Dan Gardner is the New York Times best-selling author of Risk, Future Babble, Superforecasting (co-authored with Philip E. Tetlock), and How Big Things Get Done (co-authored with Bent Flyvbjerg). His books have been published in 26 countries and 20 languages. Prior to becoming an author, Gardner was an award-winning investigative journalist. More >

At sea on plastics

Originally published in the Globe and Mail, June 11, 2019

We’ve all seen the rolling masses of plastic choking the oceans, the plastic clogging the bellies of dead whales, the plastic littering remote beaches and even the deepest trenches in the ocean. But where does all that plastic come from?

Judging by news reports and the focus of politicians and activists, it comes from us, the plastic-consuming gluttons of the wealthy countries. To save the oceans, we must reduce, reuse and recycle – voluntarily or otherwise. Plastic-consuming gluttons we may be, but we are not the main source of ocean plastics. And if we don’t get this straight, nothing we do will clean the waters of the blue planet.

An estimated eight million tonnes of plastic – the weight of 90 aircraft carriers, according to the U.S. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) – is dumped into the oceans each year. An estimated 80 per cent of that trash comes from land sources.

“Just think about all the plastic items you use daily,” the NOAA says on its website. “Many plastic products are single-use items that are designed to be thrown out, like water bottles or takeout containers. These are used and discarded quickly. If this waste isn’t properly disposed of or managed, it can end up in the ocean.”

But in the developed world, most of the waste is properly disposed of, thanks to waste management systems few of us think about or even notice. North America is the source of just 0.9 per cent of the world’s “mismanaged” plastic, meaning plastic that could wind up in the ocean. Almost all our junk ends up in landfills (or incinerators). There are many good reasons to rue this but the state of the oceans isn’t one.

So where does the plastic that is choking the oceans come from? Mostly, the developing world.

I once spent a week in the slums of Lagos, the immense, chaotic Nigerian megacity with a population of 17.5 million people. There is trash – much of it plastic – strewn everywhere. It is so thick on the ground in some places that it appears the shanties were built on landfills.

Waterways are worse. Ditches, canals, creeks and marshes groan with garbage.

This isn’t indolence. Waste disposal in Lagos is haphazard at best. Dumping is the only option for millions of poor people. And so when tropical rains pour down, ditches flow into creeks. Creeks flow into rivers. Rivers flow into oceans.

By far the worst sources of plastic pollution are rivers whose basins are heavily populated with poor people who lack access to proper waste disposal. A recent study estimated 90 per cent of all river-borne plastic pollution comes from just 10 rivers: eight in Asia, two in Africa. Estimates vary widely – there’s lots of uncertainty in these data – but by one estimate the Yangtze River alone spews 1.5 million tonnes of plastic each year.

I’ve never heard any Canadian politician talk about this, nor read a Canadian news story connect developing-world poverty with ocean plastics. Instead, we hear endless talk about stopping our children from using plastic drinking straws and why we should feel guilty for drinking from plastic water bottles. And now the government is promising to ban single-use plastics.

“We’ve all seen the disturbing images of fish, sea turtles, whales and other wildlife being injured or dying because of plastic garbage in our oceans. Canadians expect us to act,” Environment Minister Catherine McKenna said on Monday.

Even the Ocean Plastics Charter – a Canadian-led initiative agreed to at the previous Group of Seven meeting – makes only a brief and oblique reference to the principal source of plastic in the oceans. Most of the rest calls for education campaigns, more domestic recycling and other ideas that are worthy and excellent – and will do little or nothing to clean the oceans.

I’m not sure what the cause of this disconnect is. Charitably, one might think it stems from a reluctance to blame the world’s poor. But a reasonable person wouldn’t fault developing countries for lacking a capacity that we in the wealthy world only developed relatively recently and at an expense they can’t afford. A reasonable person would say we’re rich, they’re not, so let’s fund them to develop the waste disposal systems needed to make their lives better and clean up the oceans we all share. (Of course, China is now wealthy enough to develop its own waste disposal, and happily for the world the government has started to aggressively tackle the problem.)

Less charitably, the critical role of the developing world is being ignored because no one in this country stands to gain – in votes, eyeballs, or donations – by talking about waste disposal in the developing world.

Whatever the explanation, it is a weird sort of narcissism to look at a global problem and assume it is all about us. If we are to make a difference, we must get over ourselves.