The plastic straw controversy
The tug of war between activists, businesses and consumers mediated by policymakers.
Humans are undoubtedly great problem solvers. As a species, we controlled fire, tamed seas, wrangled beasts, and organised land for crops and shelter. To quicken travel, we invented steam engines. To conquer the skies, we built planes. Engineering and unceasing creativity gave us skyscrapers, computers and all sorts of great things designed to improve our lives. There is no question about it. Humans are capable of facing challenges with resilience and tenacity. Yet, the climate problem looms overhead with no clear solution in sight.
The issue can be explained in three folds – philosophy, politics and economics. The common misconception is that each discipline ought to play its own part and put its best foot forward in dealing with climate change. This is a gross over-simplification of a very complex problem. I implore you instead to think of them as strands of a braid, overlapping and mutually supporting each other.
On TV we see activists pounding on the doors of politicians expecting them to “do something”. They march the streets with noble intentions hoping that their voices will spur action, and that action on the part of politicians would be enough. Behind closed doors, politicians scramble to consult with experts, tearing at their hair trying to find a way to placate a very angry public.
Businessmen are in turn pressured to find alternative solutions to big problems, often steering blind with no past experience to learn from, and little knowledge on sustainability to make goals for the future. Executives scour the market for ideas and solutions without knowing exactly what they ought to be looking for and what is realistically available today. The situation looks bleak.
We ought to then take a step back from the flurry of urgent demands to figure out how and why we got here. For this, we journey back in time. Let us rewind the clock to the recovery following the Great War. By the 1920s, four dynasties had fallen and the rise of modern civilisation was well on its way. Technologies of war such as the radio and armoured vehicles found new purpose as products of entertainment and modes of transport respectively. Both became hugely popular in a short time. The economics of mass production had also been successfully employed in the Great War, which further strengthened the bond between mass consumption and mass production. The underlying ideology was simple: demand fuels supply, and supply fuels demand.
Co-authored by Swedish climate activist Greta Thunberg, the book Our House is On Fire: Our battle against climate change was published in Italy in April 2019.
Fast-forward to the year 1994, the creation of the World Wide Web (WWW) has opened up global communications and international trade. The world is beginning to shrink. At the same time, capitalism has become an unstoppable engine in North America. The growing world population, the desire for education and healthcare, as well as the promise of rising standards of living have spurred unprecedented production and consumption of the world’s resources. Danger now lies ahead. How do we feed so many people with limited resources? The traditional practice of releasing gaseous byproducts of production into the atmosphere is also turning out to be a really bad idea. Which problem then should we tackle first?
In one generation, we have created a resource crunch and an existential threat. What you believe the solution entails depends then on your position. Are you an activist? A businessman? Or a politician? Each prioritises an ideology that contradicts completely with the priorities of the other. Activists champion sustainability regardless of cost; businesses rely on low costs and profitability for their survival; politicians have to achieve progress on many fronts to protect the livelihood and welfare of their people with limited resources, all while taking pulse on the sentiment of the public. Much to the misfortune of Mother Earth, the arguments of each position are equally strong when taken into context. I highly doubt that a climate activist would be unsympathetic of a dying village that needs water irrigated from a nearby river for their crops, or a politician be sympathetic to a climate activist’s demand for the protection of a single tree when the tree can be felled for the development of better transport for the masses. I do not believe many of these climate activists would rejoice at a ban on the production of smart phones or campaign for businesses to dump their most profitable product simply because it uses plastics. In a world as interconnected as today, a kill switch simply does not exist.
After the bike-sharing bust in China, millions of dockless shared bikes have been abandoned. The authorities removed them to vast storage areas, giving birth to the "bicycle graveyards".
As a green technology entrepreneur, I quickly realised that solving these problems has little to do with business management or policymaking. There have been theories about circular economics and behavioural economics that show promise in stumbling the raging bull that is unsustainable consumerism, but very little has been done to improve existing infrastructure both in reality and in the digital world. And so to the dismay of circular economics advocates like myself, our advocacy work often begins around a table of hopeful delegates and intellectuals before melting away into helplessness and gritted teeth. In order for us to have a shot at implementing circular economics within a deeply entrenched linear economic system where products are created to be dumped, there is much work to be done and by multiple parties in tandem. It begins with acknowledging the validity of each position, understanding their priorities, and designing a new economic system that plays to their best intuitions.
The solution to curb mindless and irresponsible consumerism does not come from educating consumers into becoming less senseless. How can such an endeavour be successful in a world where this senselessness drives profits? Is this not the reason advertisements promise us that the perfumes we buy will send men homing in on us ladies like bees to a flower, when we logically know it cannot be true? Proponents of these campaigns are either forgivably ignorant or cunning profiteers. Here, I suggest a different solution – responsible supply.
Responsible supply begins with choices. To illustrate this, let’s examine the plastic straw controversy. Consumers get flak for using plastic straws and many of them turn to metal straws to assuage their guilt. But we must understand this: people use straws because the straws are available to them, and not because they are cruel, turtle-killing monsters. It is the businesses that choose to supply straws because there is a perceived demand for ways to drink liquids from a cup without pressing your lips against the sides of the cup. This perceived demand led them to plastic straws. Does this mean that the businesses are evil or the “true” turtle killers? Far from it! Plastic straws were merely the only available choice. Fast-forward to 2019, many companies all around the world have figured out ways to make plastic-like straws out of other materials like sugarcane fibre or even cornstarch after many years of research. These products make good alternatives but are eclipsed by the emergence of a quick fix – metal straws. The reason for their quick rise to popularity has little to do with its sustainability. In fact, the carbon emission from the production of one metal straw is equivalent to that from 150 plastic straws. It had everything to do with marketing. Producing a metal straw is easy when a business has long been in metal production, but coming up with a whole new material is difficult. When production is easy, resources are pumped into the marketing campaigns that drive us senseless once again. On the other hand, companies that do the good work of researching and auditing have very little left to turn this tide.
To protect the marine environment, a startup from Vermont, USA has invented a coral imitating ball created from recycled plastic, to catch microfibres shedding off our clothes in the washing machine. Photo: The Cora Ball
This is the reality: the tug of war between activists, businesses and consumers that never seems to go in the direction it ought to, but in the direction most fuelled. There is however a silver lining. Many businesses that realise their products do more harm than good often try to remedy the situation by sourcing for alternatives. What they really need is an easier way to do so. Many ingenious green technologies remain lodged in the awkward position between having to beat mature players in the industry and having few if any resources with which to do so. Many green entrepreneurs enter the scene with dreams of inventing the ‘game changer’ only to realise later that they need critical mass to change the game. This critical mass is difficult and sometimes impossible to achieve.
AIR-INKTM is the world's first ink made out of air pollution particulate invented by Graviky Labs, who have collaborated with Tiger Beer to initiate a high-visibility global campaign in cities like Singapore, Hong Kong, New York City and London. Artists are invited to produce murals with its ink as part of the campaign. Photo: AIR-INK @air.ink (Artist: Kris Ho @kristopherh)
The outcry against policymakers is also often well-intentioned but misplaced. There is an underlying belief that policymakers have the power to effect change as and when they desire. This is often far from the truth. Policymakers face restraints on the size and reliance of their country on certain industries, the technologies available for implementation, and the balancing of actual effects versus perceived effects. Actual effects refer to the eventual quantifiable impact a policy will have, and perceived effects refer to the impact the public imagines the policy to have. Sometimes, the public’s perception can be so strong that a government is pressured to implement policies that do very little good. Sometimes, policies are made that seem strange to the public but eventually turn out to be very sustainable decisions. This is the tug of war between activists and politicians that often goes in the direction of popular demand. And to solve this, the first step is to make information on available green technologies more transparent.
This will go a long way in helping activists apply the right kind of pressure on their representatives, and for their representatives to present a clearer view of what can be done, has been done, and will be done.
We must go from a three-way tug of war to a time out: for all parties to realise just how needless and tiresome this struggle is, and start working together, instead, towards an economic system all parties can engage with, and with which, over time, we can begin to start thinking about saving the world.
Rachel Kan has been engaged in sustainability and environmental improvement work through multiple ventures, most notably Papyritec and Eleventh Hour Global. Her work involves marketing and implementing new commercial-ready green technologies and orchestrating business-to-business partnerships to replace traditionally unsustainable practices with sustainable ones. Her advocacy work has brought her to the high offices of countries from Southeast Asia to the Democratic Republic of Korea. Her main interest now is in building platforms that facilitate international cooperation aimed at fulfilling United Nations Sustainable Development Goals (UN SDGs).