At Plastics News, my colleagues and I see a lot of news stories every day on environmental pollution coming from plastic waste, litter and inadequate recycling and trash collection.
So I wanted to write this column on the growing calls for bans of plastic straws — the topic du jour in plastic litter — from a more personal perspective.
Against the daily drumbeat of concern I see about plastic waste, my first thought is, Yeah, it's good to see Starbucks and Marriott Hotels and food service giant Aramark talk about phasing out plastic straws, or in the case of Aramark, cutting back significantly on single-use plastics.
That said, I understand some of the critics who say there's less to the Starbucks move than meets the eye. That by getting rid of straws but adopting a new plastic lid, it could actually be increasing the amount of plastics in the litter stream. Fair point.
And skipping plastic straws will do very little by itself to solve ocean pollution, as industry groups argue in our coverage of the topic this week and in other interviews. Dealing with plastic fishing nets in the ocean would have greater impact.
But, to be fair, I don't think environmental groups and cities actually believe straw bans by themselves will do much, either.
They see straw bans as one step to deal with a product that ranks among the top 10 beach litter items and as a way to get us all thinking about the single-use products we all use.
Limits on straws are part of a push toward reducing our use of single-use disposable packaging and doing a better job of recycling.
As one example, the U.S. recycles just 28 percent of our PET bottles, while Europe catches 59 percent of theirs for physical recycling to put back into other plastic products or fibers.
Bottle deposits are a big driver in those higher collection rates.
I think part of the push against plastics packaging, like plastic bag bans, comes because the public sees so much of it in litter.
The plastics packaging sector has been winning the battle for market share because it offers good solutions from a convenience, safety and lightweighting perspective. But now that it's won, like the proverbial dog that catches the car, it's not sure what to do. It faces questions it doesn't have great answers for.
I've noticed concerns about plastic packaging from unusual places. If you're really following this issue, I recommend reading the 10-page opinion filed by two justices on the Texas Supreme Court, Eva Guzman and Debra Lehrmann, in that state's bag ban argument.
The Texas high court in June ruled unanimously that municipal plastic bag bans are illegal under Texas law. Both Guzman and Lehrmann agreed as a matter of law, Texas cities can't ban bags, and that's the narrow point that the case was decided on.
But Guzman authored a strongly worded concern about plastic waste that she put separately into the court record.
"Allowing plastic debris — bags, Styrofoam cups, water bottles, and similar pollutants — to migrate unchecked into the environment carries grave consequences that must not be ignored," she wrote. "Though I join the court's opinion, I write separately to highlight the urgency of the matter. As a society, we are at the point where complacency has become complicity."
The Texas case saw other industries, particularly the state's large cotton and ranching industries, raise concerns about how much plastic bag and packaging litter migrates to their land, contaminating cotton crops and posing a risk to cows that eat it.
Both Guzman and Lehrmann were appointed to the court by conservative Texas former Gov. Rick Perry. To me, that means plastic waste concerns are coming from all sides of the political spectrum.
But back to straws, since that's what we're looking at with our coverage in this issue.
People who study marine litter rightly point out that more than half of plastic waste in the ocean comes from rapidly developing Asian countries like China and Indonesia, which lack enough waste collection.
The plastics industry is part of efforts to raise capital to help finance some litter collection projects, a needed step. But I also wonder what sort of producer responsibility steps the industry could get behind here, like bottle bills.
To me, it's also about boosting recycling here — why can't we recycle the same 60 percent of PET bottles that Europe does? — and reducing our use of unnecessary packaging. (Back to Starbucks: We could all switch to drinking coffee in mugs if we're going to stay in the store.)
Straw bans are a step in that direction of reducing waste. So are bottles bills, and so are plastic bag fees. And so are things like municipal composting.
I was excited to see my community in Virginia recently open a place where those of us without big yards can take our food waste for composting.
OK, with composting, I've officially wandered off the subject of plastics. But to me, it's all part of same push toward reducing consumption.
Toloken is news editor-international for Plastics News. Follow him on Twitter @Steve_Toloken.