Americans have always taken pride in our innovations. We hold more active patents than any other country. Despite that track record, some pessimists have given up on our ingenuity.
This is most obvious in the environmental movement. Regarding climate change, pollution, or conservation, activists want the government to ban anything they deem “harmful” to the planet. Everything from fossil fuels to plastic products is targeted for bans or higher taxes despite our ability to get out of tight corners.
In the 1970s and ’80s, the biggest concern about climate was the widening hole in the ozone layer. The hole above the Arctic was expected to cause skin cancers and a variety of other doomsday predictions.
Destruction of the ozone layer was fueled by chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs), an aerosol commonly used in refrigerators and air conditioners. Enter the innovators. Once science identified the threat, companies found a way to substitute improved gases. The ozone hole closed.
The solution wasn’t to ban air conditioners or refrigerators. The solution was to make them better.
Given the noise level around air pollution and toxic emissions, you would be excused for not knowing America has cut carbon emissions more than any other country. Cars have become more fuel-efficient. Catalytic converters in your auto exhaust system were invented to clean up emissions from the tailpipe. Energy-efficient homes and buildings use less power and better insulation. Innovations in fracking have made natural gas an attractive energy source, which emits half as much carbon dioxide as coal.
Activists want plastic eliminated altogether (until they need a COVID-19 vaccine delivered through a plastic vial and needle). Activists have urged their fellow Americans to stop using any plastic. Their long laundry list targets condoms and tampon applicators, among other significant threats to planet earth. When hysteria reaches the top of the scale, this is what passes for serious policy (of course, hysteria does provide the benefit of good fundraising narratives.)
The oceans have become a target of concern. The villain is plastics. Hysteria aside, ocean studies have found much of the floating plastic in the Pacific comes from Asia—and straws or bottles are rarely to blame. National Geographic found much of the plastic in the famed Great Pacific Garbage Patch is abandoned fishing gear—20 percent of which is estimated from the 2011 Japanese tsunami.
A balanced perspective is to acknowledge some plastic use as essential for health and safety. We can replace plastic straws. But some items have no better alternative. Masks, gloves, and syringes have saved lives throughout the pandemic. Plastic bottles, which have a better environmental footprint than other containers, are essential to distribute water during natural disasters and frequent water infrastructure failures. For food, plastic wrap prevents spoilage and contamination. Check your grocery store meat case for a reality check. Have a healthy packaging alternative besides shopping every day for fresh food that won’t spoil quickly?
And science is stepping up once again as waste researchers are seemingly developing new ways to recycle plastic every day.
Recently discovered enzymes in cow stomachs can break down plastic. Recent developments around superheated steam have made it possible to recycle any plastic, not just the easy ones like soda, water, and milk containers. A newly invented robot can sift through sand and stop plastics from reaching the water—even if the plastics are smaller and easily missed by humans. Innovators have also developed robots to clean up existing ocean waste.
Most bans are not serious or sensible solutions. Most of us have no appetite to return to the era before disposable diapers, packaged foods, or many food and liquid containers. Environment activists should consider spending less time damming the darkness and more time seeking the light.
• Richard Berman is president of Berman and Co. in Washington, D.C.