. Supporting plastic straw bans — especially for celebrities — makes it look like you care about the environment. And when it’s pointed out that it doesn’t actually do much, we fall back on the “raising awareness” cheat. But what exactly are we raising awareness of? That we have an ocean plastic problem? This has been well-known for a while. If the plastic straw ban is educating anyone, it’s educating them badly by giving them the impression that straws are a significant part of the problem and that all they have to do to save the Earth is forego one (or use a more expensive, much less useful one).

 

A Sense of Proportion

 

The environmental movement has had a very serious issue for a very long time with having a sense of proportion about the various issues facing the planet. The movement tends to get focused on bright shiny objects instead of a rigorous scientific approach and the tradeoffs encapsulated therein. Earth Hour, for example, is very popular but may actually increase greenhouse gas emissions as energy demand cycles down and then up again. Food miles, a big fad a few years ago, turned out to increase energy consumption. Carbon credits, which always crossed me as the modern equivalent of plenary indulgences, have been rife with fraud and their impact is questionable at best.

Carl Sagan used to call this “brick in the toilet” activism after an 80’s fad of people putting bricks in their toilet tanks to cut down on the amount of water used when flushing. It made people feel good but it didn’t noticeably change water consumption patterns. The invention of low-flow toilets that actually worked and mandates to install them accomplished that.

A campaign of getting Pacific rim countries to control their fishing gear may not have the same sexiness as a straw ban. But that’s precisely why it should be the focus of our efforts. Every ounce of energy we spend banning straws is an ounce we’re not spending on the far greater and far more intractable problems that are actually creating the ocean plastic problem.

Look, I’m not totally against this. I don’t use plastic straws and I have become increasingly concerned with the amount of single-use plastic in my life. Even it weren’t for the environmental concerns — and it mostly isn’t, since we have no shortage of landfill space — I don’t like the waste. Throwing out things galls me no end.

But that’s a personal preference. In the end, we have to put our pet issues aside and consider things more objectively. And objectively, straws are a really tiny concern compared to the much graver issues facing our world. We have countries shutting down nuclear power plants and replacing them with fossil fuels under the mistaken belief that a bit of alternative energy balances it out. We have areas banning hydrofracking, which mainly results in energy coming from much more carbon-intense coal. We still have no practical scalable technological solution to storing and dispensing energy from variable alternative sources, resulting in a duck curve on energy use that, combined with the closing of nuclear plants, is increasing greenhouse gas emissions. And yes, we have a problem with ocean plastic, mainly caused by developing countries treating rivers and shorelines like garbage dumps.

These are hard problems to solve. They involve tradeoffs, compromise, technological innovation, political maneuvering and relentless effort for tiny gains. The straw ban isn’t the problem; the idea that the straw ban is some kind of bridge to solving bigger problems is. Because straw bans are easy; effecting real change is hard.


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Michael Siegel is an astronomer living in Pennsylvania. He is on Twitter, blogs at his own site, and has written a novel.

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93 thoughts on “Straw Dogs

  1. I’ve assumed the issue is that straws placed in the recycling stream end up in the environment, either because they fly-away from curb-side recycling bins (thanks neighbor who doesn’t seem to ever know the recycling pick-up day or show awareness of the weather forecast) or they end up shipped to China where the end up in the river (but now China is banning the “commerce,” so it’s going back to the landfills on the least efficient pathway).

    I throw everything away other than newspapers and aluminum cans. My office used to get a subscription to waste news up until about 15 years ago and the back pages always listed the price for various recyclable materials, and the only positive price were metals and papers. Everything else, in particular certain types of plastic, cost to take from you, i.e., a pretty simple definition of garbage. Garbage belongs in landfills; that’s what they are designed for.

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  2. So you’ve got a collective action problem.

    The best way to get people on board with your collective action problem is to make collaboration “cool” and to make defection “uncool”. Get the tastemakers on board. Hurray! Now we have a group of people who can argue that using plastic straws is Just Not Sexy.

    Now that we’ve got the nose of the camel in the tent, we can use this camel’s nose to talk about fishing nets.

    Whoops, wait. The tastemakers are now arguing about how we need to Occupy ICE.

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        • At some point, it will become an engineering problem. The only question really is, how much power and attention can you milk it for before you have no choice but to kick loose money and hand it off to the engineers, or admit it was a nothingburger from the start?

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          • If the problem is reducing landfilling, there are scientist with studies and reports at the EPA proposing things. For example, at one time they estimated something like 15% of landfill capacity was going to wooden pallets, that there was an existing market to recycle the wood into mulch, as well as substitutes available in much longer-lasting, heavy-duty (gasp) plastic pallets. States and communities interested in landfill efficiency later banned landfilling wooden pallets. That is what an actual landfill reduction strategy looks like.

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            • It’s not the landfilling part, so much, than just the fact that recycling is not quite ready to deal with composites.

              What we should be doing with old wind turbines is what we do with old airplanes – boneyards.

              Just keep them handy until the tech can start recycling them.

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              • I suppose the recyclability of a given plastic poses an engineering question; I just think it is a pretty limited one without asking why we want to recycle because most of these issues will involve trade-offs, difficult financial investments, and dependence on the functioning of larger systems. A policy can be worst than an empty gesture if the larger context is ignored.

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          • After spending a lifetime as an engineer, I’ve come to appreciate the role of public relations and of marketing.

            Without it, I’m just some pasty guy with bad hair saying people should spend money for no reason that they can see as valid.

            But along comes a campaign to eliminate plastic straws. Here’s the thought process:

            Hey, I’m not getting the plastic straw I used to! Why not? Because of plastic in the ocean? Is that really a problem? It is? Well, why doesn’t somebody do something about that and let me have my plastic straw?

            Oh, you there, with the pasty skin and a talent for math. Figure this out, would you?

            Seriously, this is how I think these things work.

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            • Ever hear of the Great Pacific Plastic Patch? Of course you have. In America, we hear about it all the time. So much so that one could be excused for believing that we are, if not the sole cause of the GPPP, a primary contributor toward it.

              Except we aren’t, at least not to that degree. Sure, we contribute some, but most comes from ships tossing garbage over the side, and from countries without the waste handling infrastructure of the US* who still largely use their water ways for waste disposal. We could make the improper disposal of any single use plastic into a felony in every locale west of the continental divide, and the GPPP would continue to grow, because we aren’t really the problem, as such.

              It’s not always about us.

              *Now, if companies we control in those places are dumping their waste into the waterways just because they can, that’s a problem we can probably impact, but that is still not something that a domestic plastic bag or straw ban is going to handle, and it focuses our attention on the absolute wrong thing.

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              • Also, the marketing/media on the Great Pacific Garbage Patch makes it sound like something readily visible – and that the visible stuff is the problem. When it’s actually a problem of plastic that has broken up into too small to see pieces which then interfere with the biological processes of the too small plankton & similar critters.

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                • Which is actually worse. If it were a glob of floating Wal-Mart bags, you’d think Greenpeace or somewhere would send one of their ships out with some kind of boom apparatus on it to gather up the plastic. But it’s the microplastic in the water (I have been informed, though I’m not sure how accurate the claim, that synthetic fabrics, when you wash them, contribute to this) is much, much harder to deal with and may not be possible to deal with outside of normal chemical decomposition processes.

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                  • It’s slightly true that they contribute but it’s far more true that most of that stuff is coming from China. Where they make the synthetic fabrics, housewares, and 90,000 other trinkets and gadgets that we buy from them, eagerly.

                    And if we collectively stop buying all that stuff? God only knows what happens to the world economy, the workers in China, etc.

                    It’s a mess that won’t be pretty to de-mess, if we ever figure out how to.

                    Some folks are working on bacteria that eat plastic, but that worries me nearly as much as the plastic does…. (just enough of a biologist for doomsday scenarios :P )

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                    • Well, I was using wal-mart bags as a random example (because it seems I pick enough of them out of the shrubbery of my house when there’s been wind) rather than pointing at wal-mart, but yeah, the consumption habits of Americans are partly responsible. (And part of the problem is that stuff is cheaply and crummily made, and it breaks fast, and you have to buy a new one….and finding one that’s well-enough made that it won’t break fast, at least in my impoverished town, is difficult).

                      I worry a lot more about the chemicals from plastics embedding themselves in the water cycle (we are probably drinking them, even if we filter the water) than I do about litter. The problem is: litter can be dealt with , it’s a lot harder to get the chemicals out.

                      And “biodegradable”plastic is no improvement, as far as I can see. (And if you are someone who tries to reuse? I have stuff that I had stored in wal-mart bags in my lab, and the bags just fragmented to nothing over time. I guess I go back to paper bags?)

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          • Surprises me the U.S. isn’t higher on the list of polluters, with all the trash being dumped from Navy ships. Probably fits somewhere else on their chart.

            It does become an engineering problem after two really huge steps.
            The first step would likely be sufficient to solve the problem, and prior to Step One lies some fairly far-reaching behavioral changes.

            While every persuasion strategy comes with some degree of risk of backfiring, I believe the case is overstated here.

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            • Last I checked, the Navy has been much better about not dumping trash into the ocean if it isn’t biodegradable.

              When we’d do target practice with pallets of trash, it was mostly paper and food stuffs. Very little plastic. The plastic would get crushed and put on a palette and off loaded in port, or during an unrep.

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            • Surprises me the U.S. isn’t higher on the list of polluters, with all the trash being dumped from Navy ships. Probably fits somewhere else on their chart.

              My understanding is that since the 90s or so, the Navy dumps garbage that will decompose — eg, straight food waste — overboard. The rest is kept for disposal on shore. Plastics are partially melted and compressed into heavy disks to save space. Submarines have a different routine, and sink it to the bottom rather than let it float and (possibly) leave a trail. Last year there was a story about a bunch of the disks washing up on shore in North Carolina. It was apparently traced to a couple of seamen acting improperly. The Navy said appropriate disciplinary action for violating regs would be taken.

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  3. And again, a lot of the onus lands on the individual consumer. The woman who has three small children and is working two jobs is going to find it difficult, to separate all the trash and put it in different bags. (Also, there have been cases where people’s carefully-sorted recycling actually wound up going to a landfill after all). I do recycle what I can in my little town but it does mean more effort – I will accumulate a month’s worth of boxes or cans and then take them to the center where they have to be dropped off. I worry, though, especially in our warm summers, if I’m just enabling ants or other things by storing my recycling in the house – I don’t have a shed. And there’s no curbside pickup and no plans for such.

    The thing with awareness raising and largely symbolic actions is that it makes individuals’ lives harder but tends not to affect industry, where there actually COULD be a beneficial impact by practices being changed. And yes, “don’t buy the offending products’ is nice and I don’t buy straws, but when I have to buy some office supply for work and it comes encased in what seems like a pound and a half of plastic clamshells, it feels like reducing waste is largely symbolic.

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    • The thing that bugs me (and is something Amazon tried/tries to tackle with frustration free packaging) is blister or clam shell packing for delivered items. Blister packs and clam shells serve a purpose, mainly to allow the customer to see the item while also deterring theft (small item in big, hard to open package is hard to slip in a pocket). If I order the item and it is delivered to me, why is it in a blister pack or clam shell?

      Yes, I know why it is, but that strikes me as an area where some industrial engineers could make a difference, if so motivated.

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      • Some blister packs — particularly for pharmaceuticals — are there because the contents are volatile and degrade when exposed to the air, even the air inside a regular pill bottle after it is opened and all the vacuum gets out.*

        I’m open to the argument that not all pharmaceuticals sold in blister packs need to be. But again, we’re discussing a variant of plastic straws here. As the OP points out, we can make a much bigger dent in the the plastic-in-the-ocean problem if we figure out how to get commercial fisherpeople on the high seas to recover damaged plastic netting, bouys, and other such equipment more than they do.

        * Yes, I know. You know what I mean.

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        • No fair heading off my technical pedantry!

          A pill blister pack is a different critter from normal blister packs and clam shells. It serves a more specific purpose for the good of the product.

          In a store, a blister pack is still worthwhile, since it does cut down on loss, etc. But I do a lot of Amazon ordering, and the amount of retail packaging I have to deal with is still rather excessive.

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  4. I think this piece underestimates what is required to effect political change.

    The brick in the toilet is, actually, a terrific example of the effectiveness of virtue signalling.
    How did they get followed by actually effective low flow toilets?
    Did they just appear by magic?

    They appeared after a tremendous political and public relations struggle to convince the public to pressure the politicians to force the manufacturers to offer them.

    Building political consensus is very hard, and requires using all the tools of human interaction, including the desire to appear virtuous.

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    • I’ll agree that if “virtue signaling” is paired with political pressure toward a specific, achievable goal, that’s good. It’s why I hesitate to use the term, because it is often abused to just write off “political actions/beliefs I don’t like” as meaningless.

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    • Doesn’t do any good if the effort and attention is directed at trivial issues.

      Let me put it this way. If an environmental group was using awareness about straws as part of a fully developed plan to capture attention and then direct it toward the actual causes of plastic in the ocean, with a whole sequence of next steps and contingencies laid out and ready to go, then yes, this would be worthwhile. But most of the time, it’s not. The whole straws thing was sparked by a kid making noise about a pic (or video, I forget) of a turtle with a straw in it’s nose. As far as I can tell, no one has any real plan for how to run with this. They are all just winging it and hoping.

      The bans and fines are virtue signalling because they won’t make an impact, and people will believe the issue resolved. Now if the cities passing these laws and imposing fines were to do something like donate all fine revenue toward the development of plastic collecting boats, maybe that’d be something (although probably not much, there are better ways to tackle this).

      But if there is no plan for how to get other countries, and shipping lines, to stop using the ocean as a dump, we are wasting our time.

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      • What in history would cause you to think this?

        I can’t think of any successful political movement that didn’t encompass lots of silliness and seemingly pointless protests.

        I can’t think of a single one that had a fully developed plan.

        I agree that it doesn’t work to fixate on one issue to the exclusion of all others, but no one is doing that.

        If a low info voter becomes aware of plastic refuse, she will quickly be brought into contact with a huge universe of environmental literature informing her of aquifer depletion, habitat destruction, global warming and on and on.

        When I was with MoveOn, it was repeatedly stressed to harvest emails and phone numbers of new people so as to keep in contact with them and bring them into our orbit.
        That’s just Community Organizing 101, covered in Alinsky’s Rules for Radicals (no, I’m serious this time).

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        • If a low info voter becomes aware of plastic refuse, she will quickly be brought into contact with a huge universe of environmental literature informing her of aquifer depletion, habitat destruction, global warming and on and on.

          You assume this is happening. I suggest the evidence demonstrates otherwise.

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          • I can trace a straight line from men in pink tutus prancing in the streets of San Francisco in 1972, to the Supreme Court ruling that same sex marriage is a right, and almost all of America nodding in agreement.

            From hippies holding a mock funeral for an automobile to the current emission standards, to Los Angeles having the cleanest air in over a century.

            From angry churchgoers waving placards of bloody fetuses to the Supreme Court poised to overturn Roe. (History doesn’t just move in one direction).

            It isn’t inevitable.
            Now that people are not literally gasping for breath on the streets from smog, and the rivers are not blazing on fire, the awareness of environmental issues is at a low ebb.

            And the straw issue may or may not succeed, time will tell.
            But there will be other issues, and each one will be litigated this way (“This one thing won’t fix everything!) but with enough work and patience the mind and mood of the public can be changed, because, well, it has many times before.

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            • Everyone one of those issues involves a domestic issue and the subsequent domestic solution.

              This isn’t a domestic issue, and we can’t implement a local solution to fix the problem. This is akin to a Paris Accords kind of issue, it requires a global agreement to fix the problem (or at least a Pacific Rim agreement, and since I don’t see any Kaiju coming out of the oceans yet…).

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      • But if there is no plan for how to get other countries, and shipping lines, to stop using the ocean as a dump, we are wasting our time.

        Counterpoint: creating a plan for how to get other countries and shipping lines to stop using the ocean as a dump is a waste of time if people don’t care about pollution in the oceans.

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        • I think the American people DO care about pollution in the oceans, but we come back to my previous point in that Americans think they are a serious source of ocean pollution and that steps at home are what is needed to tackle the problem.

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            • Add: I mean, maybe we agree (on this issue anyway :) that skipping past all the politics, sloganeering, motivational bullshit, etc., right to curtailing other countries from dumping trash in the oceans would be a better use of time. But right now, Americans don’t really give a shit about that. So, then we’re back to a fundamental question: how do we (you and I, sitting in our chairs doing nothing about this issue other than critiquing how other folks are Doin It Rong…) get them there…

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              • What we do is we actually talk about the other sources of the pollution.

                This is the conversation I see constantly play out:

                Strong Activist: Look at this terrible thing in the ocean, we have to do something! Here is a white paper outlining the root causes…

                Weak Activist/Virtue Signaler: YES WE MUST DO SOMETHING! LETS BAN THAT THING HERE! LET’S STOP BEING THE PROBLEM! LOOK AT THESE HORRIBLE MEMES/PICS/VIDEOS!

                SA: Yes, sure, that’ll help a bit, but in reality the prob…

                WA/VS: BAN! BAN! BAN! YEA! WE BANNED IT! DON’T WE ALL FEEL BETTER NOW, LOOK HOW MUCH WE ARE HELPING!

                SA: Umm, err, that’s not real…

                WA/VS: WE ARE SO ENVIRONMENTALLY CONSCIOUS!

                Everyone Else: Fuck, I forgot my shopping bags and stainless steel straw at home again, what a minor but rather annoying pain in the ass.

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                • What we do is we actually talk about the other sources of the pollution.

                  Great!*

                  *What you mean is that, instrumentally, what we *should* do is talk about foreign sources of pollution insofar as we want to end the practice of dumping trash in the ocean. Well ….. sure. Of course.

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                • And once the bans are everywhere, the stores will happy to sell you replacement bags (or metal straws), probably at a premium, if you forget yours.

                  The straw thing is really only an issue for people who have specific disabilities that makes it hard to drink straight from a cup (Parkinson’s will do this; I was serving at a funeral lunch at church, the widow had Parkinson’s, luckily I was able to find a straw for her in one of the drawers).

                  The bag thing affects a bigger segment of the population; if I forget my bags (or buy more than bag capacity – because I hate grocery shopping and try to only to “big” shopping twice a month), it could mean considerable more expense in buying their branded bags. And of course, then you have a mountain of reusable bags at home….or you’re stuck trying to juggle an armload of purchases. (I think “Portlandia” once did a sketch about that, where some poor schmuck forgot his reusable bags and the store owners shamed and mocked him as he tried to walk out with his arms full of groceries)

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    • Virtuue signalling is virtually worthless.

      The brick in the toilet is fantastic, because of the concreteness of the action, and its accessibility.

      As far as the theories derived from efficient brain theory and attitude formation studies are concerned, where a person has little caring but is surrounded by predominant attitudes of concern, the person will adopt the prevailing attitude (or its opposite), unless there is motivation to invest in cognitive activity. Whether the person will adopt the prevailing attitude or its opposite depends on their attitudes toward those holding the predominant attitude.

      That’s the way they teach it in Persuasion class circa 2017.

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  5. I have mixed thoughts here. Virtue signaling is an overused term and one that is almost exclusively leveled at the left, at least in the American context and in my observations. It is now seemingly the equivalent of calling someone a coastal elite just because they like going to theatre every now and then. Never mind that this elitist is a public-school teacher making 45K.

    The straw ban might not be much but it is something that companies can do.

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    • Listen here buddy, conservatives don’t do any of this virtue signaling crap.
      They stand up when the nationa anthem is played, they say Merry Christmas, wear their ball caps forward and their pants high and tight, and if that offends you, too bad.

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      • Very true. A lot of our political discourse seems to have descended into people flinging insults for things that they do in a different context. So protesting ICE is “virtue-signaling” but standing up for the anthem isn’t. Liberals are “snowflakes” are getting upset about racism, but conservatives are stalwarts for getting upset about kneeling NFL players.

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        • Likewise, anyone who criticizes liberals for virtue signaling about an actual virtue is virtue signaling. Is the world a better place without (so many) plastic straws?

          “Well, sure but stupid liberals…”

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          • Well, I admit that my usual solutions involve engineering solutions.

            You know, start with defining the problem, talk about what things would look like after a solution was implemented, talk about stuff that might work to get from here to there and hammer out the stuff that won’t work. (While it’s true that plastic-eating bacteria would be a good idea, are there going to be unintended consequences from this that might end up with all of us dead?)

            When you talk about how people who don’t want to do anything about the problem are bad, well, yeah. I guess that’s a tactic that might work. What’s the follow through? Social shaming of corporations? Countries?

            But somewhere beyond that is the whole issue of one’s hard work to embrace the latest and greatest important cultural issue being undercut by people mocking the embrace of important cultural issues as being performative.

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            • “usual”

              I meant to say “preferred”. And “preferred” is probably only true when I’m not het up.

              I *DO* think that engineering solutions are the only ones likely to actually work (defined as “reversing or ending or severely lessening the problem in question”).

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          • Stillwater: Is the world a better place without (so many) plastic straws?

            Well, let’s see.

            Starbucks is eliminating straws by changing the kind of disposable plastic lid they use. It turns out that the new lid uses more plastic than the old lid+straw combination, so the amount of plastic waste will go up when Starbucks eliminates straws. So, Starbucks made an announcement that it was going to increase the amount of disposable plastic waste in the world, and environmental groups rushed out to praise it loudly for being virtuous.

            So, my analysis is that Starbucks’ virtue-signaling has made the world a worse place, and environmental groups have enabled that worsening.

            But, sure, you go ahead and explain how increasing the amount of disposable plastic used is “an actual virtue”.

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              • Theoretically, sure, plastic straws could be directly replaced by paper ones. But that’s not what actually happened in this example case. What actually happened was Starbucks announcing it was increasing plastic waste by adopting a new lid.

                And the complete moral bankruptcy of the straw campaign can be seen in the fact that when what actually happened is pointed out, backers of the campaign ignore that reality in favor of talking about theoretical paper straws.

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          • Eh, I see it as a whole “I was using this as a method of increasing my prestige and these other people are using a tactic to block the amount of prestige that I think I’m entitled to!” kinda thing rather than politicizing.

            Politicizing is more of a “we’re the only ones who care about this problem enough to actually do something, unlike our hypocritical opponents who are in thrall to special interests” (and may include a “which is why their solution benefits their special interests!”).

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            • That strikes me as kind of a nasty accusation against Chip. It also seems unlikely to me that he thinks anyone is going to think better of him based on this thread.

              ETA: not because he did anything bad on this thread, but just because we all pretty well know each other by this point.

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              • Nasty? Mrm. It’s not really intended as such. It’s probably a side-effect, though. I probably shouldn’t be so cavalier about using it.

                The accusation of “virtue signalling” is one that has teeth and it’s interesting that it does. Much like accusations of “privilege” did 3-4 years ago, it’s something that we (as a society!) haven’t yet developed effective antibodies against yet.

                But much like “privilege”, it refers to a thing that actually exists.

                It also seems unlikely to me that he thinks anyone is going to think better of him based on this thread.

                Maintenance, then? The effectiveness of the accusation of “virtue signalling” is due to the blocking of the mechanism in the first place.

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                • The effectiveness of the accusation of “virtue signalling” is due to the blocking of the mechanism in the first place.

                  It doesn’t block “the mechanism” in the slightest. What it does is shift the debate from the substance of the what was signaled to the (malignant, counterproductive, self-serving, etc) psychology motivating use of “the mechanism”. More importantly, tho, seems to me, is that criticism of everything liberals do as virtue signaling has created a culture of vice-signaling which includes not only valuing anti-liberal signaling for its own sake (“own the libs” shit) but also valuing for-realsies vice signaling (because it’s NOT (liberal) virtue signaling).

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                  • Sort of a “Rolling Coal” kinda thing?

                    Say what you will about Rolling Coal, but it’s authentic. You *KNOW* the person means it.

                    You’re not going to follow them home to their house and see that their other car is a Prius with one of those “O” stickers on the bumper.

                    Which is only a problem if “authenticity” is seen as a virtue in its own right.

                    If the folks making virtue signalling accusations argue that everything that liberals do is virtue signalling, we should have antibodies against virtue signalling in no time flat.

                    The term makes the most sense when I see it used as accusations against moral causes that go viral. (Do you think that the straw thing will still be a thing by, oh, October? For what it’s worth, I don’t think it will. I think something else will be a thing. What was the thing in April? I don’t remember but I am pretty sure that it wasn’t straws.)

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                    • If the folks making virtue signalling accusations argue that everything that liberals do is virtue signalling, we should have antibodies against virtue signalling in no time flat.

                      Dude, you’re that person. The antidote to lying is the truth, but that doesn’t keep people from lying.

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                      • But I don’t think that everything that liberals do is virtue signalling.

                        I do think that there is a phenomenon that “virtue signalling” refers to that actually exists and that’s why the accusation has teeth even when it’s not what is going on.

                        Get this, I think that it’s even possible for one person to care very passionately about a particular issue and work very hard to change this particular issue and someone else entirely can be virtue signalling even though they say the exact same paragraph and put the exact same emphasis on the exact same words.

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                        • I think if I were to compare it to anything, I’d compare it to bands being popular in High School. Were there some people who enthusiastically listened to and enjoyed (insert bandname here)? Of course. Were there others who bought the shirt and listened to the band but were only doing it because it was fashionable and if another band would have been more fashionable, they would have jumped to that other band? Yes. The adoption (and subsequent abandonment) of moral positions in efforts to be fashionable is a thing that happens.

                          Does this mean that moral positions don’t exist? Of course not. (Moral positions may *NOT* exist, of course, but their non-existence has nothing to do with fashionability.)

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              • Given that Jay and I both cut our teeth at RedState, where the bar for insults has been set at “Goat Raping Pedophile”, I think someone would really have to up their game if they wanted to reach the level of “nasty”.

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        • Lets all imagine a thread about plastic polluting the oceans.
          You have two choices:

          A) Discuss the problem of ocean pollution
          B) Discuss how people who talk about ocean pollution aren’t really talking about ocean pollution, but actually just signalling their virtue.

          Actually, no, that’s not quite right.

          Because the original post, is actually about both topics. See, it talks about pollution, but then goes on to talk about virtue signalling.

          And by mentioning the conservative virtue signalling of “Merry Christmas” I would think it is obvious how successful virtue signalling can be, in mobilizing and solidifying the base.

          I mean, the candidate for governor of Georgia just released a campaign ad that is almost word for word, my comment above.
          So, somebody thinks its pretty effective, right?

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          • So accusations of virtue signalling as a method to depress and scatter the opposition’s base in response to their attempts to mobilize and solidify?

            While this would make sense in a pure game theory approach, the accusation *DOES* seem to apply to some kinds of political communication.

            “Getting all het up over kneeling” seems to be an example that everybody would agree about, if “caring about straws” is one that doesn’t succeed at that.

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        • . . . and if you want a little A before you get to B, and then a bit more of B before you get back to A, that’s Abba.

          Maybe I should have went for the crossword In the paper today instead.
          I may have accidentally signaled a virtue.

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    • I don’t use the term “virtue signalling”, because it goes to motivation, not behaviour. I don’t care if people stop using straws because they’re allergic, or because they’re well-informed, or poorly-informed, or trying to give people the impression that they’re virtuous. (No, I don’t know how someone would be allergic to straws, either. That’s not my point.) The question is whether the action they’re engaged in is an efficient way of moving toward their goal.

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    • So, you’re one of the minority (a third or so, by Census Bureau data) of adult Americans who have a four-year college degree, right?

      And you make $45,000 a year, which is a whole 50% higher than the median US worker’s annual wages of $30,000, putting you into the top third of workers according to Social Security Administration data?

      But your personal social circles are such that you don’t notice how much better-educated and -recompensed you are than most Americans?

      Well, gosh, how could anyone possibly come to the conclusion that you’re a member of an out-of-touch elite?

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      • I find it hilarious, and tragic, that a $45,000 wage earner, who can not afford even a 1 bedroom apartment in almost every major American city is now part of the “out of touch elite”.

        But meanwhile, it is a moral outrage that Jeff Bezos pay a nickel more on his billions.

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      • First of all Saul isn’t a teacher, he’s an attorney. Looking back I’m not sure who he was referring to. Second, am I a liberal elite? I have a four year degree and I’ve taken graduate level classes. Check. And my income is above that $45k number you’re so impressed by, so check. And yes, I’m a liberal. Checkmate?

        I’m also a truck driver. You know, 10-4 good buddy!

        This whole “liberal elite” thing is just a ridiculous stereotype.

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  6. Behavior identified as virtue signaling and awareness raising may also be aimed at a different goal: norm modification.

    Some of us are old enough to remember the “don’t be a litterbug” PSA campaign. Now, at the time of the PSA campaign, if you actually confronted someone and challenged them to not be a litterbug you were an officious intermeddler who could hope to only be told to buzz off and mind your own business. And there is still lots of litter out there in the world, but it has ingrained a cross-political norm that simply tossing your trash anywhere is irresponsible, an affront to the community generally.

    See also: bigots are bad people or at least people doing something bad when they exhibit bigotry; children should go to school, not the factory; of course a woman can be President (just not that particular woman).

    Point is, some of what we call “virtue signaling” may well be aimed at shifting norms and it sometimes works. Even if the people doing the shifting don’t articulate it that way.

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  7. So I happen to know quite a lot about this issue because this is my husband’s field. There is a MASSIVE problem here that dwarfs most everything that America is usually arguing about. (I’m not an expert, this is secondhand info and I could get something incorrect.)

    The real problem with plastic has nothing to do with straws. Worrying about straws is like worrying about what’s on the menu while the restaurant is burning down around you. The real issue with plastic is that everyone adores the idea of recycling but no one can use the plastic. There’s just too much of it. There’s no economic market for it at this point in time. For a while, Europe, Japan, and the US were sending their plastic recyclables to China, Vietnam, and Malaysia (but mostly China) where it mostly sat and piled up and was put into landfills, and all too often found its way into the ocean.

    That’s right, all those bottles u carefully rinsed out ended up in a landfill or in the ocean anyway. It’s impossible to recycle things that there are no economic demand for. Even worse, we’ve added insult to injury by burning fossil fuels to move the garbage from Seattle to Shenyang instead of biting the bullet and taking care of our own problem in our own backyards.

    And then, uh-oh, since Jan. 1 China has said they won’t take any more of some kinds of Western garbage. Many other garbage that they previously took, they’re now holding to a much higher standard of cleanliness and purity than they once did. My husband’s boss filmed a video proving to the Chinese that the plastic they process is worthy of the higher standards (and even then, several kinds of recyclables are now burned in incinerators or dumped and no longer recycled because China does not want it). Because we were relying so heavily on the idea that China would take our crap in perpetuity, there is nowhere to put it, very little infrastructure in place. Sending it to Asia was never a good option (it’s actually kind of evil that we did that, IMVVHO). While other Southeast Asian countries are at present still willing to take it, just like with China, they’re putting it into landfills or dumping it in the ocean anyway. We have simply passed our problem onto a developing country so we can feel like we have done something clean and green and what’s worse we took no steps for this eventuality and the notion of things like incinerators and landfills would get a lot of public pushback. So the stuff is piling up and causing a fire hazard and makes a lovely spot for vermin to dwell.

    This is also happening with paper and glass. There are mountains of both. They just aren’t worth the price one would have to pay to recycle them. Glass in particular is tough to deal with since it is super heavy to move (this means it requires a lot of fossil fuels to move and process – burning fossil fuels is of course not exactly green-friendly). It can be turned into some lovely mulch and used to replace gravel in roadbeds but it has to be highly processed in order to do that. Most municipalities don’t have the financial ability to process old glass and are now sending it to the landfills as well.

    Everyone loves the idea of recycling but the reality is, it is not economical at this point in time and in many cases we’re actually causing more harm to the Earth by maintaining the lovely fiction of recycling.

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    • I have heard the same thing, that virgin material is still so much more affordable compared to post consumer content that the economics are just not there.

      This is not a market failure, but it may be an area where market intervention is the most expedient option.

      If only I could trust government to not be hamfisted in choosing and applying a useful intervention…

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      • Thermodynamics is a bitch. Plastics in particular are designed so that unlinking the molecules takes a lot more energy than linking them up. Wood fibers in paper wear out and become unusable after a trip or two through recycling; a large share of corrugated cardboard gets recycled because the coarse fibers used in it stand up better. Side note for , paper made with hemp fibers are much easier to recycle than paper made with wood fiber.

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    • This is a very good point, that the biggest issue is our industrial processes are structured to be a one way process, from extraction to refinement to use to disposal.

      Which is where the word “sustainable” came from, the realization that this can’t be sustained indefinitely.

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    • What said.

      (And how often are you going to hear the two of us in complete agreement on something?)

      It’s also the case that most of the virgin plastic we use in North America is manufactured in China and other Asian countries, then we turn around and point out that most of the microplastic in the ocean comes from Asian manufacturing plants w/out (usually) taking responsibility for our role in avidly consuming said plastic….

      There’s a reason I’ve been calling (plastic/paper/glass) recycling a pseudoreligion since the early 2000s even though I still do it, sometimes shamefacedly because of the moral issue Kristin mentions with shipping our problems to Asia …

      (Recycling your cans, from what i’ve heard, actually does work. Aluminium recycling is financially viable.)

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      • If you can get your metal into an appropriate recycling stream, it’ll get recycled. Aluminum, brass, copper, lead, steel… doesn’t really matter. One of the recycling yards here in Arvada will pay for any metal except steel, and they’ll accept steel. Most of the steel in Colorado winds up down in Pueblo where it’s melted, analyzed, alloying elements added, and used to fabricate bar, rail, and seamless pipe.

        The really ugly situation is old CRT tubes. There are tens of millions of them piled up in warehouses and back lots around the country because it’s too expensive to melt the glass down to recover the lead and it’s illegal to put them in landfills. When Closed Loop declared bankruptcy a couple of years ago, they left behind 130,000 tons of CRTs and CRT glass — on the order of a pound of heavily leaded glass for every person in the US.

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        • Many places I think now pass a magnet over the trash stream to strip out metal that can be recycled. (Doesn’t work on aluminum of course). And many places now charge you 10 to 20 bucks to haul away any CRT device (at least mine does.) Though a lot of places (including mine) will do an e waste & hazmat waste collection day once or twice a year for everything like this.

          I presumed the money was going toward the process for final disposal/recycling but you make me wonder now what happens next after the pick up at the county community center.

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      • I remember the last big recycling push a while back. Commodity prices were high, municipalities required recycling. Companies were bidding on those fat contracts to get all the goodies–then the markets tanked. Funny thing was that all the recycling keep being picked up….and dumped in the landfills when the processors couldn’t make any money.

        And all those folks continued dutifully recycling while the local gov’ts dumped it.

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    • This is what led to the downfall of the stubbie.
      Longnecks can be used an average of 5 times before the bottle cracks; much more durable than other reusable bottles.

      However, the stubbie is mounting something of a comeback.

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    • I’m a bit late to this discussion, but…

      The concept of glass recycling is almost surreal. We, really obviously, aren’t going to run out of silicon dioxide. We literally have millions of square miles of this planet that are ‘open silicon dioxide mines’. Trucks can drive in and pick it up off the ground…hell, if you leave a truck there, it literally will get buried by shifting mounds of silicon dioxide.

      And it is utterly harmless in landfills.

      As I feel I have to mention every time this comes up (Despite I’m sure everyone having heard me by now.), we would have been 100 times better off if, instead of running trucks and teaching everyone to separate out completely harmless sand and aluminum cans and paper, and mostly harmless plastics…we had instead been teaching everyone to separate out batteries and medication and all the other the stuff that actually shouldn’t be thrown away, and running trucks to collect that and dispose of it.

      Why does a damn truck come by my house and collect my dumbass _glass_, which is not possibly going to harm the environment at all and ‘recycling’ is actually a net energy and resource loss vs just running it through a crusher or something and throwing it into the ocean.(1) But no one comes by and collects my dead batteries and CFL lightbulbs? I get rid of them correctly, but I bet 90% of people don’t.

      But NIMBY fools started complaining ‘I don’t want landfills near me’, instead of ‘Hey, let’s stop putting toxic crap in the landfills, and then it really doesn’t matter where they are located’.

      1) I’m not actually kidding about that. Just have a…big press or something, crush it to grain-of-sand size, or even quarter size, it will have some sharp edges so we don’t want to dump it somewhere on land, but just throw it into the ocean, and it will wear edges down for us. Before anyone goes ‘Yeah, but it costs money to put it in the ocean’…as the parent post points out, we’re literally currently shipping it to China, so, we could just, like, do that halfway.

      EDIT: I just noticed I’ve never thought of before…we don’t even have a symbol for ‘Do not dispose of in normal trash’. Like, we have the recycling triangle, but not a symbol for that. Seriously?

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  8. My observation re recycling: I’ve hauled a lot of metals to scrap yards and a lot of paper and cardboard to paper mills. Plastic or glass? Not even once in 20 years.

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    • Effective glass recycling seems to require a sizeable local source stream and local buyers for the cullet output. Kansas City has a successful program that feeds a bottle maker and an Owens-Corning fiberglass production plant. There’s a new processor on the north side of metro Denver that will scale up to about 80,000 tons/year that takes glass from two single-stream separation locations and sells cullet to two large local bottle makers.

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