National Geographic's plastics issue is a huge wake-up call

Originally published at:


My parents (and lots of people in their generation) foresaw the problem in the 70s, as the throwaway culture was just beginning (here in Europe, maybe the U.S. was earlier?). I was raised with the idea to never use single use plastic stuff (cutlery, cups bottles bags). And while I didn’t completely succeed to never use plastic bags it always amazed me how many people use single-use garbage without even thinking about it.

I think I read the first scientific article about plastic bags collecting in the Sargasso when I started high school, in the 80s. The great garbage patch in the pacific has been known since (at least) the start of the 90s. And while more&more governments start banning plastic bags the culture still hasn’t changed significantly. People still use that crap without a second thought.

It could be a wakeup call, but I doubt anyone’s listening, let alone waking up.
Still good if a prominent magazine like NG writes about it of course. One hopes, against better judgment, that mankind will succeed in changing it’s culture before the world is utterly destroyed.


The world will be fine after a while. Fittingly, it’s mostly just us that’ll be destroyed.


The human being is basically a selfish beast and actually not that smart. We have exceptions who are smart or capable of thinking selflessly or both. But they are exceptions and we should remember that.

We get increasingly frustrated with our progress as a species but we still have an incredibly long way to go on the evolutionary scale.

PS. For me personally, replace ‘increasingly frustrated’ with ‘incensed’.


I always think of the “Plastics saved my dad”, commercials of the 90’s and now question the level of cynicism behind those commercials at the time. Sure in the 60’s people could plea ignorance about the problems associated with the material, but by time the 90’s came around it was becoming evident that plastics were problematic. With these commercials it was as if the plastics industry (oil industry) was conditioning people against a foreseeable backlash, or at least postponing it.


Planet or Plastic?

It’s obviously plastics at this point.


As far as I can tell, it all began in 1892 with the crown cork bottle cap design which was the first successful disposable product. It was designed to be thrown away. I think it was around 1906 when they began manufacturing them in Europe. By 1910 aluminium foil was being produced in Switzerland and was wrapped around toblerones by 1911. A German bookbinder named Luckenwalde invented the paper plate in 1867 but it didn’t gain much popularity until it hit the states in the early 1900’s. Along with paper plates, cups showed up circa 1908 and they both increased in use as a sanitary solution to the tuberculosis crisis of the time. Then came the safety razor, dry cell batteries, etc etc.
The disposable culture is older than many of us realize.


Switzerland (and some other countries, don’t know which) have taken the point of view that since it is inevitable that a certain amount of plastic is going make it into the waste stream, let’s treat that as fuel and use it in place of someplace we might have used fossil fuels anyway. So if you have a very high temperature incinerator, which is generating electricity and then sending waste heat to buildings in the form of hot water, you’re getting double use out of the fossil fuel: once as a plastic product, and once as a fuel.

For this to work, you need very high compliance rates on garbage sorting, so that wet compost is not mixed in with your plastic fuel, otherwise the heat of vaporization of all that water would take away the heat output of the incinerated plastic. Switzerland uses economic nudging to ensure this, because all garbage taxes in the country are based on the principle of “whoever crates more waste pays more for garbage”. The recycling and compost sorting rates skyrocketed when non-compliance hit people in the wallet.

Everyone agrees on reduce, reuse, and recycle. But practicality requires that we create an integrated system that turns the waste streams into a product as well.


Hmm, I suspect we’ll take more than a few other species down as collateral damage…


There’s a supermarket chain here that hires the mentally challenged to bag your groceries. (Oh, I’m soooo going to get flamed, but…) If I can spot one working that day, that’s the checkout line I look for because they get it when I say, “Don’t bag the stuff that’s got it’s own box”, while I point at the pasta, cereal, etc. If the bag boy is a stoner, they can’t remember the request for the 5-7 seconds until the groceries get to them on the conveyor and they bag each can of beans individually. If I get the older woman bagger, they reflexively argue about following my orders. Occasionally, I get really lucky and there’s no bagger available at all and I just snatch the groceries and plop them right into an empty basket with no bags at all and escape.

Warning: Don’t watch the NatGeo special on pangolins. You’ll want to collect them and turn them loose all over your house and yard.


Probably. Slightly depending on your definition of ‘fine’, but it probably will.

Where some saw problems others saw opportunity.



Our neighborhood went to the ‘3 can plan’ for recycling about 4 years ago: recycling, green waste, and landfill. Whereas we can get away with not putting out our landfill can for 3 weeks or longer, the recycling can goes out as often as they pick up; ditto the green waste can. We are charged a 6 cent deposit on bottles and cans, and get a nickel back when we turn in empties at the recycling center; I chewed out DH for dumping a load of bottles into the trash recycling bin while I was sick because I usually save them up and turn them in for the rebate. In the meantime, the fees for trash pickup have tripled in the past 5 years. Now the county is saying that because prices for recycling plastics have dropped, more of the plastic is ending up in the landfill. I thought that’s what the fee increases were supposed to cover.


It tracks with the advent of technology and mass-production. That which may be easily produced in quantity is also more easily considered disposable.


Heck, we even dispose of our cars when we are done with them.


Au Contraire, mon frere! Pull your own parts wrecking yards wiki

The worse the quality of the car, the more likely it is to be completely scavenged/recycled!

My car #3 is rollin’ on (almost-matching) aluminum 14’s from the junkyard, mounted with 3 Michelins and a PIrelli, with a Goodyear for the full-size spare. I have a full set of 40 dolla MATCHING studded snow tires mounted on 13’s (AKA Pizza Cutters), for when I’m feelin’ sporty.


It made an impression on me. I’m sure it did on others as well. A journey of a thousand miles, and all that.

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Already have. Humans have precipitated the sixth great mass extinction in Earth’s history (seventh if you count the Oxygen Crisis), and this one, like anthropocentric global warming caused by our shorting out the long-term carbon cycle, is proceeding far faster than any preceding mass extinction…


I don’t think that’s the line of argument. Rather, landfill was environmentally and spatially a problem, which needed a fix.

Germany did the same thing, but different. They closed their landfill sites and created (a massive overcapacity of) incinerators (leading to waste imports). Later, the creation of Duales System Deutschland or “Grüner Punkt” and “Gelber Sack” was meant to get higher recycling rates, because incineration has a terrible Ökobilanz (LCA, but there’s more connotations to that word in German). Germany is, to the best of my knowledge, now exporting waste for recycling (or rather: downcycling) in massive quantities.

Similar story about Einwegpfand: an introduction of an obligatory refund deposit on single-use plastic bottles didn’t lead to higher rates of multiple-use bottles, but an increase in the sales of single-use plastic bottles.

The Swiss model works for two reasons, IMO. On the one hand, the fees you pay for disposal monthly are really high. But first, and foremost, the Swiss are really compilant to rules. (I blame the Zwingli school of Clavinism and the fact that social pressure is really felt strongly in Switzerland: you really, really worry about what your neighbors think about you.)

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Lets hope. One can dream. But don’t sell the bike shop (yet). :smiley: