Opinion: when it comes to plastic and waste, should our contribution to the solution be equal to our part in creating the problem?

The UK Secretary of State for the Environment, Michael Gove, recently proposed a ban on the sale of single-use plastic straws. A few days later, a disabled friend posted a plea on Facebook for straws to be kept available in restaurants and cafés for customers with disabilities. Specifically, plastic straws.

Yes, she said, paper straws are alternatives. Yes, metal straws are alternatives. Yes, bamboo shoots are also alternatives. All are less environmentally damaging than plastic as they are not made from crude oil and do not depend on the extraction of non-renewable raw material. They can decompose and will not have to be painfully pulled out of sea-turtles’ noses. They can be re-used and so reduce the overall quantity of the waste we produce, adding a little less to landfills.

From RTÉ One's Claire Byrne Live, a discussion on a plastics levy with Oisín Coghlan of Friends of the Earth, Lorraine Higgins of Retail Excellence and consumer journalist Sinead Ryan.

However, there are considerable problems with plastic-alternatives for people with disabilities. Paper quickly disintegrates, teeth are easily damaged on metal and bamboo is too inflexible to bend as needed. In a calm and reasonable manner, and without mitigating plastic’s problems, this Facebook post made the argument for awareness and inclusivity when discussing social issues.

Inevitably, she was trolled. The gist of the attack was that if disabled people want to be treated as equals, they should be equally responsible for changes in attitudes and behaviour around disposable, non-degradable goods, regardless of the significantly negative impact this may have on them. After all, we only have the one earth and, disabled or not, we all have to live in it.

It was not the woman with Parkinson’s asking for a straw who kept authoritarian, human-rights abusing governments in power to ensure a steady supply of oil 

Well, OK, let’s talk about equality. Let’s say that our contribution to the solution should be equal to our role in creating the problem. As noted above, synthetic plastic (such as the polyethylene terephthalate, or PET, from which straws are produced) is made using a by-product from the refinement of oil, on which we rely as an energy source.

The extraction, transportation and pollution of oil is an industrial problem. Waste is an industrial problem, whether it is the used straw itself or the unusable by-products of straw manufacturing. Of all te waste produced, municipal waste - that is, the rubbish put out for roadside collection - constitutes roughly three percent.

It was not the woman with Parkinson’s asking for a straw when out for a family dinner who kept authoritarian, human-rights abusing governments in power to ensure a steady supply of oil from the Middle East She did not start a war which has killed hundreds of thousands of people to ensure that supply.

From RTÉ Radio One's News At One, restaurant and bar owner Liam Edwards on the Restaurant Association of Ireland's initiative to remove single-use plastic straws from across 2,500 venues

It was not her or you or I who flattened the First Nations peoples of Dakota and bullied the Georgian government into accepting militarized pipelines in direct opposition to their constitutions, legislation and environmental policies. It is not us who shirk responsibility when those pipelines burst and leak devastation into fields and oceans. It is not us who dump millions of tonnes of toxic waste into public waterways.

Extractive capitalist industry, with the help of government, has done an excellent job of placing blame and guilt at the feet of the individual consumer. It’s understandable because it’s profitable. Climate change is an overwhelmingly big problem so choosing to purchase or avoid certain products can help us feel a little less powerless. Micro-practices - rinsing out yoghurt pots for recycling, bringing our eco-travel mug to Starbucks or censuring the use of single-use plastics - are easy ways to feel that we are doing our part.

And we should do these things unless there is a substantial reason for not doing them. It is important for our planet and our own sense of self. I am proud to be environmentally conscious and to alter my behaviour accordingly and I am not arguing against reducing and rethinking plastics.

From RTÉ Archives, a RTÉ News' report on the successful introduction of the plastic bag levy in Ireland in 2002

But the picture is much larger and more nuanced than that. We cannot recycle our way out of this problem. We cannot rely on new miraculous technologies such as plastic-eating bacteria to fix this problem. Above all, we have no hope of solving it by condemning already marginalised people for utilising things which are necessities for them. Are these straw-deniers also proposing we ban credit cards, biro pens, mobile phones and condoms?

There is a case to be made in plastic’s defence. It has democratised consumption and made possible products which help us invaluably. The case for synthetic plastic is that it uses an industrial by-product and reduces waste, but it actually just maximises profit by turning waste into commodities which we pay for and then pay to dispose of.

Instead of arguing for the continuation of synthetic plastic, this surely strengthens the argument to divestment from non-renewables. As long as we rely on dirty energy such as oil, we will continue to create and suffer from problems caused by it and its waste products, whether or not those manifest as long, colourful tubes. The solution - the only solution - is systemic change: keep the oil in the ground, keep the pipelines unbuilt and shift instead to renewable energies. Invest in research to reduce and rethink plastics from the top down. And no matter what products they try to make you buy or boycott, remember that the individual is not the enemy.


The views expressed here are those of the author and do not represent or reflect the views of RTÉ