Environmentalists need to think globally, not locally

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Environmentalists have tried to make the case that Congress needs to pass the Break Free From Plastic Pollution Act to reduce the amount of plastic in the ocean. But the fact is, the United States could completely stop using plastic items and it would hardly make a dent in reducing ocean pollution. 

Americans share this planet with nearly 200 other countries, all of which have varying capabilities when it comes to environmental issues. And by all metrics, the United States is doing pretty well in comparison. 

When it comes to the ocean, we’ve been told we should ban items like straws and plastic bags to help keep the ocean clean and save the turtles. Yet, almost none of the plastic in the ocean comes from America. 

Almost all of the ocean’s trash can be traced back to 10 rivers in Africa and Asia. Just 1 percent of the mismanaged trash in the ocean can be traced back to the United States. 

And the plastic in the ocean isn’t necessarily the straws, bags and bottles that we might assume. The Great Pacific Garbage Patch, for instance, is a mass of trash the size of Texas. But contrary to popular belief, it consists mostly of abandoned fishing gear, according to National Geographic. Much of the trash was pulled out to sea during a single event: the 2011 tsunami that hit Japan. 

Ironically, the push for sustainability here in America has harmful consequences for the environment elsewhere. Environmentalists want us to stop using plastic and switch to alternatives such as aluminum. But there are hidden costs. 

Aluminum production is a dirty process. The metal is sourced from bauxite ore harvested from strip mines. These open-faced mines coat neighboring communities in thick red dust that leaves nearby residents with nasty health complications ranging from Alzheimer’s to cancer. The red dust also pollutes rivers and soil leaving the ground so toxic it kills all the vegetation around it. 

There are similar environmental impacts to feed our appetite for electric vehicles, which require rare earth minerals and other metals that are mined in third world countries with little real environmental protection (or worker protection, for that matter). 

Can’t we recycle aluminum? Sure, but we don’t. Aluminum cans are littered nearly five times more often than plastic water bottles, according to a report from Keep America Beautiful. Right now less than 35 percent of aluminum cans used in the U.S. are recycled. Plastic bottles can be recycled, too — and plastic doesn’t have the reliance on strip-mining that aluminum production does.

Aluminum is predominantly sourced from Asia and owned by Chinese manufacturers who have lower environmental standards, especially when it comes to carbon emissions. Aluminum releases perfluorocarbon, commonly known as PFC, into the atmosphere. PFCs have a global warming potential 9,200 times that of carbon dioxide. 

As the United States cuts carbon emissions, China is opening hundreds of new coal-burning factories. 

The U.S. has been fighting climate change by lowering its carbon emissions more than any other country in the world. Yet, countries like China, which account for a huge part of global emissions, have been burning coal like there’s no tomorrow. 

This has effects today and potentially in the future. The EPA has estimated that up to 25 percent of the air pollution in Los Angeles actually originates from China. 

Long term, the most dire predictions of climate change include sea-level rise that will affect American cities such as Miami. Even if we’re doing our part, a large country like China or India can easily increase emissions more than we reduce them. 

The environment isn’t perfect, but America has improved dramatically. We don’t litter like we did decades ago. The days of Ohio’s Cuyahoga River catching fire, are a faded memory. 

Other countries, meanwhile, still fail to even have basic infrastructure to manage trash. 

Environmentalists who are wringing their hands about America’s use of plastic bottles or gas-powered cars are missing the forest for the trees. Pollution is a global problem and right now, the biggest contributors to that problem are located in Asia and Africa. 

Campaigns aimed at U.S. consumers are not serious solutions. If the environmental movement wants to save the environment, they need bigger footprints in addressing the real problems that exist in other parts of the Earth. It’s a tough assignment that needs more of our focus than the domestic preoccupation with straws, bags and bottles. 

Madison Dibble is a research associate for the Center for Accountability in Science.  

Tags Aluminium recycling Environment ocean pollution Plastic pollution Recycling

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