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Telling Plastic to Fork Off

September 10, 2023

It’s the Second Most Used Natural Resource After Water, and It’s Not Being Replenished

Imagine for a moment a dump truck filled with sand. Now, imagine (if you can) one million trucks filled to the brim. The volume they hold is equivalent to the amount being extracted from the world’s oceans each year—more than six billion tons—and in some places with devastating impacts to marine life and coastal communities.

A sand dredger actively working close to an oyster’s nest, dredging due to increased request for building materials like sharp sand have led to destruction of various fish and sea habitat, it has also created erosion in the sea bed.  | Credit: Ei’eke CC BY-SA 4.0 via Wikimedia

The United Nations Environment Programme warned last week that sand dredging is endangering marine life and coastal communities and that it’s increasing. The UN’s Marine Sand Watch monitors large dredging vessels all around the world, including hotspots in the North Sea, Southeast Asia, and the East Coast of the United States. Much of the sand and gravel is mined in shallow seas, and some vessels vacuum it up, creating turbidity and noise pollution, as well as depleting nutrients and microorganisms available for fish. A UN official said at a press conference that large ships are sterilizing the bottom of the sea and at times, dredge down to the bedrock, which results in marine life being unable to recover.

Sand is used more than any other natural resource except water. It’s a fundamental ingredient of concrete for construction. It’s also used to restore beaches, make glass and even toothpaste.

Ocean sand is replenished by rivers carrying sediment from the land; however, the UN says we are approaching the point where rivers won't be able to keep pace with what dredgers are removing—making it difficult to maintain coastlines and marine ecosystems, especially where dredging is intense. In the last 20 years, Thailand, Malaysia, Vietnam, and Cambodia have banned exporting marine sand.

Get Rid of a Dam on the Colorado River? Some Farmers Say Yes

The Colorado River is in crisis as prolonged drought and climate change have led to the Southwest becoming even more arid—a process called aridification. Now, the federal government is beginning to review new rules for managing the heavily used waterway.

Glen Canyon Dam, substation (left) and bridge (in front of the dam) as seen from the south, near Page, Arizona, USA  |  Credit: Adbar/Creative Commons

Earlier proposals by environmental groups to either drain Lake Powell—the river’s second largest reservoir—or to engineer a bypass through the Glen Canyon Dam that forms the lake are gaining some support from a surprising sector—some farmers in Southern California.  

Farmers in the Imperial Valley grow crops such as vegetables and alfalfa, using the largest share of the Colorado River, which also supplies 40 million people. Two growers in the Imperial Valley, who the Los Angeles Times reports operate some of the biggest farms, wrote to the government saying that sacrificing Lake Powell and storing its water in Lake Mead formed by Hoover Dam should be seriously considered.

So why are the farmers aligning with environmentalists? A leader of the Great Basin Water Network told the Los Angeles Times that the farmers see the writing on the wall, and they know there’s not going to be enough water to fill two giant reservoirs anymore. He added that propping up Lake Powell could lead to less water for Imperial Valley growers.

The Glen Canyon Institute, among other groups, has urged the federal government to examine the idea of one dam—that being Hoover Dam which forms Lake Mead—and return the river to be free flowing above it. The proposal would radically alter the way the river has been managed, which has included generating hydropower at Glen Canyon Dam and providing recreational opportunities in Lake Powell.

Water Pipe Joints Are Coming Apart with Climate Change

Our infrastructure was designed for a bygone era before our climate started to change. There might be no better example of this than in Texas, where cities endured the hottest summer on record with below-average rainfall—a combination that caused water lines to rupture. 

Road damage caused by a 2007 flood in Minnesota  |  Credit: FEMA/Patsy Lynch

As Inside Climate News explains, dried out soil contracts and can cause pipes to shift. As the pipes move, their joints break, spawning leaks that are happening more often due to the brittleness of the aging lines themselves. Erin Jones, a spokesperson for the city of Houston told Inside Climate News that they were taking 500 calls per week for water leaks, up 300 from this month last year when drought conditions were less severe.

Just at a time when conservation was urgently needed, the extreme heat increased demand, and the broken pipes caused volumes of water to be lost. Even if the conditions weren’t severe, leaking pipes in Texas were already losing billions of gallons of water and costing hundreds of millions of dollars annually to repair—a vulnerability of the state’s infrastructure that climate change has laid bare.

There’s a Fork in the Road When Ordering Takeout

Huge amounts of plastic are accumulating in the world’s oceans and harming marine life, but there's some good news. Researchers in China have found a way to reduce the flow of the garbage into waterways—and it’s something each of us could do. We can fork off—that is, just say no to including disposable knives and forks in our takeout orders.

The old interface, in which the default cutlery option at the check-out page was preset as “with cutlery.” Users had to click on the pop-up window and scroll to the bottom to choose the no-cutlery option. (B) The new interface in the treated cities. A window about cutlery automatically popped up during checkout and required the consumer to choose the number of sets of single-use cutlery (SUC). The default cutlery option was “no cutlery.” Users could make any option their default by clicking the “set as default” button (so that this window would not pop up in their future orders). The no-cutlery option came with a small nonpecuniary incentive, that is, green points. Contents are translated by the authors.

Researchers from the Hong Kong University Business School worked with a Chinese food app called Eleme, which translates to “Are you hungry?” and is similar to DoorDash or Uber Eats, to add a default setting that declines plastic utensils with orders. They also added what’s called a “green nudge”—gentle prompts meant to promote environmentally friendly behavior. Examples include having bike parking and repair stations on university campuses to encourage cycling to school to making recycling bins eye-catching to encourage their use.

In the case with the food app, users who skipped the single-use plastic were given “green points” toward planting a tree in the desert. They say this type of nudge is effective because it’s free, unlike other approaches such as charging shoppers a fee to have a plastic bag. Also, it didn’t require an ad campaign to raise awareness. People made their choice in the moment.

After reviewing app usage for two years through 2019-2020 in three major Chinese cities, they found the share of orders without the plastic utensils increased by 648 percent. They calculate that if the app setting were applied all over China, more than 21.75 billion sets of single-use cutlery could be saved annually, equivalent to preventing the generation of 3.26 million metric tons of plastic waste.

What’s more, the setting could also potentially save 5.44 million trees annually in China, since users could choose not to receive wooden chopsticks. China is the world’s largest producer and consumer of single-use plastic. As of 2019, more than 540 million Chinese were active users of food-delivery services and each day consumed more than 50 million sets of plastic cutlery.

The team says the cost to update the app was negligible and other delivery platforms should make use of this fork in the road and update their software too.

This study was published in the journal Science.