I was sitting in a sandwich shop, minding my own business, when the server asked my group if we wanted straws with our drinks.
OK, here we go. You know the feeling.
Right away, the comments start, and I get an idea of how much everyone around the table knows about plastics' sustainability issues. For example, you can count on someone to start throwing around terms like "microplastics" or "marine debris." Or they make a remark about plastics recycling being a lost cause, and how all the plastic from curbside bins ends up in the dump.
In my case, someone within earshot was under the impression that all plastics are just a few years away from being banned. And he thought that was a good idea. (Another guy argued that all plastic should be incinerated, but I don't think he was serious.)
Like you, perhaps, I miss the good old days, when a trip to the supermarket, restaurant or watering hole wasn't an opportunity for a debate about single-use plastics. But I'm afraid we're just getting started.
In just the past few months, the United States has gone from having two states with bans on plastic bags (California and Hawaii) to five (add New York, Vermont and Maine). Soon there will be two more (Connecticut and Oregon).
And it's not just about bags anymore. Canada and a few other states now are following the lead of the European Union and preparing to ban more single-use plastic products. First on the list: plastic cotton swabs, cutlery, plates, straws, drink stirrers and sticks for balloons.
It's frustrating that most of those products aren't actually going away. They're just going to be replaced by nearly identical products made from other materials. Often the other materials are more expensive, or they carry a greater carbon footprint, than plastic.
One reason plastics are being targeted is because they're difficult and expensive to recycle, and plastics' recycling record has been poor for a long time. But bans are a clumsy way to deal with that issue. If you want to boost recycling, we know what works: bottle deposits. In fact, the plastics industry desperately needs more of those to meet its ambitious recycling goals.
But plastics' issues are about more than recycling. For proof, just take a look at Europe, which has a much better recycling record than North America. It's seeing waves of single-use plastic product bans, too.
Don't underestimate the influence of the media on this debate, especially when it comes to reporting on litter. Back in 2007, the Los Angeles Times won a Pulitzer Prize for a series called "Altered Oceans," which included an in-depth look at plastic marine debris. That kicked off an initial wave of coastal communities banning polystyrene foodservice products and polyethylene grocery bags.
More recently, the media has helped keep the issue in the spotlight, including reports from National Geographic, David Attenborough's "Blue Planet II" and others. Most of the coverage is factual and compelling, and it's driving new legislation and changes in public behavior.
It's clear that plastics' litter problem has gotten out of hand, and it's too expensive, or perhaps impossible, to clean up. Anyone who has participated in a beach or community cleanup can sympathize.
While some blame Asia, don't forget that plastic litter happens everywhere. The problem is worse in Asia because rising standards of living there have meant more plastics consumption, often without a solid waste infrastructure to deal with the growing volume.
And finally, don't forget that much of the resin used to make single-use plastic in Asia is coming from North America. That's a natural result of the cost advantage that this region currently enjoys, thanks to abundant low-cost natural gas. But make no mistake about it: If the resin wasn't coming from North America, it would come from somewhere else because demand is driving all the new supply.
And that brings me back to my sandwich shop debate. I don't have a problem with the server asking if we want straws and I have no problem saying no. If my favorite restaurant wants to start giving out paper straws, instead of plastic — upon request — I don't have a problem with that, either.
In the end, I can tell my lunch companions that the plastics industry is taking this issue seriously and taking big, expensive steps to address its recycling, waste infrastructure and marine debris problems. They can play a role, themselves, and make sure their own behavior isn't contributing to the problem. But we all recognize that if most people don't make those changes voluntarily, the government is going to make it for them.
Loepp is editor of Plastics News and author of the Plastics Blog. Follow him on Twitter @donloepp.