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The last straw for environmentalists

Research and market analysis shows straw bans won’t do much for the ocean

A McDonald's restaurant cup and plastic straw Associated Press/Photo by Wilfredo Lee

The last straw for environmentalists

Who would have thought a 9-year-old boy’s school project could mushroom into a frenzied environmental campaign to ban the plastic straw?

In 2011, Vermont resident Milo Cress became concerned that plastic straws might contribute to the pollution of our ocean and rivers. Unable to find any scientific research on straw use in the United States and its environmental impact, Cress called straw manufacturers and asked them for estimates on the daily straw market. He got varying replies and settled on a median 500 million plastic straws per day. Despite no scientific backup for the figure, mainstream media outlets ran with it. (The number is probably closer to 175 million per day, according to Technomic, a global foodservice consulting company.)

Now, numerous celebrities have vowed to just say no to straws. Global businesses, including American Airlines, Starbucks, Disney, Hyatt Hotels Corporation, and Marriott International plan to ban the plastic straw. On July 1, Seattle became the first major U.S. city to ban plastic straws, with other cities, including New York City, considering similar action.

There is little debate that plastic pollution poses a problem for the earth’s oceans. Estimates indicate that ocean waters may already contain more than 150 million tons of plastic, with an additional 8 million tons accumulating each year. Plastics do not degrade easily and can remain in the environment for hundreds of years. In 2015, a video showing a marine biologist removing a straw from a sea turtle’s nose went viral and understandably elicited public sympathy.

Ocean sun, waves, wind, and microbes usually break down plastic into smaller pieces, often ingested by marine animals. According to a scientific review published in Science Direct, ingestion of plastic can result in gut blockage and perforation of internal organs, as well as cause toxic chemicals to leach into sea life. And those toxins can travel all the way up the food chain to human ingestion.

But critics of the plastic straw ban note scientific research shows the United States contributes little to marine plastic pollution. A 2015 Science magazine report found China and 11 other Asian nations bore the responsibility for 77 to 83 percent of plastic waste entering ocean waters, and a 2017 Environmental Sciences and Technology study reported up to 95 percent of plastic waste enters an ocean from one of 10 rivers—eight in Asia and two in Africa.

According to the Competitive Enterprise Institute, a free-market public policy organization, consumers are not the main ocean polluters: Fish nets, ropes, and lines account for 52 percent of marine trash.

The organization also noted that plastic often offers a more sanitary option than reusable products and is cheaper to produce than paper alternatives. Production of paper straws costs eight times more than plastic straws and requires much more energy.

Critics of the ban say it will not benefit the environment but will leave consumers paying more for a soggy paper straw that degrades while in use.

You’re replacing a superior product with an inferior one and asking people to pay more for it,” Angela Logomasini, a CEI senior fellow, said in an interview with ReasonTV. “It doesn’t make a lot of sense.”

Kelvin Droegemeier

Kelvin Droegemeier YouTube

Trump’s popular science pick

After 19 months without a science adviser, President Donald Trump last week nominated an Oklahoma meteorologist and respected extreme weather expert to lead the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy, with surprising bipartisan support.

Kelvin Droegemeier is a University of Oklahoma meteorology professor whose OU web page boldly proclaims, “God Bless America!!!” and who has voiced support for the Trump administration. He is a “a personable guy,” a “good old boy who wears cowboy boots,” and has “solid conservative credentials,” according to Maria Zuber, a planetary geophysicist and vice president for research at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

But despite Droegemeier’s conservative leanings, his nomination pleasantly surprised many environmentalists who believe he will prove a strong advocate for federal funding of research, particularly climate change studies. Zuber noted Droegemeier has always stood up for “climate science.”

“I’m certain he believes in mainstream climate science,” Rosina Bierbaum, an environmental policy expert at the University of Michigan who has worked with Droegemeier in the past, told Nature.

John Holdren, former science adviser to President Barack Obama, also approved the nomination. “He’s a very good pick. … He has experience speaking science to power. I expect he’ll be energetic in defending the R&D budget, and climate change research in particular,” he told Science Magazine. —J.B.

Kelvin Droegemeier

Kelvin Droegemeier YouTube

Terraforming Mars unlikely

A new study casts a grim shadow on the dream of making Mars habitable for humans. Terraforming Mars, a hypothetical process in which engineers would change the Martian surface, climate, and atmosphere to make it hospitable to both plant and human life without the need for life support systems, has captured the imaginations of scientists, businessmen, moviemakers, and game designers alike. Elon Musk, founder and CEO of SpaceX, a private American aerospace manufacturer, is quite vocal about his hope to transport earthlings to settlements on the Red Planet in the not-too-distant future.

But in a new study in Nature Astronomy, researchers found Mars’ carbon dioxide, necessary to create an atmosphere, lies trapped in soil, rock, and the planet’s ice poles, leaving far too little available for terraforming.

“Sorry, Elon. There’s not enough CO2 to terraform Mars,” Discover Magazine tweeted late last month.

Undaunted, Musk responded that he believes scientists could extract a sufficient amount of carbon dioxide from the Martian soil. “There’s a massive amount of CO2 on Mars absorbed into soil that’d be released upon heating. With enough energy via artificial or natural (sun) fusion, you can terraform almost any large, rocky body,” he tweeted back. —J.B.

Birds as translators

God has endowed some animals with the ability to translate the meaning of distress calls from other species, a much safer way to detect the presence of a predator than through trial and error. Now, a study published in Current Biology shows how this skill develops.

For three days, researchers walked around a park in Australia and played unfamiliar recorded sounds for 16 solitary fairy wrens. At first, the wrens paid no attention to the sounds. Then the researchers played the same sounds along with noises the birds already associated with danger, such as the fairy wren’s own alarm signal. At the end of the experiment the birds could interpret the previously unfamiliar sounds as a distress call even in the absence of the already known alarm signals, showing they had learned how to translate the foreign language and understand that it signaled danger. —J.B

Julie Borg

Julie is a WORLD contributor who covers science and intelligent design. A clinical psychologist and a World Journalism Institute graduate, Julie resides in Dayton, Ohio.

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