Roland Geyer, THE GUARDIAN
id you ever decide to get off a jammed freeway and take the backroads even though deep down you knew that it wouldn’t be any faster? Are you constantly switching to the faster lane on a busy freeway even though you notice that cars sticking to their lanes keep catching up with you?
Both are examples of action bias, the phenomenon in which people prefer doing something over doing nothing, even if the likely outcome of the action is worse than the outcome of inaction. Research has shown that actively managed portfolios tend to do worse than passive investments. And one study found that soccer goalkeepers prefer to jump left or right during a penalty-kick, even though the best thing would be to stay put in the middle.
A prime case study of how action bias gets in the way of solving environmental problems is plastic in the oceans. The discovery of the so-called Great Pacific Garbage Patch alerted the world to the issue of plastic marine debris. It turned out to be everywhere, not just in that specific patch or any of the other large circulating ocean currents known as gyres. In fact, there is growing consensus that only a minute fraction of all ocean plastic is on the surface, and that the vast majority is probably on the ocean floor. This has not stopped a growing number of ocean plastic action heroes from wanting to clean up the gyres.
The best known of them, The Ocean Cleanup, last year launched a 2,000ft-long boom, made of plastic, to gather plastic in the North Pacific Gyre. Unfortunately, the boom didn’t work, broke apart and had to be towed back onshore. Even if we also somehow figured out how to vacuum plastics from the ocean floor, these technologies would not stop new plastic from constantly entering the oceans.
The cheapest and most effective solution to ocean plastic is strangely also the one that is least talked about.
It is this: making and using less plastic.
Virtually everyone I know is genuinely upset about plastic pollution in the oceans, and at parties I am routinely cornered in the kitchen with questions about which of the myriad of single-use plastic items on open display can be recycled, and whether they actually will be recycled if thrown into the recycling bin.
Yet while people put enormous effort and hope into recycling, they don’t give source reduction much thought at all. The west used to send much of its recycling to China for processing, and China’s recent decision to no longer accept it because of environmental concerns has sparked an intense debate about how to fix our obviously broken recycling system. It would be so much easier and more effective to make and use less, and thus reduce our need to recycle in the first place.