Claims about plastic

If we keep producing (and failing to properly dispose of) plastics at predicted rates, plastics in the ocean will outweigh fish pound for pound in 2050, the non-profit foundation said in a report Tuesday.

According to the report, worldwide use of plastic has increased 20-fold in the past 50 years, and it is expected to double again in the next 20 years. By 2050, we’ll be making more than three times as much plastic stuff as we did in 2014.

Keep in mind those numbers are crude extrapolations.  Still, it is not clear what countervailing force would cause the production of plastics to decline.  So I suppose Mr. McGuire was right.

Here is the Sarah Kaplan story.


Unless my memory fails me, I recall a post on here a long time ago saying that everyone should just use plastic bags for all shopping, because they are actually better for the environment than the alternatives. I don't recall what that was based on, but hmm.

The vast majority of plastic grocery bags do not enter the ocean, and if the are bidegradable they won't remain plastic in the ocean very long

Just don't want them in our own environment now, is why Fort Stockton, Texas, for instance - not in the least a bastion of progressivism, that I'm aware - banned plastic grocery bags. They blow around in the wind and snag on mesquite and creosote and barbed wire. My own town banned them because they were so overrepresented in the litter and the municipal lake. If the bagmakers feel they were targeted unfairly, they may have a point: plastic bottles should absolutely be next.

Even though the vast majority of plastic stays on land, a significant portion ends up in the northern and central Pacific where it accumulates in a whirlpool well known as a plastics trap.

In portions of Manila, plastic is banned and the ban seems to work, even to libertarian me. In Hong Kong, they have a five US cent equivalent tax on plastic bags, and I think strict Singapore laws against littering, since I don't see liter in the street as in say Moscow, Russia.

If a ban seems to work to you, even as you describe yourself a libertarian, perhaps you haven't explored libertarian solutions.

Or possibly a ban on plastic shopping bags reduces the number of plastic shopping bags regardless of whether or not one has explored libertarian solutions. (The shared reality theory.)

@Cowboydroid- no, I would argue that you, as a Libertarian, don't believe you can have market failure, so it is you that hasn't thought through the problem. BTW I think market failure is a bit overrated, and I could live with a "Somalia" style environment, but that's off-topic and beside the point. Most people don't like market failures, hence--correctly-- they don't believe in libertarianism.

As a libertarian (little L), I recognize that there are no market failures in reality. There are only government failures and failures to observe and protect rights.

The libertarian solution to plastic in the oceans exists, you are simply unfamiliar with it. Like I said, government bans only make sense to those who cannot reason through a problem without resorting to violence.

Let's get some facts out there

No plastics is biodegradable. It takes about 500 years for it to break down when put into landfill.

Less than 30% of plasti is recycled compared to over 70% for glass and metal packaging.

Plastic is doe cycled not recycled. As in you always have to add in new plastic to the old to make a new product or you make a lesser product.

The eu has recognized metal and glass ass permanent materials meaning that they can be be recycled infinitely without any loss in quality.

Plastic packaging has exploded in use and plastic bags is just one issue.

Plastic also emits c02 throughout its existence.


"Plastic also emits c02 throughout its existence. "
So do human beings.

If plastics don't biodegrade, where is the CO2 they emit coming from?

Anything takes a while to break down in a landfill because it is in an anaerobic environment, basically mummified.

Recycling glass is incredibly wasteful and bad for the environment. It takes way more energy to recycle a glass bottle than to make a new one. In fact for certain colors of glass it is so ridiculously wasteful that even glass bottles that are recycled are sorted out by the recycler and sent to a landfill! So you are paying a recycler to pretend to recycle them when you could have just put them in the trash. When municipalities try to end recycling of green glass for that reason there are usually protests.

And there is enough space in existing landfills to take all the trash the U.S. can produce for 300 years. And no leaching into the groundwater giving modern lining techniques. And plenty more space after that.

Is the plastic in the ocean plastic bags? Or is it plastic forks, toys, car parts, and soft drink bottles?

Plastic bags strike me as much more a local nuisance, not a global one.

And I agree glass is largely silly. It's almost naturally disappeared from my recycling bin.

"Let’s get some facts out there ... No plastics is biodegradable."

Well you'd do better if you started with a True fact.

"A peer-reviewed report of the work was published in Vol 96 of the journal of Polymer Degradation & Stability (2011) at page 919-928, which shows 91% biodegradation in a soil environment within 24 months, when tested in accordance with ISO 17556."

Quicker than I thought it would be.

Plastic doesn't matter one whit, it's trivial, safely ignored because the world is doomed.

We have Nobel Prizes (real ones) to prove it.

Preach, brother. I'm an actual climate scientist with evidence that climate change is all made up.

Haha just kidding. I don't exist.

It is based on this:

'Still, it is not clear what countervailing force would cause the production of plastics to decline.'

Finding better materials?

Recognizing that creating massive amounts of waste is simply inefficient?

I think he's saying there's no obvious countervailing market force.

But that's the case in the textbook example of negative externalities. The market doesn't deal with the problem. Hence, the textbook answer: government intervention. The countervailing force is the gov't.

But when you rule out gov't intervention based on personal ideology, then there is indeed a conundrum.

Granted, it's a conundrum akin to figuring out how to treat a Jehovah's Witness suffering from massive blood loss when their religion forbids blood transfusions. The underlying problem itself has a well-known answer. The only thing that makes it tricky is trying to find a solution that works given the restraints of an ideologically rigid and self-imposed belief system.

"The countervailing force is the gov’t."

Most of this waste comes from Asian third world countries. So the countervailing force would need to the government of China.

Can you show us a source for this interesting claim?

China actually banned some plastic bags nearly a decade ago.

PD Shaw linked to it below, but here it is again:

Chart on page 769 (second page of the link)

The market deals with negative externalities through property rights.

If there exist negative externalities that are not accounted for, then property rights are not being recognized, by whatever circumstance.

The "textbook answer" of government intervention is not a solution to negative externalities. External costs can only be internalized through market transactions. Government intervention does not internalize external costs, it only redistributes them.

Government intervention is ruled out as an efficient solution to problems with exchange after analyzing the shortcomings of government intervention. It is not a premise from which one begins.

Seems an opportunity to create monster recycling ships to harvest the plastic and turn it into new plastic.


I think Tyler is wondering if it is mathematically possible to create sufficient plastic that it could have greater mass than all ocean life. For example is there sufficient oil in proven reserves to outweigh sea life?

They need to self-assemble out of the plastic. Let me know when you've got it.

This is mostly a Tragedy of the Commons problem. Perhaps when UN 'drone' skimming ships are cheap to run, a user tax on plastics would be justified.
Of course, this assumes a UN level of competence unlikely to occur, given current trend lines, before the sun fries us in a billyun+ years

What data/analysis tells us that plastic in the ocean is bad in some way? (I'm not being skeptical, I just don't know what the evidence is)

Um, ocean bacteria evolve to be able to digest the plastic overtime, and they are only getting more efficient as we dump more plastic into the ocean. However, how do we make it up the food chain, evolve more intermediate species so that the energy flows into humans whom eat fishes and other sealife?

yeah, well, only if you're one of those amoral god-haters who believes in evolution...kidding.

But seriously the scale of "over time" when it comes to evolving to the point necessary to solve the problem will likely be too long of a time frame. It took 60 million years for fungi and bacteria to evolve to a state where they could eat wood (hence petrified forests). Granted, we have identified a couple bacteria that can do it, but it remains a big question if it can be scaled up, commercially applied, who pays for it, etc.

I don't think, "Meh, the oceans will solve this themselves before we need to worry about it," is a great plan.

The oceans will rise massively, increasing its volume faster than your piddling plastic dumping. Also, you're all going to die from climate-enraged terrorists thereby reducing plastic consumption.

I have a newsletter, care to subscribe? Perhaps a donation? A board position? I guarantee access to government funding!

This seems like it would be potentially dangerous once these ocean bacteria evolve to live on land. Plastic is used in lots of functions where it would be a real bummer if suddenly it started corroding.

Andromeda Strain. Stock up on sterno.

Good question that still appears unanswered. We do know that bacteria consume plastics in the ocean, but whether there are negative consequences to that is unclear.

" Plastic-eating bacteria might help explain why the amount of debris in the ocean has levelled off, despite continued pollution. But researchers don't yet know whether the digestion produces harmless by-products, or whether it might introduce toxins into the food chain.

"To understand if it's a good thing or not, we have to understand the entire system," says Mincer.

Plastics contain toxins such as phthalates, and also absorb additional toxic chemicals such as persistent organic pollutants from the ocean, says Mark Browne, an ecologist at University College Dublin in Ireland, who was not involved with the project. Those chemicals could leach out into the microscopic animals that eat the bacteria, or broken down microscopic plastic particles could enter cells and release their chemicals there, he says."

Fish and other animals eat it, thinking it's food, and then either starve or are poisoned.

True and sad. Nevertheless not the ecological apocalypse painted in the WP with the photos of the dead albatrosses. The albatross population on Midway is doing fine despite the menace of plastics. A census found 1.39 million of the birds, "The 2015 count is the highest ever and represents a 52 percent increase over the average number for hatch years since 2010."

By that logic, if I get a pollution related cancer I should not care, as long as the human population rises.

How many albatrosses can Midway support? Since we closed the naval air station and abandoned Midway to the albatrosses, there is little to kill them.

Some types of albatrosses may be threatened but not the ones on Midway.

Really? Well if we have to do something about stuff that hurts birds, how about outlawing wind turbines?

"If we keep producing (and failing to properly dispose of) plastics at predicted rates, plastics in the ocean will outweigh fish pound for pound in 2050, the non-profit foundation said in a report Tuesday. "

no it won't, " plastic items degrade from the UV in the sunlight, from submersion in salt water, and wave action – breaking into bits, over and over – the bits get smaller and smaller"

Here is the counter story :

How does 'breaking into bits' reduce the total mass of plastic in the system (the ocean, in this case)? It would still be plastic, no?

Because some of it, much of it is taken up in biologic processes. It reallydepends on what it chemically decomposes into. Organic molecules will all eventually be broken down at some point.

In the meantime they show up in good. Isn't the question how much of it we really want to eat?

The link indicates that once plastic is broken down by sun, salt, wind and waves to 1 mm, bacteria and microbes eat it.

Good link, though I don't know if I would describe it as a "counter story," more of a reality-check, as the author supports reducing plastic dumping, at least in the "relatively small number of countries in Asia and other middle income, rapidly developing countries" responsible for most of it. The plastic gets broken-up over-time and eaten by bacteria and other microbes.

While that's true, that quote makes it sound like the plastic is harmlessly broken down before being digested by bacteria. However, that's only part of the story, as the article you linked to explained.

Animals higher up the food chain (like fish and shellfish) also ingest the little pieces of plastic before the bacteria do their work: (see also )

The plastic itself isn't the main health concern. The main concern is what the plastic absorbs. As noted in the article you linked to: "Plastics contain toxins such as phthalates, and also absorb additional toxic chemicals such as persistent organic pollutants from the ocean, says Mark Browne, an ecologist at University College Dublin in Ireland, who was not involved with the project. Those chemicals could leach out into the microscopic animals that eat the bacteria, or broken down microscopic plastic particles could enter cells and release their chemicals there, he says." (Origional source )

Those concerns do have experimental support: (See also )

Coase has a solution. Give one person indivisible ownership of the sea.(I'd go for a lottery. Make powerball look a bit pathetic). They could charge all boats, river owners oil exploiters etc. I reckon revenue would cover transaction and policing costs

What would be the incentive to clean it up? It's not like oil exploiters would care. I'll wager the vast majority of use of the sea is industrial, with tourism being a small slice on top.

Coasian bargaining would imply that those who do care could then pay the single ocean property rights holder to clean it up.

The point of Coasian bargaining is that property owners should have full knowledge of the long-run costs and benefits of different courses of action and make rational decisions based on these calculations. History suggests this is not realistic. We have "Superfund" precisely to clean up pieces of property that were abandoned by former property owners or that are owned by bankrupt entities that cannot be held liable for the pollution or contamination of their property and its side-effects on others. Just as people didn't always understand or care that much about the environmental effects of some industrial processes 100+ years ago, the dangers of dumping plastic in the ocean are not fully understood and property rights over the ocean wouldn't change that fact.

I was working through a mental exercise, which can (like Coasian bargaining in general) be done under assumptions of perfect or imperfect knowledge.

"the dangers of dumping plastic in the ocean are not fully understood and property rights over the ocean wouldn’t change that fact"

What would change that fact? Reducing the amount of plastic going into the ocean (through whatever mechanism) would not increase our understanding of its dangers, or non-dangerous effects.

We'll build a huge, I mean HUGE,

Wall to keep the plastic bags out of the ocean,

And we'll make anyone coming to this country pay to clean it up.

My Motto:

Let's Make America Think Again

Actually, to make the comparison apt, you'd have to make the grocery stores pay for the wall.

How about having the baggers pay for it?

Shoving the costs to the poor is what makes America Great!

How does the plastic get into the water? Doesn't it go into the trash and then into a landfill? Are we talking about third world countries producing this waste?

Why the wall won't work.

Now if we just wall the third world off from the ocean and charge them for it....

Man those Brits used to be brilliant

We appear to be mainly talking about China (27.7%) and Indonesia (10.1%), as well as Philippines (5.9%), Vietnam (5.8%), Sri Lanka (5.0%) and Thailand (3.2%). Those six countries are responsible for 57.7% of mismanaged plastic waste.

Slightly off topic: Plastic in landfills may be 'mined' by bots in there future. Junkyards recently developed the tech to mine and separate non-ferrous piles they've accumulated over the decades.

Google 'Junkyard Planet'

"Slightly off topic: Plastic in landfills may be ‘mined’ by bots in there future."

Not off topic...but I haven't thought about it much...robots could be used to guard against plastics getting out to sea.

Drones could be used to identify the locations and times that plastics drift out to sea. It would be especially cool if they could do it without human handlers having to identify the plastic.

Fredo was weak and stupid; he never should have eaten all that plastic.

What does "outweigh .... pound for pound" mean? Is there some normalization of the data going on here -- ah well, perhaps buried in the 36 page report.

+1 The effects of poor grammar outweigh those of plastics in the ocean. Pound for pound, anyway.

"Keep in mind those numbers are crude extrapolations." <--- Plastic pun?

There is a lot of energy in those plastics we need an inexpensive fuel cell that makes electricity from plastic. Boats can run partly on plastic that hey pick up.

Plastics are crude extrapolations that will sink to the bottom of the ocean and become crude one more.

And Jimmy Carter said we'd be out of oil by now.
And Al Gore said the North Pole would be gone by now.

I can't wait to see who says what next!!

Do you have quotes? If so that would be awesome.

Oh I found the Carter quote. Pretty damming.

Environmentalists, worst people in the world.

Pretty much. They prefer animals and even lifeless dirt over humans, they don't even care about the things they pretend to care about, their only real concern is feeling self-righteous and having something to rage about and justify them slashing SUV tires and etc.

Yeah, let's pave everything, kill all the animals except the ones we eat, and subsidize pollution everywhere.

Environmentalists are so dumb.

Unless you plan to die in the short-medium term, you'll live to see more and more ships using the artic route from China to Europe .

You can laugh at US Navy too "The United States Navy Arctic Roadmap for 2014 to 2030"

Who knows? One day Greenland may be green. ...again.

Plastic itself is a crude extrapolation.

Plastics in the ocean, even if it does not kill marine animals as much as old fishing tackle (abandoned drift lines and nets are a big killer), is an aesthetics issue. Everybody living in Washington DC that enjoys unblocked views due to height restrictions (Washington Monument) and billboard free roads (LBJ's wife's parkway) should understand this.

The area they are referring to has high concentration of nearly invisible plastic fragments. So, it's not really an aesthetics issue as much as a potential harmful contamination issue.

@JWatts, thanks, I recall reading something like that, but since the claims about dissolved plastics are speculative, I did not mention it. The proven menace of plastics I think is aesthetic.

"The proven menace of plastics I think is aesthetic."

Yes, you make a good point.

That means in 2050 more carbon will be locked up in ocean plastics than in ocean fish (since fish flesh is mostly water). A solution to global warming?

Sure, if people become satiated from using all of this plastic before throwing it away and stop being interested in things like air travel, electricity, heating their homes in the winter, and driving. Otherwise, we have a situation where we are manufacturing plastics at a record pace combined with increased demand for all the other things.

According to the EIA, about 2.7% of petroleum used goes to making plastics. Put differently, plastics manufacturing substitutes one form of sequestered carbon (oil and natural gas in the ground) for another (plastics floating around in the oceans). Carbon isn't being "locked up" by producing plastic and dumping it in the oceans, it is simply being transformed from one compound to another.

little carbon-silicon-based plastic eating robots powered night and day by the heat of the sun or the warmth of the postmeridian water. This comment is copyright, patent, and trademark free.

the phrase "plastic-eating robots" is also copyright and trademark free. If I were 18 again and young and healthy and could stand the pompousness involved with getting an MIT (phonetically - anemeyetee) degree, or a Caltech or Cooper Union degree I would bank heavily on grants in this area . werbumsapientisufficit.

"If we keep producing (and failing to properly dispose of) plastics at predicted rates, plastics in the ocean will outweigh fish pound for pound in 2050"

What is the plastic-capacity of the ocean, measured in units of global pounds of fish? If it was close to 1, then I'm guessing that the author would just tell us that we will run out of space in the ocean for all that plastic. If it's much greater than 1, then telling us that the plastic in the ocean will be much less than the ocean's capacity, wouldn't be very impactful. Thus, we can probably conclude that the author uses this phrasing because the ocean can actually hold many more pounds of plastic than there are pounds of fish. That would make sense because, if you've ever been on a boat in the ocean or looked out into the ocean from a beach, then you would know that it's quite rare to see any fish.

I wonder how they make those estimates...

I think it involves butts and pulling.

A potential way out is the thermal conversion process, high temperature high pressure cooking of these into its constituent components. A diesel like fuel results from it. Whatever the value of the fuel, the process may be worth to do just because it is one of the very few processes that can handle non-segregated municipal waste. This is one of the few answers to disposing diapers and birthday party food plates and the like.

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