Monday, May 28, 2018

EU's jihad against straws, plastic forks etc. threatens civilization

Some unelected apparatchiks in Brussels are planning to ban plastic straws, balloon sticks, cotton buds, plastic cutlery, and stirrers – not bottles and cups, it seems – across the European Union's member states.

Demagogic media almost universally replace the subject "unelected apparatchiks" by "the European Union" as if the bunch of illegitimate aßholes disconnected from the real life were representing the whole continent. But I must admit that my reading of the Czech news servers indicates that most of the Czech public – including some communities that are often intensely anti-Brussels – actually supports this EU proposal. Maybe readers are mostly on my side, however.

Shockingly enough, the corporate lobby of producers of balloon sticks wasn't strong enough to defeat several of these officials. We must live in genuinely happy times. Millions of African migrants may be waiting for their opportunity but the European Commission focuses on bans of balloon sticks.

The justification is the huge amount of waste especially in the oceans – some 70% of litter in the European seas and 85% in global seas is composed of these one-use plastic products. I totally hate plastic trash – and throughout my life, I have actually done lots of work to liberate Nature from this trash. In 1988, your humble correspondent and his friend Robert spontaneously decided to pick all the trash on a trip in the High Tatras, Slovakia. Our pioneer supervisor was impressed.

But such general bans on such products look like an extremely bad idea to me – and I have to take it personally.

As a kid, I also loved plastic straws. It's cool to drink from a straw. It also saves your teeth from excessively high or low temperatures and the impact of sugar and acids. They had diverse colors and I loved that kind of diversity. You may do some simple experiments with them, too. In fact, I feel much poorer because I have many fewer straws than I possessed decades ago. I should probably buy a big package before they're banned.

I think that plastic materials are among the underappreciated technological breakthroughs that we should thank to every day.

Are there any replacements for plastic straws at all?

This page lists 7 alternatives – bamboo, straw straw (I think they mean some actual grass), paper or metallic or glass straws, reusable bottle with an incorporated straw (I bought such bottles, $10 a piece after a big discount, to my niece and nephew), and nothing. They may sometimes be good but in lots of situations, they're not totally adequate replacements for plastic straws. The alternatives are too hard to clean if they need to be reused (a risk of infections etc.), too fragile (grass will almost certainly break, glass has a much smaller probability but when it breaks in your mouth, it may be very damaging), or they have other disadvantages.

Real-world plastics aren't perfect – they add the trash to the oceans, and they may release bisfenols and other chemicals – but they have also done a great service for the mankind. They have made our lives more comfortable. They have reduced the amount of infections.

In the morning, a paper package of milk that I bought in Lidl was sort of open. The package looked full, the milk tastes good, but the circular seal proving the integrity under the cup was broken. It made me a bit nervous. But there's still a lot of food – starting from bakery and vegetables – that is being sold without packages. If I were directing the progress, I would actually encourage some packaging everywhere, to reduce the probability that another consumer has touched those things, or tasted them etc. ;-)

This is partly my personal preference – in this sense, I may be close to germophobe Sheldon Cooper. Yes, other people see things differently and the very absence of packaging makes them think that some bakery or vegetable is "fresh". OK, that's not an implication that I have bought. ;-)

Now, the amount of trash in the oceans looks too high. Some marine life really suffers because of that. But countries like Czechia are hundreds of miles away from the nearest sea. (OK, I realize that our trash may get to the seas through rivers...) The marine justification looks utterly idiotic in our context. On top of that, Europeans as a whole are arguably contributing a small fraction of the problem only. The non-European seas are worse. The Asians are arguably much more obvious pigs and they're unlikely to follow the European examples. We the Europeans have a much more friendly behavior towards the marine environment and the environment in general than folks at some other continents. Does it really make sense to increase the gap further?

(I think that Europe is partly responsible for the trash in the sea because we export our trash to other countries, assuming that they will do something civilized with it, but most of these "importers" just dump it to the seas. This is the kind of dynamics that should be stopped. I think it's OK to export trash to poor countries but it should also be the exporters' responsibility to find the places where the trash won't have very damaging consequences. Well, I actually think that giant rubbish heaps in Sahara would be just fine.)

If I were in charge of the fight against trash, I would surely prefer to improve the methods to collect the trash – even when it already gets to the beaches – and technologies to reuse or transform the plastic trash into something harmless.

I think that the plastic materials are treated as the ultimate Devil mainly because they look "obviously" man-made or unnatural, and what is man-made is terrible because the humanity is considered a cancer of the planet by the contemporary would-be leaders of the humanity. But there are at least three related problems with this whole philosophy:
  1. Plastic materials are ultimately composed of the same elements as the bioshere, so they're natural from some deeper, physical viewpoint
  2. Humans are natural as well, they're animals who are relative to chimps
  3. Even if you didn't accept that polymers or humans are natural, there's just nothing "unambiguously wrong" about things that are unnatural or related to the humans
So although I really prefer the wild landscape without any trace of the civilization, especially the plastic packages, the plastic products belong to the right places of the cities, they belong to the modern civilization.

If Angela Merkel's true homeland – East Germany – were a member of the European Union (and indeed, the current European Union seems to be something like an expanded communist East Germany), her Vaterland could be rather screwed by this regulation that is being prepared. Czechoslovakia and East Germany were the two most intensely "high-tech" countries of the Soviet bloc – mostly for historical reasons because they had been the only industrialized places of the bloc already in the mid 19th century.

But there were some clear differences between the style of the sectors in which these two countries were "relatively prominent". Czechoslovakia was introducing some modern know-how but it was still considered an improvement of the heavy industry based on metal and lots of energy produced by coal etc. So we had the best products made of metal – that included cars, fine mechanics, pistols, rifles etc. We also had good applied chemistry but it was some kind of "power chemistry" – Semtex is an example of that – while East Germans simply became the kings in the plastics.

"The Cozy Dens", a legendary 1999 Czech comedy about 1968 based on Petr Šabach's novel "The Šit Is Flammable", shows two self-confident fathers of families who are neighbors (and their kids have some romantic relationships), plus some other characters. One of the main men is a big believer in the communist party, the other one is a proud anti-Nazi and anti-communist veteran. In this beloved scene (there are a dozen of others, however), the first one bragged about the new plastic spoons – not just some ordinary spoons but light and flexible ones – from our comrades researchers in the German Democratic Republic. During the Christmas dinner after some reconciliation, all the plastic spoons melted in the coffee and the vindicated veteran asked: "I just wonder where the comrades from DDR made a mistake!?" ;-) This sentence became a part of the mass culture – it's being recycled more often than the plastic products themselves. [...] The exchange continues. The commie's brother – also an anti-commie – answers that "the East Germans' mistake was that they were shooting to the air during the war". The commie guy says that "the two of us had to look for one another. If I placed two totally but totally identical boxes of safety matches and told you that one of them was from the USA, which one would you find better? Both answer "the American one, of course". The unsurprised commie believer says "of course". [...] There's one more plastic scene in the movie. Another gift are plastic glasses [from the Polish People's Republic, lots of hype...] that cannot be broken – the commie's revolting son breaks them, however, making the dad say another frequently repeated phrase, "and to whom is it a benefit? [To the other side?]" (literally "And whom will you help?", basically "Cui bono" but said in a way that makes it clear that the commie thinks that only nice things should be said about the comrades).

They had so many products that were made of plastic. When Czechoslovak folks traveled to the home of our East German comrades, they would often bring lots of wonderful plastic cutlery, dishes etc. – exactly the sort of stuff that is being banned. The East German focus on the plastics went well beyond the kitchen. As every person who remembers communism knows, the car at the picture above is the East German Trabant (sometimes nicknamed Trabi in the West). The bodywork – and probably not only that – was made out of bakelite, an early plastic, which is formally polyoxybenzylmethylenglycolanhydride. I had to use copy-and-paste to write the full name of that compound – I hope that the clipboard won't be the next thing banned by the European Union. (Well, Trabants were actually made of Duroplast which is just a relative of bakelite.)

The Britons were inventing all the car jokes about Škoda cars but they didn't realize how wonderful, Western cars Škodas were relatively to the general communist competition. In particular, the Britons have probably never driven a Trabi – the target of car jokes in Czechoslovakia.

The bakelite was a primitive plastic material. This branch of applied chemistry has gone through some amazing progress. Decades ago, we were actually enthusiastic about it. I think that as recently as in the 1990s, media were full of hype about the next generation of plastics that would be light but they would still beat all of the known natural alternatives in many other characteristics.

It seems to me that this enthusiasm for the progress in "plastic material science" has almost evaporated from the mass culture, from the mainstream media, despite the fact that the progress hasn't stopped and it continued. If some old plastics were releasing a bit of a harmful compound, most of such problems could have been fixed and were fixed. Others may be fixed, too.

We live in a bizarre culture in which some people more or less randomly decide which technologies are hot and which technologies are sinful. For reasons that are almost completely irrational, electric cars are constantly painted as nice, the music of the future, something that will see some amazing progress. In reality, there is almost no substantial progress going on in the production of the electric cars and the infrastructure that they need.

On the other hand, the plastic materials – which are seeing lots of progress, just compare the plastics used on your current smartphone with the plastics used by the dumbphones in the 1990s – are the devils. So everyone is telling us that they await extinction in the future. The media completely hide the progress in the development of such materials – although this progress is much more intense than the progress in electric cars and lots of other "politically correct" technologies.

The worshiping of electric cars and the demonization of the plastic materials differ from prayers to the Lord or Allah. But there is something extremely religious about these arbitrary attitudes that shape the public opinion these days. Hundreds of millions or billions of people are led to parrot ludicrously oversimplified, and more untrue than true, statements such as "the future belongs to the electric cars" but "there is no place for the plastics in the future".

We really are approaching the dystopia described by Idiocracy, a cult movie which talked about the society in 2500 but we're likely to reach that point already in 2050. In the excerpt above, we're reminded that the society led by President Camacho had minimal crop yields. They were using Brawndo, their version of Gatorade, to water the fields. The Brawndo company was able to spread its propaganda saying that Brawndo is great for everybody and for the plants. The Brawndo has what the plants crave – it's got the electrolytes – Camacho's aides, the smartest people on the globe (except for Joe) with the IQ around 60, were repeating all the time.

(The female aide and a few others were also linking the [evil, outdated] water, which should have been replaced by Brawndo, to the toilets, something that is unpopular. This oversimplified negative labeling is almost identical to the way how carbon dioxide is currently being linked to "pollution" although this transparent, odorless, harmless gas cannot really pollute anything – in this sense, it's analogous to the unpopular water from the Idiocracy, indeed.)

It's just so similar to the oversimplified appraisals of the technologies that everyone is being pushed to mindlessly repeat. Electric cars are great because they have the wonderfully healthy and almost edible lithium batteries that have everything that cars crave – they get the electrolytes and stuff like that. Just try to appreciate how insane this propaganda is especially if you compare the "official attitude" to the lithium and to the plastics. Lithium is presented as one of the healthiest compounds we can be surrounded by. But plastics, they're the true devils.

Please, give me break. Lithium poisoning is common – although overdose (significantly above the OK amount of one gram per day) is needed for some bad impact. One gram seems like a lot – lithium is surely less toxic than plutonium or novičok – but you should still remember that a Tesla battery pack weighs half a ton or so, 500,000 grams.

I think that metallic cutlery – and even metallic straws – could replace their plastic counterparts in the commercial flights, most restaurants in the mountains, and elsewhere. But if and when this continental war against the plastics really starts, I think that we will see that our comfort will drop substantially. We may face lots of dilemmas involving hygiene that the civilization hasn't seen for quite some time.

Let me mention that in Summer 1988, aside from the High Tatras mentioned at the top, we also went to live with the families in our (Pilsen's) Soviet twin city of Yekaterinburg (then Sverdlovsk), on the Euro-Asian border. It was a Camp of the Czech Language so our Russian hosts were obliged to speak Czech – obviously, we liked it, especially because it was the other way around almost everywhere else (think about the Russophone overhyped "Artek" international camp in... Crimea). This first visit of Russia has left me with memories. One of them was their vendor machines. They looked almost exactly like the machines above. The three machines on the right are, from the left, "kvas" (a Russian non-alcoholic beer made of bread), a soda, and water. It's actually plausible that we always saw these three or four exact machines in this order everywhere.

One cool thing was that you had to insert something like half a rouble (50-kopeyka coin) to get the beverage. That was equal to 5 Czechoslovak crowns at that time (today, one crown is 2.8 roubles instead of 0.1, the rate has changed by a nice factor of 28 in these 30 years) – it's rather likely but not guaranteed that all my numbers are accurate. (This video suggests that 3 kopeykas was enough!) But we figured out that the Czechoslovak 0.20 crown (20-heller) coin, which was about 20 times less valuable, worked as well as the Soviet coin. So we could get Soviet street drinks almost for free – but we only exploited this glitch a few times.

But I want to mention a problem. All the users of that vendor machine were recycling the same glass to drink. The hygiene was limited. I surely felt that the Russians were savages in comparison with the relatively advanced Czechoslovakia, East Germany, and Poland where one-use cups were already omnipresent. You know, if you decided to ban cups (and similar plastic products that are meant to be used once), you will immediately face the obvious problem: you need to clean the glasses and cutlery that are used more than once and in certain situations, it may be either hard or time-consuming to do; or it may be easy for the responsible people not to do it right, and so on.

Isn't it better to try to improve the technologies to process the trash? And to introduce policies that remove the trash from places where it doesn't belong? For example, I think that schoolkids would like 1 hour a week in which every class goes outside and collects some garbage from some area. Or they would help to manually sort some trash. Wouldn't such things be better than a universal ban on these very useful products?

Even if someone – or the rosy future – persuades me that it's ultimately a good idea to ban such things, I am concerned about the non-democratic system that makes such policies possible. A bunch of anointed experts – who are sometimes affected by some random corporate influences analogous to that of Brawndo Corp – seemingly has the power to impose similar far-reaching bans on the whole continent. Don't you find it worrisome? I surely do. We may easily see a EU decree demanding water to be replaced with Brawndo. The officials behind this proposed ban of one-use plastic products want all the EU member states to codify such bans at the national level before the next elections – that's probably a method to make sure that the "stupid people" (those who aren't parasites living in the bubble surrounding Brussels for the stupid people's money) can't elect new politicians that would specifically fight against these new policies.

The detailed fads are changing. But the fact that some people who aren't really very qualified have the power to effectively pretend that they're omniscient gods who can decide about almost everything hasn't changed from the communist times. We're gradually returning to the same totalitarianism. Their communist predecessors wanted to increase the production of coal and steel by tens of million tons; these folks want to increase the production of lithium batteries and ban the balloon sticks. The details are different but the centralized power is comparably excessive as it used to be during communism.

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