My Shanghai surprise – why taxing or banning plastic is futile waste management

A 2018 World Economic Forum report concluded that 90 percent of the eight million tons of plastic that end up in the sea each year are the product of just 10 rivers; most of them in Asia.

Jason Unrau Montreal QC

The late comedian George Carlin enjoyed mocking environmentalists and took particular aim at their ‘Save the Earth’ zealotry.  It’s not the planet that needs saving, Carlin insisted, ‘cause it’ll still be here long after we’re gone.

But Carlin was no absolutist. Noting our ability to generate huge amounts of trash, he conceded that perhaps God did put humanity on Earth to protect her – not by browbeating neighbours into joining Greenpeace, but by encrusting the planet in a thick layer of plastic.

A decade after Carlin’s death, that the Great Pacific Garbage Patch – an island of plastic detritus reputedly twice the size of Texas – would make international headlines, was both sad and disturbing. Surely humanity’s purpose is more than sheathing our blue-green sphere in polymers.

While footage of sea creatures imperilled by bags, straws and assorted petroleum-based debris is heart wrenching, knee-jerk bans on bags or straws and more recently an idea floated by Environment Canada to tax plastic itself, are totally useless in addressing Earth’s industrial-scale litter problem.

Last September, a 600-meter trash-collecting boom departed San Francisco’s harbour, en route to Pacific Ocean’s garbage island; a preliminary attempt employing new technology to clean up somebody else’s mess.

A 2018 World Economic Forum report concluded that 90 percent of the eight million tons of plastic that end up in the sea each year are the product of just 10 rivers; most of them in Asia. Which is why taxing Canadians for plastic – product that touches nearly every aspect of our lives – will do nothing to mitigate the scourge of plastic pollution in the oceans.

Having traveled up the Yangtze River by ferry some 20 years ago, I already suspected as much as the forum’s verdict.

Beginning in Shanghai in the summer of 1999, I boarded a large flat-bottom boat with around 300 other passengers. It would be the first of about a dozen different vessels, that over two weeks ferried me 2500 kilometres to Chongqing.

After taking my first meal in the ferry’s mess hall, served in a Styrofoam box, I searched everywhere for a garbage can. There were none – passengers simply tossed their garbage overboard and without an alternative, I joined in the littering.

The banks of the Yangtze are home to more than 200 million Chinese who treat the waterway as commuter corridor and as I soon discovered, a dump. I took the trip to get a glimpse the fabled Three Gorges, before a hydro-electric project and dam would change the watershed forever. As my trip progressed, however, so did my treatment of this historic river as trash receptacle.

The closer I got to Chongqing, the narrower the river became and the smaller the ferries got. About 10 days into the trip, I exited the dining hall of a different vessel to engage in the daily ritual of reckless Styrofoam abandonment, but to my surprise there was a garbage bin.

Delighted at the prospect that my littering ways on the Yangtze were through, enthusiastically I added my box to a near overflowing bin. As if on cue a kitchenhand exited the dining hall, gathered up the bag and heaved the entire thing overboard.

Like I experienced and begrudgingly participated in creating, the World Economic Forum’s report describes “rivers of plastic” – its analyses of respective outputs and comparisons to garbage island and other samples, could be traced back to their source.

According to the economic forum eight of these rivers are in Asia: the Yangtze; Indus; Yellow; Hai He; Ganges; Pearl; Amur; Mekong; and two in Africa – the Nile and the Niger.

“The more waste there is in a catchment area that is not disposed of properly, the more plastic ultimately ends up in the river and takes this route to the sea,” said Dr. Christian Schmidt, an author of the study.

Considering decades upon decades of littering on the Yangtze River, it is easy to fathom how an agglomeration of this Styrofoam could combine with other seaborne junk and attain the size of a floating, mid-sized country. That a domestic ban on plastic bags or straws, or a tax on plastic would address such pollution emanating from foreign lands, is patently ridiculous.


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