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The map suggesting an inconvenient truth about a ban on plastic straws

Campaigns to ban drinking straws have admirable intentions but an objective analysis of hard data suggests other actions would be potentially far more effective in fighting plastic pollution – but also far more difficult

24/09/2018

Kevin Murphy

Kevin Murphy

Fund Manager, Equity Value

Ancient Chinese philosophy holds that a thousand-mile journey starts with a single step – and perhaps that is the best way to think about the various campaigns to persuade people to shun the use of plastic drinking straws and stirrers.

Maybe you have even received an invitation to get involved yourself through Facebook or other social media, in which case you will be aware of the kind of eye-popping numbers involved.

Many people’s base camp statistic for this particular Everest is that Americans use 500,000 plastic straws a day, which actually has its origins in research undertaken by the then nine-year-old Milo Cress when he inspired the Be Straw Free movement back in 2011.

Arguably more arresting still is the estimate of two Australian scientists that anything from 437m to 8.3bn straws could be littering the world’s coastlines.

Straws not the biggest plastic coastline pollutant 

Then there is the revelation in the Ocean Conservancy’s 2017 International Clean-up Report that straws are not even the biggest coastline plastic pollutant. While the organisation’s volunteers picked up 409,087 straws off the world’s beaches last year, that is way behind a top three of plastic bottle caps (822,227), plastic beverage bottles (1,578,834) and, in first place and admittedly not plastic, cigarette butts (1,863,838).

And, again illustrating the slippery nature of the numbers in this area, those figures are somewhat skewed by how many volunteers are operating in each country – for example, 10,176 in Chile (population: 18m) and 5,525 in China (population: 1.4bn), to pick two five-letter countries beginning with ‘Chi’ at random.

Arguably a better impression of the spread of plastic pollution can therefore be gained from the following map.

Ten rivers carry 95% of all river-borne plastic into the ocean

Source: http://www.ecoclimax.com/2018/08/ten-rivers-carry-95-of-all-river-borne.html

It shows the 10 rivers in the world – and, by inference, the populated areas nearby – that, according to the Helmholtz Centre for Environmental Research in Leipzig, are the origins of 95% of all sea-borne plastic.

Not all, in case you were wondering, feature among the world’s 10 largest rivers and not all the local inhabitants – though here we are only guessing – are likely to be big on straws or indeed social media campaigns.

It is entirely understandable that people in the UK or anywhere else should wish to bring about changes for the better but, when it comes to cutting back on the amount of plastic polluting the world’s oceans, banning straws is ultimately only going to be of limited assistance.

Data suggests there could be more effective options

Of course that does not mean we should abandon such efforts – only that hard data such as the above map suggests potentially far more effective options.

Unfortunately, such options are also far more problematic – not least because telling other countries how to act tends not to go down that well.

Plastic straws are clearly an issue and declining the use of them may make you feel better but, if you really want to make a change, consumption habits need to move away from plastic altogether.

While difficult, an objective analysis of the Helmholtz Centre’s findings would suggest these are the sorts of efforts necessary to ensure this particular 1,000-mile journey passes a great deal more quickly.

Investment lessons

Such a conclusion reflects two important elements of a value investor’s thinking.

  1.  Acknowledging it can be all too easy to become swept up in your emotions when you should be taking an objective view and considering any possible course of action – no matter how unpalatable – if it could achieve better results.
  2. Following the crowd without considering all the available data is rarely the best option – even when you are doing so with the best of intentions.

Author

Kevin Murphy

Kevin Murphy

Fund Manager, Equity Value

I joined Schroders in 2000 as an equity analyst with a focus on construction and building materials.  In 2006, Nick Kirrage and I took over management of a fund that seeks to identify and exploit deeply out of favour investment opportunities. In 2010, Nick and I also took over management of the team's flagship UK value fund seeking to offer income and capital growth.

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