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Question #91359 posted on 05/24/2018 8:24 p.m.
Q:

Dear 100 Hour Board,

How do we solve the plastic problem in the ocean?


-My Name Here

A:

Dear you, 

I'm not an environmental science major or someone who knows a ton about pollution, but everybody can do one simple thing to help our planet: STOP USING SINGLE USE PLASTIC ITEMS. Yes, it's annoying to have to tote around a water bottle or remember to bring your own bags to the store, but it becomes second nature soon enough. 

Kirke below is right. Most of our trash goes to a landfill where it sits and sits and sits. Reuse what you can, recycle what you can't, and be aware of what you're throwing away.

-Ms.O'Malley

A:

Dear Make Nyms Happen,

Certainly not with big stupid contraptions or apocalyptic  plastic-eating viruses, that's for sure. It's good to reduce your individual consumption of plastics in a general sense, but as Professor Kirke mentions below, the plastic problem is a systematic one. While I don't agree with some of his proposed solutions, I do think the best thing we can do to help the problem of overconsumption generally is to support and advocate for systematic solutions that can be put into place by governments. Banning plastic bags in supermarkets comes to mind as a politically feasible option.

-Inverse Insomniac

A:

Dear Name,

Most plastic in the ocean comes from relatively poor countries that just aren't doing a good job of managing their waste. Think accumulations of floating trash visible from space in rivers. "Plastic waste inputs from land into the ocean" by Jambeck et al. estimates that less than 1% of mismanaged plastic waste comes from the U.S., with China contributing 27.7% and four other Asian countries contributing another 26.8%. I don't think this is because anyone in these countries supports having rivers you can almost walk across on dry plastic; it's because they're poor and the relevant governments don't have the resources to fix the problem. They are rich enough to buy plastic junk, but not rich enough to dispose of it in a disciplined way. 

As these countries become wealthier, the environmental Kuznets curve suggests demand for cleanliness will rise, and much of the problem will go away. Less formal statement of the same idea: as the wheels of capitalism grind onwards, "we can't afford plastic" becomes "bought some plastic, garbage trucks cost cash, rivers are free...hmmm" becomes "my suburban majesty expects weekly trash pickup, yea, and verily recycling pickup as well!" Case study: Singapore vs. nearby countries. So anything that makes poor countries wealthier is highly likely to be positive for pollution.

My list for making poor countries wealthier would include public policy recommendations like:

  • Eliminating all trade barriers against poor countries and subsidies for rich-country farmers: when Africans compete against American agribusiness, I see no reason I should be taxed to help out agribusiness
  • Eliminating most foreign aid payable to governments, which generates corruption, destroying institutions while failing to generate growth (on this note, I recommend Nobel Prize winner Sir Angus Deaton's The Great Escape: Health, Wealth, and the Origins of Inequality)
  • Radically reducing barriers to immigration, allowing much larger numbers of people to escape poverty, gain knowledge & work experience in the rich world, send remittances home, etc. 
As an individual, you can:
  • Invest in poor country stock markets (perhaps via index funds), thus providing capital to develop their economies 
  • Invest in multinational corporations that are eager to participate productively in the economies of poor countries 
  • Buy stuff from sweatshops in poor countries, where each worker is likely escaping a life of subsistence agriculture, rather than preferentially buying stuff "made in America" (consider whether you should really have more sympathy for a poor Indonesian worker or a poor American worker)

If you prefer more targeted solutions, I would still remember the root of the problem--poor countries where rivers of trash are flowing into the ocean. At the end of the day, garbage trucks and such are likely to be the answer, but I don't know of a good way to directly promote good municipal waste management (see "foreign aid to governments produces corruption"). If you could find foreign NGOs lobbying for better municipal sanitation and financially support them, that might be a relatively effective option. 

~Professor Kirke

P.S. Your personal behavior as a consumer, assuming you live in a rich country and your trash goes in a can, makes virtually no difference to ocean pollution--your plastic waste is going to end up in a landfill and stay there (which you may also dislike, but that's another question). Eliminating 1/25th of the plastic waste from China alone is better than eliminating all waste from the U.S.