It is common in developed countries for some people to signal their virtue by ostentatious behaviour changes. Although their changes often make zero difference to whatever causes they espouse, it does enable them to feel they are “doing something,” and to show their fellow citizens that they are on the side of the angels. Whole countries are not immune to such displays of virtue. Germany, for example, is phasing out nuclear power. It has closed 8 of its 17 reactors, and committed itself to closing the remainder by 2022. This is done “in the interests of the environment,” even though nuclear power pollutes far less than the fossil fuels it substitutes for.
The UK has joined the virtue signallers by proposing to double its 5p plastic bag charge, and to push schools to eliminate use of plastic. The UK’s contribution to plastic in the oceans is tiny. Ten rivers worldwide carry 90 percent of plastic entering the oceans, according to a paper from the Helmholtz Centre for Environmental Research in Leipzig. Two of them, the Nile and the Niger, are in Africa, and the rest are in Asia: the Indus, Ganges, Amur, Mekong, Pearl, Hai he, Yellow and Yangtze rivers.
The Yangtze River in China is identified as the worst offender, putting up to 1.5 million tonnes of plastic into the sea every year. The Thames, by comparison, is responsible for only 18 tonnes of plastic into the ocean. Of course it is a good thing to play our part to reduce this, but the difference it will make to the world’s total is negligible. We might be better employed offering prizes to any researchers who can devise ways of dealing with the plastic others are dumping, perhaps by engineering micro-organisms that can digest it.
Unless and until we contribute to ways of actually solving the problem, we are simply virtue signalling and giving our ministers a chance to “look green” without actually making any difference.