With its 14th-century town square, cobblestone streets and canals, Bruges, Belgium, is a fairy tale city.

But fairy tales require a villain. At the end of a Bruges canal, it’s a four-story, five-ton, predominantly blue-and-white whale sculpture made from plastic trash collected on Hawaiian beaches, symbolizing a global concern.

Linda and I saw it last summer. We previously toured the Georgia Sea Turtle Center, where survivors of encounters with plastic straws are rehabilitated. A video of marine biologists extricating a straw from a suffocating sea turtle’s nostril attracted 38 million online views.

That straw threatened to break the back of the plastics industry. California subsequently banned single-use plastic straws at full-service restaurants except by request — a nod to the disabled.

In response, a conservative college friend posted an anti-liberal Facebook harangue about the loss of his inalienable right to suck a drink through an intermediary device. (Note: Marvin Stone designed the first paper straw in 1888 to drain a mint julep. The Founding Fathers and pioneers made America great sans straws.)

My friend, a seafood lover, changed his tune (and tuna) after learning he could be consuming microplastics (five millimeters or less).

According to National Geographic, scientists found microplastics in 114 aquatic species — marine and freshwater — half of which “end up on our dinner plates.” Don’t panic yet. The health effect hasn’t been determined. Processing and cooking could mitigate harm. But the added ingredients could include polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs), polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs) and heavy metals. We’re inundated in plastics and sold a bill of goods that it’s all being recycled, except for the 91% that isn’t, according to a University of California Santa Cruz study, including straws falling off conveyor belts.

It’s gotten worse since 2017 when China began refusing foreign refuse. The fate of plastic bags isn’t any better. The industry group Recycle More Bags admitted “600 million pounds of plastic bags collected for recycling in North America in 2018 was landfilled or incinerated due to lack of end-markets.”

BYOB (bring your own bag) or pay for plastic in California.

In Iowa, the Republican-controlled Legislature, beholden to the Koch brothers and industry lobbyists, passed a “pre-emption” bill banning local governments from banning plastic bags.

Care for another helping of plastic anxieties? British chemist Andrew Turner found toxic chemicals in 40% of black plastic toys, cutlery and stirrers he tested — frequently derived from recycled electronics with heavy metal content or flame retardants — often 30 times government safety standards.

A world without plastic containers wouldn’t suck. Earth-friendly alternatives exist. More are being developed. The European Union is phasing out straws and utensils by 2021. Ditto Canada, Scotland and Taiwan, with 141 nations either partially banning or taxing plastics.

In this reality tale, the Trump administration opposes such efforts.

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Saul Shapiro is the retired editor of The Courier, living in Cedar Falls.


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