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Governments are slowly starting to take single use plastic seriously. A good list of government actions varying from Countries to cities is here:

Private industry as well like Coke is going to put water into cans under the Dasani brand. It's not everything but it's a major step in reducing the waste caused my plastic.

But plastic is in other products as well like toys, electronics, etc... Individuals must be aware of this and need to make better choices or else this problem will just continue.

I am hopeful we can take collective action to clean up the environment and live sustainably.

> Individuals must be aware of this and need to make better choices or else this problem will just continue.

No they don't. At least not if they live in the developed world. Virtually all disposed of plastic in the US and Europe is sequestered in solid-waste landfills. Modern landfills leak virtually nothing to the outside environment.

Virtually all environmental plastic contamination comes from third world countries in Asia or Africa. In particular China, Vietnam, the Philippines and Indonesia. Due to rampant corruption and lack of oversight these countries have gross mismanagement of their solid waste disposal.

Plastic is completely fine to use. As long as it's properly disposed of, there's essentially zero environmental impact. If you live in a first world country, I can assure you that your plastic straw will absolutely not end up in a turtle's nose. The issue is that the international community needs to hold Asia and Africa accountable for not upholding global standards on ocean pollution.

[1] [2]

The governments need to be held accountable but there also needs to be significant education of the population. I lived in Thailand for a few years and my Thai friends would literally just drop bags, wrappers, plastic bottles, etc. on the ground as soon as they were done with them without missing a beat. They rolled their eyes and giggled at me when I carried my trash around until I found a receptacle. In the town I lived in there were hundreds of little scraps of plastic in every square foot of dirt.
It seems at least one first world country is sending recycling waste to developing countries for supposed processing
Yes it is becoming a real problem here in Australia.

And just recently we started sending recycling to landfill in many places:

Historically we've "outsourced" our recycling problem to Asian nations rather than develop or implement solutions at home, and unfortunately now our chickens are coming home to roost.

> rather than develop or implement solutions at home

I find this absolutely infuriating... it's the perfect job to give to the CSIRO (our public scientific research organisation) and provide government grants to get local recycling off the ground. There's so much talk around "supporting local industry", but when decisions are actually made, they use overseas suppliers 9 times out of 10.

There's also a problem that a lot of this smuggling may be illegal (not willingly accepted by other countries under their laws) and fraudulent (done instead of real recycling). So the statistics we have about the destination of recycling and general waste may be wrong.
In all the developed countries I have visited, plastic waste is omnipresent on the side of streets or beaches.
Littered waste is distinct from 'inadequately disposed' waste in that it represents plastics that are dumped or disposed of without consent in an inappropriate location.

Whilst high-income countries tend to have effective waste management infrastructure and therefore very small quantities of inadequately disposed waste, they can contribute to plastics pollution by littering. Jambeck et al. (2015) assume a rate of littering of 2 percent of total plastic waste generation across all countries.

Let's not get so high and mighty about developing countries having to take all the blame. Western countries do ship a lot of plastic waste to developing nations. [0]


Under the guise of recycling, which is funny, because we're actually seeing environmental damage as a direct result of recycling when just throwing it away would place it safely in a US landfill
I adamantly agree. The only caveat is some (I don't know the percentage) of the trash being disposed of in these developing countries comes from developed nations that sell it for recycling/dumping but don't do it properly. I'm not sure what's the western countries' responsibility here but we can't turn a blind eye.
You've ignored microplastic pollution coming from clothing, and you've ignored industrial pollution from eg fishing nets.

> Virtually all environmental plastic contamination comes from third world countries in Asia or Africa

This is so wrong there's no point trying to rebut it. But it is very wrong, and the fact you say it shows you do not understand the problem at all.

I recognize that the problem outside of US Canada Western and Central Europe, etc is worse, but I live next to a creek in US, and I guarantee you that there is A LOT of junk getting into the water, and not just plastic.
Wouldn't it be nice just to not use the stuff, anyway? Conserve our resources, etc. Plus foodstuffs in plastic ... what's the story there, anyway?

Less code is more. Less stuff is more.

Your platitudes are meaningless without a practical replacement. We don't use plastic for the fun of it - there's nothing else that can do what plastic can do, especially for the price. What's the alternative?
There’s not a single replacement that works for every situation, but plastic is far from irreplaceable.

I got a cloth shopping bag as a gift when I was in college; I still use it today 10 years later. Perfect example of a case where there is really no need for plastic in the first place.

I’m not against plastic, but its cheap price had lead to grotesque levels of overuse. Every time I order take out, I always make a big point that I don’t want any utensils, because if I don’t, they cram the bag full of things I don’t need. It’s no more convenient for me to receive or not receive plastic utensils, it’s just wasteful.

If you need a plastic thing, by all means, go for it. But that I can tell most use of plastic in our society is just out of habit. We could change our habits, use far less plastic and at no cost to ourselves.

Seems like a no brained to optimize this function.

> put water into cans

People need to stop buying packaged water. Municipal water in developed countries is always cleaner than bottled water. There are very low standards for bottled water where as city water in the US, EU, Japan et. al. are tested constantly (in some cities; up to 400 times per month at various sites and sections).

Bottled water is at 1000% markup compared city/water fountains. It is also almost always tap water. It's a plight on the world in plastic/oil waste and people need to stop buying it. Putting it in cans will not make it better, and countries without clean water need heavily to invest in better domestic clean water infrastructure. It should be the highest priority of ever low income country to provide this most basic need to its people.

The documentaries Blue Gold and Tapped go into the issues with the private and bottled water industries.

This is not true in the United States[1]. Bottled water from municipal sources must be re-filtered by various means, eliminating chlorine, heavy minerals, and other contaminates beyond the acceptable levels for the municipal source alone.


It is not what's written in the link you provided.

It just says that bottled water can be tap water that may be purified. And obviously, that bottled water has to be drinkable, just like tap water.

The only indication that tap water may be inferior is that the tolerance for lead is higher in tap water, to account for possibly of lead piping. But I suppose that you can check your water if you think it is a problem.

I think you're being pedantic. What I wrote is true for purified bottled water. The FDA link says "Municipal water is usually treated before it is bottled." and then "water that has been treated...may meet standards that allow it to be labeled as “purified water.”".

If you believe that bottled water is less clean than tap, then only one of the following must be true:

1. The sourced municipal tap water is already purified such that any additional treatment does nothing.

2. The bottled water in question is not labeled as purified (and is not from a spring, well, or other non-municipal source).

A quick internet search reveals that all the major bottled water brands are either explicitly labeled as purified municipal tap (Smart Water, Dasani), or excluded from the discussion because they are from a spring or well (Evian, Arrowhead). I have yet find a single brand of unpurified non-spring water. However, I did learn that all bottled water regardless of source must meet the U.S. Pharmacopeia 23rd Rev. standards (which are unfortunately paywalled).

It seems unlikely you'll encounter unpurified, straight-from-the-tap bottled water, striking conjecture #2 from the list. Therefore, if conjecture #1 is true, then the only thing that can be said is bottled water is at least as good as municipal tap, but never worse.

It's so weird that this just sort of happened.

I don't think it was even 15 years ago that bottled water was like, a non-thing. It might sort of be in shops but people would laugh at it.

It's one of those collective action problems whereby I'd happily pay ten quid a year or whatever stupidly low cost would be required to have some free fountains. Gah.

Even 15 years ago, vending machines sold many different flavours of bottled water. As people became more health-concious, the sugar-free variety grew more popular.

It's less mysterious when you consider the sales trends for bottled soft drinks vs bottled water. People are buying bottled water in situations where they used to buy bottled soda.

It's still pretty mysterious to me. I can't really grok statistical trends - I need stories of individuals and why they felt, for example, at some moment in time, paying a dollar for a bottle of water felt like a reasonable thing to do over just like, asking someone to fill a bottle they probably had in their car.

It's not even the pollution stuff, it's more like, you've just paid for a free resource. Wat?

Bottled soda is completely different because it's a resource that isn't anywhere close to free.

I'll stop drinking bottled (mostly mineral out of glass if you must know) water when the stuff out the spigot stops tasting like swimming pool water from all the chloramine. It's disgusting, and it didn't used to happen: chlorine worked just fine without making your water taste like the swimming pool.

There was absolutely no reason to switch to chloramine other than some chemical company greased a politician. And no I don't care about your goofy stats telling me it's "safe" (or dangerous for that matter, though I assume it probably ain't good for you) -it tastes like a goddamned swimming pool.

The problem is there are usually no fountains around.

It's funny, last time I went to LAX I couldn't find a single place to refill our water bottle, meanwhile IAH in Houston has them everywhere.

Also, in a lot of countries bottled water is tested and is much better than the local drinking water. It's necessary when you go to Thailand or Mexico for example. It's also necessary for some places in the US.

It is not just single use plastic.

Micro plastics from washing clothes:

"The number of microfibres released from a typical 5 kg wash load of polyester fabrics was estimated to be over 6,000,000 depending on the type of detergent used"

A lot of study still needs to be done to determine the sources of micro plastics.

We can all stop using single use carrier bags, but can we stop washing our $3 Target t-shirts made from poly-cotton?

I don't feel it's ever effective to put a problem like this on individuals. When it gets down to the level of buying at the gas station, your choices are plastic, plastic or plastic, or stay thirsty. Which is not an option.

The answer has to be national, ideally global, and that means political.

I ask the cashier or whoever to fill my water bottle and 99% of the time it's fine. This might not scale but eventually perhaps they'd just stick a tap outside or whatever.

Or do it in the bathroom since potable water is fairly universal in the Western world. I don't expect others to do this because it seems there are huge numbers of irrationally squeamish individuals.

I have been carrying the same metal water bottle around with me since 2008. I fill it with water. I don’t buy water or other drinks in plastic bottles.

I agree it’s not effective to expect people to do this, but it’s really easy for an individual to do.

I agree, it's common for school children here in Australia to bring their own water bottle, and I've kept up the habit as an adult. When I see people buying water in supermarkets it's mostly immigrants or tourists, based on overhead conversations and personal experience. I think a cultural change and education (like we did for littering, with a pretty great but not perfect outcome) is the better option.

I've tried telling my foreign in-laws that the water here is some of the cleanest in the world, but they still buy their 24-pack from supermarket when they visit. Maybe one day we will convince them.

I believe the primary source was named as coatings from vehicles, boats, etc. This might be a "sure, reuse bags, but the garbage patch is mostly fishing gear" situation.
Yesterday someone on HN said there’s still plastic inside the cans.

Correct, but it's an extremely thin coating, and when they can gets recycled it's taken care of along with that (likely burnt up in the melting process).
Except for the micro plastics that you end up drinking.

EDIT for the down voters: aluminum cans have been identified as the main source of BPA in the human population.

> Individuals must be aware of this and need to make better choices or else this problem will just continue.

Expecting individuals to do the right thing vs laziness is not a good bet. A better option would be to remove plastic supply, including slightly more durable goods, by any number of mechanisms.

I never realized The coca-cola company was so motivated by environmental concerns they’d stick their neck out like that. I guess it’s like the old chevron commercials, “people do”!
Don’t be misled, Coca Cola doesn’t give a shit about the environment. They’re just trying to stay in mindshare and ensure they aren’t disrupted if plastic backlash really takes off.
I'm scared and feel totally powerless. Everyone around me who I've talked to about this either feels the same or thinks its a complete hoax.

The whole habitable planet thing was nice while it lasted.

But seriously, does anyone have any suggestions on how a software engineer can make any sort of meaningful impact on this? Or even groups of software engineers, as many of the people here feel similarly. This is a problem that must be solved.

Software engineer here. I wouldn't necessarily say this is specific to software engineers. But I do think individuals can make an impact in many ways. Using your money to purchase products that are free of plastic and is sustainably made is one way.

Another action people can take is to refuse working for an employer who doesn't take sustainability seriously or is an obvious polluter. I recently switched jobs from a place that put API's in front of warehousing, logistics, and fulfillment. They did not take sustainably seriously. Tons of plastic packaging and inefficient warehouses.

I'm now at a retailer that is extremely conscious of sustainability. Their warehouses and stores are all 100% carbon neutral and are starting to divert 90%+ of all waste from ending up in landfills. Data centers are also carbon neutral. Sustainability decisions ARE business decisions. In my experience, I've seen most businesses separate sustainability and business. It's refreshing to be somewhere that molds the two together. I wish more businesses took this approach.

If you are interested in making an impact then do some research on the company before your next interview. At the end of interviews they give you the opportunity to ask questions. Ask about sustainability and see what their reaction is.

I think it's misguided to talk up individual action over government regulation. I'm sure it feels nice to "do the right thing" but it's not impactful. In some cases, it frees up resources to be further wasted by the problematic % of people who just don't give a damn.

My suggestion is always to elect better politicians and write better laws.

> refuse working for an employer who doesn't take sustainability seriously

I hear this a lot, and I have to wonder, what's the end-game here? To boycott the business on the employment side, so that they can't do effective work and eventually have to shutdown the company? Or maybe induce enough hiring pain they'll be forced to change their unsustainable practices to be able to attract talent?

Ultimately you are removing one labourer from the pool that is willing to contribute towards unsustainable practices.

The aggregate effect, assuming that you're a competent developer, is that these businesses are less efficient.

Ignoring that, it's good for your own soul to not do things you think are bad.

It took me a long time to accept it but software engineers cannot make any difference. The best way to stop feeling totally powerless is to rebel against the status quo. e.g. Find your local group and join them. You'll start feeling better. I promise.
Ultimately this comes down to influencing public policy to really move the needle – something that very few individuals have a particular competency in. Policy, because it can influence far far more people than active individual choices (most of which are just easy defaults), and because it has access to a level of influence that individuals simply do not E.g. industrial and manufacturing processes – which may or may not be visible in the "marketplace" and can a priori constrain what individual choices might even exist.

And therein lies the rub: individuals by the numbers don't have competency at the policy level because that's an artifact of collaboration and organization.

Most of us don't and can't work at the scope of policy. Modern society puts interested individuals at a huge disadvantage here. E.g. it's far, far easier for even a relatively small business to support someone in part- or full- time policy related efforts. Lobbying, marketing, supporting candidates, etc. Large companies may have entire divisions dedicated to such. The "rest" of us largely have to work for those entities for a living, don't have the required expertise, don't have the luxury of spending hours a week on policy change, and/or don't even have the spare income to donate to a suitable policy organization to act in our proxy, if one even exists.

Note: I don't think the above spells gloom and doom. Instead, I think this line of thinking is part of an growing awareness, a wake-up-call: that society will need to change if humanity is to adapt and survive.

How did your line of thinking go from "scientists find trace amounts of plastics in snow" to "the planet will soon be uninhabitable"? What makes this sort of apocalyptic thinking any more rational than a doomsday cult?
We're either accelerating, or just continuing, our polluting processes year on year.

The result of that can be that one decade, everything looks sort of fine, and then the next, oops - it's all fucked.

Anything we do that results in visibiity at a global environmental level requires caution, because whilst we can change it inadvertently over a period of mere decades, restoration may require millenia.

Who's we? The west has been scaling back polluting processes year after year. The vast majority of plastic in the ocean comes from Asia and Africa, and the west is talking about eliminating plastic straws. The west is talking about eliminating coal power plants and many Asian coal plants don't even scrub the exhaust adequately.

Why are we worried about trivial things which we can barely detect when there are places like Haiti where people, right now, live in squalor? Again, you're worried about something you don't understand and can't actually predict when there are real things that we know about but won't do anything about.

We are guinea pigs in a worldwide experiment on microplastics, and I fear it will turn out worse for us than our grandparents with asbestos.

However, you're not powerless. Personally, cook your food in metal and try to drink out of glass and metal. For the world, work hard and save up. As a SW engineer, you should be able to save up. Put some of your money into organizations that are trying to save the environment. Donate some money to politicians that recognize these threats.

Yeah personal action isn't pointless, but it's probably only gets us 20% of the way there. 20% isn't nothing tho.

What I've been lead to believe is the elephant in the room vis micro-plastics is clothing. A lot ends up in rivers and oceans via waste water. Check your dry lint trap lately? That's the big stuff. All the micro stuff ends up down the drain or in the air.

Other than going full naked hippy how are you supposed to deal with that on a personal level?

Is it known whether clothing generates a large fraction of microplastics? If so, switching to cotton and other non-synthetic materials might make a difference.

Stop wearing shitty clothes.

I don't know why this is remotely controversial or unknown; somehow people imagine the plastic bottle they drank from, or the plastic bag they stored their lunchtime sammich in, will instantly atomize into micron sized particles which snow on the arctic. No. Micron sized particles of plastic come from micron sized fibers in your goddamned cheap "high tech" polyester hoodie (and dipshits burning rubber).

If programmers really want to do their bit on this issue; start wearing a wool suit, cotton shirt and silk necktie.

Note the link mentions tire abrasion not burning.

By their estimate, roadside tire grind results in more microplastics in waterways than clothing, lost plastic pellets and building paint combined.

>The whole habitable planet thing was nice while it lasted.

The truth is that the planet has been much better for the median human than it was 200 years ago, and is still likely to be better for the median human 200 years in the future compared to the past.

Yes, we have more problems, but we have much better tools of dealing with problems including electricity, communication, transportation, heating, cooling, medicines, modern agriculture, GMO, CRISPER.

I'm actually quite impressed at the level of propaganda that has been ramped up over the years with most of the fear mongering coming from the left side of the political spectrum.

It's no wonder they are so angry, they are being told the entire planet around them is crumbling, animals are going extinct and the planet will be uninhabitable! If I actually believed all of this nonsense I'd probably be pissed off too.

It's funny telling people how things are actually going great and seeing the look on their face, "wait you don't think the world is ending?".

Gee, I felt like the first part of your comment was serious enough. (No really, I feel the same: scared).

Short answer though is no, this is a hardware problem. Best thing we can hope to do is force societal change via votes from the upcoming generations. No one who didn't live with this issue as a constant din in their life (i.e. boomers) is going to be able to make the hard lifestyle sacrifices/reimaginings that it will take. I'm just getting myself settled into adulthood now (early thirties) and I worry that we're too far gone and divided already.

It would take some specialist knowledge on human biology, but you could model the impacts of microplastics on human health and present it to help the case of easing off plastic use.

I have other ideas, but those involve a somewhat atypical set of morals, so maybe not good to talk out on a public forum.

Write code to support radical causes, groups, or infrastructure. Or study existing capitalistic infrastructure and use your engineering skills to shine a light on how it works, whether that's discovering symbiotic financial relationships, illuminating lines of physical supply, or identifying logistical pain points.

Sure, recycle, be a thoughtful consumer, write your representatives, but direct action gets the goods. Look into alternative approaches to governance and autonomous political structures too. There are lots of ideas and projects floating around that could benefit from a technical assist, and (sort of like Linux) you can just show up and start doing it, just be open to advice and suggestions along the way.

"Number of particles" is a bad metric. One way to formalize this complaint is that this measure is independent of Avagadro's number. In particular, there are many more molecules in a liter of water (~10^24) than there are liters of water in the oceans (~10^21). So if you tag all the water molecules in a single glass of water, fully mix that water in the oceans, and then scoop out another glass from the ocean on the other side of the world, that second glass will contain many tagged molecules.

These misleading sorts of statistics also appear when people discuss detection of radiation, e.g., detecting minute radioactive fallout in the US after the Fukushima meltdown.

But TFA is not using "particles" to mean "molecules". It means "pieces of plastic below 5mm in size". Compared to molecules, these are macro-scale objects, and if you mix 10^24 of them into the oceans, that becomes a lot more noticeable than a liter of pharaoh water.
Right, that's why I criticized "number of particles" as a metric, not the study in general. The point is that "pieces of plastic below 5mm in size" does not have a lower bound, and indeed the journal article discusses pieces that are 300 microns across, overwhelmingly most of which are less than 100 microns across (meaning many thousands of times smaller in mass than suggested by your phrase). This is getting close to metric I already said would be a good one, i.e., ppm, or some other similar metric along with an estimate of the size of harms at this level.

For that, you'll have to actually read the paper (please share!) or wait for non-terrible science journalism -- don't hold your breath!

Which part of "freaking plastic is falling out of the sky in fucking ARCTIC" is misleading?
Maybe this will help. Consider the first cup of water that Egyptian pharaoh Tutankhamun drank on his 18th birthday. That water is currently raining down on the Amazon forest. This is not a good argument that we are being overwhelmed by pharaoh water. (Of course, the plastic could be a big problem; this just doesn't show it.)
It doesn’t. The point is the arctic is far away from humans. Yet our generated plastic is falling out of the sky. The importance of this is an ongoing recognition that our plastic is everywhere... no part of the planet is free from the impact of 20th/21st century humanity, and our imprint is forever lasting.
Egypt is far away from the Amazon. Yet it's highly misleading (not reasonable) to say "no part of the planet is free from the impacts of Tutankhamun's thirst".

Individual atoms of light elements will very often travel around the world on decade-long timescales, regardless of whether they are dangerous or benign.

So what in your view would be a better statistic?
The fraction of the snow by weight that is plastic (ppm, or whatever), especially with a comparison to the amounts historically and to levels that are known or reasonably suspected of having bad consequences. This, for instance, is how particulate matter is quantified for assessing air quality in urban areas (one of the more harmful and less appreciated environmental damages).
I would assume Parts Per Million via random sampling or some other relative measurement. And looking at whether that quantity is increasing significantly over time.
A much better metric would be to classify the plastic found into major types (polyamides, polyesters, polyethylene, polypropylene, polystyrene, polyurethane, etc) and then to quantify how much (either in mass or weighted also by surface area) there is of each type. All of these factors will have a big impact on how dangerous or safe the microplastics are.

In fact, microplastic counts often do not even separate out cellulose based fibers such as Rayon. Then you are talking about a "plastic" which is safe enough to be used for sausage casings, it's just wood pulp which has been broken down and spun into fibers.

The research into microplastics is very much in its infancy, like early research into disease transmission talking about the deadly "miasma".

I think we should ban the use of plastic where there are viable alternatives. Kids toys are mostly made of plastic when they could easily be made of wood.
I dream about one day opening a non-profit/co-op grocery chain called "Tarable Grocery". The capital outlay would be considerable of course, but ultimately and optimally, the chain would lease containers to members who would fill them with bulk products, returning to refill them or return them as appropriate. My vision here would be to make available quantities of essentially any bulk food option that would be consumed by the local market before spoiling. The stocking system would be a hoot and there would definitely have to be some sort of central purchasing apparatus, but I think it's doable.
Could we please get paper bags back by default in stores again? Ban the plastic checkout bags.

I can see having a fee for 'luxury' versions of the bags (EG handles) or for an oversized bag (compared to small single items)...

However I'm pretty sure the stores loose more on the bulk of credit card transactions than they do on the item bagging fees.

By what kind of logic does one get from

"some of the contamination may have come from ships grinding against the ice. [...] some may have come off wind turbines."


"do we need so much plastic packaging?"

I simply don't believe it.

Small particles kill, not sure if these are count but they are insignificant to other particles at these rates.

But there are air monitoring stations around the world, yet suddenly these new claims come out?

Especially given the hysteria around plastic particles.

Dust kills.

Plastic would to if you get the levels that hugely high, but you won't. But it still should have been measured before.

RIP humanity/world. We had a good run

Supposedly it's even in the water. Measured in Germany by german labs. They're introduced by cosmetics like the abrasive perls some cosmetics use.

Cosmetics were a scapegoat. All plastics breakdown into smaller and smaller particles, but never fully degrade. Ever seen UV damaged plastic that felt like it just turned to dust? That dust is microparticles.
Not true. Plastic that is collected and incinerated degrades to carbon dioxide, water and nitrogen. You can't collect used cosmetics.
Only if it were that clean: "Finally, waste-to-energy plants have the potential to emit low levels of toxic pollutants such as dioxins, acid gases, and heavy metals." [0]

Just plastic is never "just" plastic. There will always be contamination of trash with potential for emission of pollutants.


Your whataboutism still proves that not all plastics degrade to microplastics, doesn't it?

There is also a difference between the bulk of some material becoming something else and traces of some side product being emitted, not to mention potentially better technologies like molten salt oxidation or plasma gasification.

I keep thinking we're finding out the answer to the great filter problem every day. It's hubris.
I think every species of organism has it - that hubris that brings them to compete for food and use every available resource to put offspring into the world, growing to the resource limit.

We're just animals. Powerful animals.