In this era of Internet news, one of my main news sources is svt-text—the teletext (!) pages of the Swedish national television, which I visit about once a day (albeit in the Internet version). The brevity of each individual page (being limited by what fits within teletext) makes the “articles” highly compact and it is easy to get a quick overview. If something seems interesting, there is always the possibility to find more detailed information elsewhere.
Unfortunately, the people behind this service are not intellectual giants, and I often find myself sighing over the unnecessary quality loss and inconveniences.
To take a few examples (some Internet-specific; some problematic for TV users to):
- The article titles are often so lacking in information that is hard to judge which articles are worth reading without actually reading them. In at least some cases, in particular with sports, even the rough topic cannot be predicted from the title…
For instance, I just called up the sports page and found the title “Rekordstort intresse för mästarna” (roughly “Interest for champions on record high”). What champions? What sport? What level (national? world? …?) What type of interest? Who is interested? Men’s team or women’s? “Ordinary” sports or “para-sports”?
Looking at the detail page, the actual story is so uninteresting that few would have bothered to open it with a better title and it can seriously be questioned whether it should have even been published in the first place: The Swedish national champions in floorball (!) have managed to sell 100 (!!!) season’s tickets. The page did not say whether this was the men’s or women’s champions. Honestly, this is something that barely qualifies for the local news paper of wherever these champions were based.
- During the conversion to HTML, links are added in such an unintelligent manner that any number occurring in the page stands the risk of being interpreted as referring to another page and being turned into a link. (Remember that teletext pages are identified by three-digit numbers.)
This has, admittedly, grown considerably better over the years, but it still happens, possibly as much as 15 years after my first visit…
This is the weirder as implies that the whole setup is amateurish, most likely in the form that a plain-text page is composed to be published “on the TV” without any alterations, while the Internet version is just generated from this plain-text without any semantic information. A professional would, as a matter of course, have kept the “master version” separate form the “TV version” and used a markup language (even be it a rudimentary one) to keep semantic information. The TV and Internet version would then both be generated from this master. This would include marking page references so that they cannot be confused with numbers during generation.
- While the language level is poor overall, there are two specific ever recurring and highly annoying problems:
Firstly, differences between A and B are almost invariably formulated as “A is better than B at [something or other]”, even when the “better” is highly subjective and even when it is not really supported by the text (e.g. because absolute numbers are compared when relative numbers would be appropriate). This in particular where differences between men and women are concerned*. I would only be marginally surprised if the headline “women are better than men at using drugs” would be used for an article reporting that women use more cocaine than men…
*Generally, they have a problem with a feminist or PC world-view, but with a Swedish news source that almost goes without saying…
Secondly, there is a virtual obsession with “hylla” (hard to translate, but “praise” when used as in the phrase “praise the Lord” is a decent match; “eulogize” can come close to, in some uses). If someone makes any form of positive statement about someone else, he allegedly “hyllade” him. If someone wins an international gold medal, one or two pages are dedicated to “tittarnas hyllningar” (or similar; roughly, “the viewers praise”)*. Etc.
*Why they waste space by including the praise of the viewers in the first place is beyond me. It has no news value and the page could have been saved for something more valuable.
The word, normally reserved for special occasions, is thrown around in a blanket manner and with very little value attached to it. Often it amounts to confusing “Would you have dinner with me?” and “Would you marry me?”…
- Naturally, as news items arrive or are removed, page numbers will change. To handle this should not be that hard: Alter the page numbers and references of all involved pages and then publish them together. But no: Individual pages are altered separately and published immediately, leading to such effects as someone opening a page on X and finding an article dealing with Y or both page 110 and 111 having the exact same contents.*
*Both can happen even when publishing all changes together, be it through unfortunate timing or because someone has opened an index page and then waited a minute or two before opening article pages. However, it will be a rare occurrence. The frequency at svt-text is far, far too high to be explained by such instances.
- Generally, there are many problems around page numbers and page handling. For instance, it is quite common that the contents that once were on page X stays on page X for days—even after the page contents have officially changed. (Following the new contents as a virtual page within the page.) Or take the leader-board for the recent British Open/The Open golf-tournament: With a fellow Swede winning, I tried to follow the results through svt-text, but found that every single time that I refreshed the page, the leader-board had moved to another page. After some five or six times I gave up (ESPN had something that worked much better). Is it not obvious that such contents should be treated differently and fixed on the same page? This especially since they do have a dedicated number interval for “live” sports results that is used for that exact purpose, e.g. to track the score of soccer games.
Recently, I have written a few post based on different news items from the world of sports. Since I found this format entertaining (from a writer’s point of view) and different from my usual styles and topics, I am giving it a go with some more general news items that I encountered the last few days. The common thread is a more abstract one of stupidity, irrationality, etc., and thus the items are less connected this time around.
Note: Much of the international news I encounter come from sources that are not in English or that provide no “permalinks”. I have tried to find corresponding English sources suitable for linking. Beware that there may be some differences in the content from my original sources.
- A breastfeeding protest in Argentine: Apparently, the police had, very laudably, removed a women from a public place for breastfeeding. This has resulted in a mass protest, with statements made like:
“My breasts, my rights; I’m not interested in your opinion,” (sign)
“This is great because it sheds light on a problem. And police need to be on the public’s side and not work against them” (Adolfo Perez Esquivel; Nobel Peace Prize winner)
I am sorry, but this is utterly idiotic, selfish, and irrational:
This type of bodily function belongs to those better kept in private out of consideration for others. I do not pick my nose in public either. (Even though “My nose, my rights” could just as easily and with just as much or little justification be applied, showing the uselessness of cheap rhetorical statements in lieu of arguments.) Breastfeeding is just as disgusting as nose picking (arguably more so, because the duration is considerably longer) and if the police should be on the public side, then they should indeed prevent it. Now, unlikely nose-picking, there may be situations where breastfeeding can be justified on an emergency basis, to protect the health of a child; however, these will be few and far between. There will almost always be somewhere private* to go, even when originally in public. It is only very rarely a choice between breastfeeding and not breastfeeding, but one of breastfeeding where one currently is and taking a brief walk to breastfeed in private, or to wait a little while and do it at home, or to plan better and avoid the situation in the first place. The truth is simply this: These women egoistically prioritize their own comfort over the interests of the rest of the world. (The “I’m not interested in your opinion” is telling.) Their moral outrage is utterly misplaced.
*Which I here take to include public bathrooms and other areas that are potentially still public in the strict sense of the phrase, but are either more shielded than “public public” places or by their nature are more open to intimate bodily functions.
In contrast, someone who urinates in public can become a registered “sex offender”, with the massive disadvantages that follow, in many U.S. states. (Cf. e.g. http://www.businessinsider.com/surprising-things-that-could-make-you-a-sex-offender-2013-10. The U.S. is a country of insane laws.)
- The NBA all-star game is being rescheduled over bathroom laws: The game should have taken place in North Carolina, which apparently has a law requiring that the men’s or lady’s room is chosen based on the chooser’s sex at birth. NBA has a hissy fit over allegedly illicit discrimination and now moves the game elsewhere—political correctness at an irrationality high.
There are at least three things wrong here:
Firstly, transgendered people pose a new problem where we do not yet have norms and there often cannot be a solution found that satisfies everyone. The perspective that a certain individual feels like an X, while being a Y by birth, and through feeling like an X should be allowed to behave like an X (even without an operation), has some legitimacy. It is, however, not the only perspective. Others might with equal legitimacy feel that they do not want to be confronted with a Y-by-birth in the bathroom. Or what about the risk that someone sneaks in to the wrong bathroom under the mere pretext of being transgender? Yet other perspectives exist. Why should the perspective of one be more valuable than the other*? Either we have to resign ourselves to the fact that cramming more than two categories of gender or sex into two categories of bathrooms will require that some party remains dissatisfied or we have to change the categorization of bathrooms. (The most reasonably manner would likely be to use unisex bathrooms throughout, but then the outrage from those currently outraged will likely be twice as hard and blowing in the other direction…)
*Given that these perspectives are based in rational and irrational criteria, objective and subjective harm to similar degrees. Indeed, in as far as an objective harm is present, the “by birth” faction probably has a stronger claim. (Although it might be different if we look at “post-ops” or other transsexuals.)
Secondly, the issue is not one of sufficient importance that such actions are proportional and reasonable, not even if viewed symbolically*. This especially considering that the law-makers are merely elected by the people—they do not constitute the people or a consensus opinion of the people. Indeed, it is quite possible that many of those who will be “punished” are against the law… What about the hot-dog salesman or hotel owner who loses a business opportunity? What about the hardcore fans who now have to travel so much longer? In contrast, the law-makers will be largely unaffected and might even have a possibility to spin this to their advantage comes election time…
*In contrast, the far more important, pervasive, and illegitimate racial segregation applied in South-Africa a few decades ago made a far stronger case for similar boycotts (but see below)—as the situation in North-Carolina yet a few decades earlier might or might not have. (I am not certain what exact state had what exact rules at what point in time.)
Thirdly, sports* should be kept apart from politics to the degree possible and reasonable. To use it as a cheap bat against or for a certain pet issue is not acceptable, especially seeing that many of those involved, including athletes and fans, might have different opinions. (Just as the population does not necessarily agree with the law-makers.) To presume to speak for or moralize on behalf of these is inexcusable. This is particular disturbing as there is a strong tendency to attack athletes with the “wrong” opinion through various sanctions. There are situations when even a sports organization might need to take a political, moral, whatnot, stance, but this is most certainly not one of them.
*In contrast, movements, organizations, and whatnots, that have an inherently political, ideological, moral, …, nature are in a different position.
- According to http://www.ard-text.de, German television will continue its policy of not re-airing episodes of the popular series “Derrick”. (I have no current English source, but there are older on the same topic.) The reason: The lead actor, Horst Tappert, used to be a member of SS.
Again an irrational decision: His background does not affect the quality of the show, those punished are the audience (cut of your nose to spite your face…; Tappert himself is dead), and by no reasonably means can a re-airing be seen e.g. as support of Nazi values. But above all: Tappert (going by e.g. his entry in the German Wikipedia ) entered SS in 1943 and was only 21 at the end of the (European) war. “Derrick” ran from 1974–1998… During an Internet search, I found no indication that (specifically) Tappert had committed war crimes or otherwise acted in an illicit manner compared to, say, the average U.S. soldier. (He might still have, especially considering his company, but it is up to the accusers to prove guilt.) Now, if Tappert had been the commander of an extermination camp, I could possibly see a point. He was not: He was a very young man—who, for all we know, might have been pressured into entering or might simply have had naive ideas, influenced by the immense Nazi propaganda-machine*, that he had shed decades before “Derrick”.
*Remember that he must have been around nine years of age when the Nazis rose to power, and severely disadvantaged to those already of an adult age—let alone those who look back at events taking place decades before they born…
- About two weeks ago, I bought a new travel bag. As I paid, the cashier told me that the key to (the otherwise combination) lock was in the possession of “just” the TSA—and I immediately had images flashing through my head of keys leaking out, the lock being practically useless, and myself abstaining from the buy. (A moment later, I realized that even without such key leaks, well, a flimsy three-digit combination-lock on a bag with textile walls will not be much of an obstacle to a thief anyway.)
Today, I learned of exactly this type of key leak—and not the first leak to take place either. “Just” the TSA, my ass!
This system is idiotic in its own right, because such problems are obvious, bordering on the unavoidable. No thinking and informed individual who actually cares about security could consider it anything but idiotic. More likely, it is implemented for the convenience of the TSA and with nothing more than imaginary security* ever intended for the travelers. However, it does not end here: This is exactly the type of problem** that would arise if some politicians had their way with encryption and other digital security measures. Back-doors will eventually leak out or be discovered and be used by criminals. Ditto digital master-keys. Ditto whatnot. Well, there are two differences: A criminal with a TSA master-key still needs to get hold of the individual bag and needs to open it individually; a criminal with a digital master-key can have a program automatically attack targets all around the world, from the distance. A criminal without a TSA master-key could still get into the bag comparatively easily; a criminal without a digital master-key typically cannot get in at all. In other words: The problem would be far, far worse…
*More generally, I am not a fan of the way airport security is implemented. The direct and indirect cost, especially for the passengers, especially in time, is immense. Hi-jackings are avoided through very different means, and the increase in security with regard to attempts to smuggle bombs on-board appears to be limited—and could definitely be made in a more rationalized manner.
**Not to mention the independent problem of abuse through the government, but that is another issue.
As a brief post-script to the “Olympic” posts: I really should have dealt with the situation around Russia and the possible blanket ban at some point. While I am not necessarily saying that a ban is bad thing (it is a complicated issue), there are several troubling aspects relevant to the previous posts, including that the presumption of innocence is removed (that tests have not taken place or not been reported accurately by some Russian organization or other does not mean that they would have come back respectively were positive), that individuals are punished for the actions of other individuals and/or various organizations (collective punishment), and that the ban is arbitrary in terms of different sports (according to the last I heard, earlier today, the IOC leaves the decision to the individual sports organizations, which means that Russian athletes from sport A will not go, whereas those from sport B will.) The idea of letting Russian athletes compete, but not for Russia, could incidentally have been a good one, eventually leading to a participation based on individual effort, not on country of origin. (See my previous posts for problems resulting from the current fixation on countries over athletes.)
And yet again, there have been plenty of interesting events:
- Aregawi was indeed not nominated for the Olympics. The reasoning for this is vague, but seems to be largely based in doubts as to her form or some other factor*. This is a good example of how sports organizations get in the way of sports—and is doubly unjust, seeing that the reason why she might be out of form and has been unable to prove herself is the flawed doping suspension… The decision to compete should be hers and hers alone**. Should it transpire that she goes to Rio and makes a fool out of herself, well, that is a risk that she should take or not take according to her own wishes.
*E.g. that she might still somehow be a cheater. While this is definitely a possibility, it should be up to those with suspicions to prove her guilt—not up to her to prove her innocence.
**Given that she already has surpassed the international qualifying standards. I am not inviting the average couch potato to join the competition.
A twist is that in order to compete, any Swedish athlete has to satisfy at least three different organizations: The International Olympic Committee, the National Olympic Committee, and the respective national organization for the individual sport (in this case Track and Field). This not counting other organizations that might have a say on another dimension, e.g. WADA.
- Molitor has been promptly turned-down in court. Whether this is a good or a bad thing, I honestly do not know. What I do know is that the problem is an artificial one, created by an unjust rule of three athletes per country.
- Hurdler Kendra Harrison (who almost featured in my original post) went to the U.S. trials with a world leading time that was one of the best in history, missed the top three, and will not be going to the Olympics.
Today, she broke the world record of almost thirty years… No matter who wins in Rio, there can be little doubt that she at best the number two in the world. (Barring the possibility that the winner answers with a similarly good time, which is highly unlikely.)
Since hurdlers often have a short peak, I would be extremely surprised if her chances at winning the next time around, in four years, are even close to what they would have been this year.
- The IAAF are again screwing around with competition formats, to the detriment of both athletes and fans: Apparently competitors in the field events of the current Track-and-Field Junior World-championships are allowed a maximum of four attempts, instead of the six which has been the standard since the days of yore. Looking at past competitions, this is a very major change, seeing how common last round changes are, and it replaces an element of skill with an element of chance. This is particularly disturbing, since the IAAF seems to have strong urge to just shorten competitions, without considering how the results might be affected.
- In other news relating to doping and the power of organizations: Norwegian cross-country ski star Martin Johnsrud Sundby appears to have been suspended on a doping violation, retroactively losing several titles—because the national-team physician had screwed up with a medication that he was allowed to use.
It is almost a shame that I did not wait a few days to write my last post, with a number of interesting events occurring in the mean time, relating directly or indirectly to my post:
Good news: Kallur has been given a dispensation from the unjustified restrictions imposed by the Swedish federation.
Bad news: A number of other Swedes in the same position, but of lesser stature, have not, and are thereby arbitrarily blocked from competition.
Interesting news: Javelin world-champion Katharina Molitor has not been selected for the German team, despite being another strong candidate for Olympic gold and a given on the team of almost all, possibly all, other countries. She is know pursuing her possibilities in court… On a related note, Claudia Pechstein (speed skater and multiple Olympic champion) is renewing her court efforts to get compensation for a doping suspension that appears to have been unjustified (Pechstein certainly feels so; I lack the detail knowledge for a definite claim). She has hitherto not been that successful in court, but it is interesting (and positive) that the power of the sports organizations is questioned and tested.
Meanwhile, the Meldonium doping suspensions are being re-visited intensely, with Swedish–Ethiopian Gold candidate* Abeba Aregawi being cleared**—almost half a year after she was suspended. While I have nothing against cheaters being blocked, the revelations around Meldonium in the last six months show that there is something seriously wrong with how various sports organizations have handled the issues—often to the very severe detriment of innocent or merely slightly incautious athletes.
*Well, before her suspension. With the damage presumably done to her training, focus, planning, whatnot, I would be surprised if she comes even close. (Assuming that she is put on the team at all.)
**I have not looked into the details, but I am under the impression that this is a result of a re-evaluation of what amount detected should be considered an offense.
I have long been annoyed at the way participation in the Olympics and many other international championships are handled, especially from the point of view of priorities: Sports should be for the athletes first, the fans second, and various organizations/the broad masses/sponsors third (or even fourth)—and it almost invariably ends up being the other way around.
Consider the following absurdities resulting from the inconsistent country-specific regulations and/or the general limit that a country is allowed to send only three athletes:
- Allyson Felix is the reigning Olympic champion in the women’s 200-meter dash, a strong victory candidate, and despite still recovering from injury problems came in fourth at the U.S. Olympic trials—missing third place by a hundredth of a second. She is not allowed to go. There will be some (non-US) women going who have run no better than 23.20 (according to http://www.iaaf.org/competition/standards), to be compared to Felix’ season’s best of 22.54, last year performance of 21.98, and personal best of 21.69 (all according to her IAAF profile).
- Meanwhile, Jamaican Usain Bolt failed to compete at all due to injury in the Jamaican trials. He is also the reigning champion, also one of the favorites—and he gets a free pass from Jamaica. Better than the Felix case? Possibly—but tell that to whoever actually came third…
- Swedish hurdler Sanna Kallur* has repeatedly run faster than the international qualification standard, she is the hands down best female hurdler in Sweden, and in the absence of an Olympic trial of the U.S. or Jamaican type, she should be an easy choice for Sweden. However, Sweden applies a stricter qualification standard and, unless the rules are bent, she will not go either—in which case Sweden will not send a female hurdler, there being no single woman, let alone three, to fill up the team…
*Unlike the aforementioned, she is unlikely to be a victory candidate due to years of injuries and old age. In her prime, however, she was formidable. Merits include the (still standing) indoor world-record in the 60m hurdles and European championship victories both indoors and outdoors.
This, of course, is just a small portion of all the absurdities that could have been listed. The U.S. Track-and-Field trials alone produce a handful of cases per Olympic cycle. Looking over the totality of all Olympic sports and all the countries involved there will be hundreds of cases just for the current Olympics.
To prevent such injustices and absurdities, a completely different approach is needed: It must be only the performance of the individual that counts—not what nationality someone has. The exact modalities are of course negotiable, but a reasonable interpolation from the current system would be that anyone* who has achieved the qualifying limit is allowed to go. Other possibilities include some form of gather-points-to-qualify, as used in e.g. tennis for its yearly tour finals, or a variation of the world-ranking concept.
*With some natural reservations, like the exclusion of anyone currently serving a doping suspension. However, under no circumstance the currently popular attempts to exclude people from competition for having the wrong opinions.
The only argument I have to date heard in favour of the three-athletes limit, is that there is a risk that some event or other grows boring, because we know in advance that the majority of the top-ten will come from a single country. So what!?! If Soviet pole-vaulters, U.S. sprinters, or Kenyan runners (at various times in history) would have been so utterly dominant, let them. The athletes themselves want a fair chance to win, while the true fans of the sport often care more about the individual athletes than nationality. For that matter, a dominance so complete that upsets never happen is very rare and tends to be short-lived—and they have grown rarer over time: Even if the argument had held at some point of time (of which I am skeptical), it need not hold today.
The U.S.-Style trials have more justification (assuming that a three-athletes limit is already imposed from the outside), e.g. in that someone who cannot win in the U.S. is unlikely to win globally, that it prefers the athletes with good nerves and the ability to “bring it”, or that that “bad day” could as easily have happened during the actual Olympics. Every system has its advantages and disadvantages, every system will leave an athlete here and there being (in one sense or another) unfairly left-out, and none can magically remove the three-athletes limit*. Disadvantages of the trials include the abruptness, the increased element of chance, the need to peak several times in one season, and less tolerance for injury periods (cf. e.g. Felix above).
*Notably, the three-athletes limit makes it hard to find a good compromise. For instance, it might be plausible to divide the number of participant into three pools for best trial results, best marks of the season, and wild cards based on subjective estimates about past or future accomplishments. However, that makes each pool one person large… Going to six instead of three, we could have a trial pool of three, the two best marks, and one wild-card (or a number of other distributions).
Another angle is whether the concept of national teams are truly compatible with the Olympic spirit* to begin with: Would it not be better for international friendship and harmony if the athletes competed as individuals instead of representatives of their countries, without the resulting “us vs. them”?
*What exactly is meant by Olympic spirit has varied from time to time. The current official stance appears to involve “to build a peaceful and better world […] a spirit of friendship, solidarity and fair play […] promote tolerance and understanding […] to make our world a more peaceful place.” (Re-quoted from https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Olympic_spirit.)
In as far as national organizations, completion’s, whatnot, have a role to play, then only to the degree that they may choose to support or not support the respective athletes. Sweden might let Kallur, and the U.S Felix, fend for herself in terms of travel costs, training camps, and similar—but they should have no say in whether she is allowed to enter the competition.
A welcome side-effect of focusing on the individual instead of the nationality is that the artificial import of athletes along the lines of Turkey or Bahrain, where athletes switch nationalities like they do soccer clubs, would be less tempting and less of a problem.
More generally, the way the individual athlete is treated today is often disgusting, as a mere pawn for the powers that be and far from being the main player of the drama. Consider, for instance, how the sponsors of the individual athletes are booted from the Olympics in favour of the Olympic sponsors—money that should have gone to the the athlete and PR that should have gone to his sponsor instead go to the IOC and their sponsors… The athlete is helpless: Boycotting the Olympics will hurt him far more than the IOC (barring an unlikely mass protest). Other examples include restrictions on acceptable opinions and behavior outside of the field of sports, anti-doping measures that cause impositions few of us would agree to live with, the obligation to participate in certain competitions (as is the cases with high-level tennis players, who have good reason to complain about too little time for recuperation), and arbitrary rule changes (e.g. track-and-field, formula one).
There are many bad things in the world. Some large, some small. Some that we can ignore easily ignore, others that drive us up the wall—and it is not always the objectively large things that annoy or anger us the most.
One of my pet peeves is how store chain after store chain (in Germany) has started to charge for previously free plastic bags using the claim that it is “for the good of the environment”.
Now, I am very much in favour of “the environment” and if I actually believed these claims, I would possibly even welcome these charges. As is, considering developments, they are at best an attempt to protect businesses from a possible government intervention (it self based on dubious reasoning). More likely, they are an opportunity to earn another 20 cents on each purchase—while gaining in image among those to stupid to see through the charade. These customer-despising lies are what really tick me off.* How hollow the claims actually are is proved by my recent experiences with clothing retailer C&A: The charge came with a replacement of the earlier voluminous and thin-walled bags with smaller and far thicker bags, containing considerably more plastic and increasing the number of bags needed for a larger purchase. The environment is worse off, because in this manner more plastic is needed and (I strongly suspect) the new bags will be harder for trapped animals to escape from and take longer before they degrade in nature. At the same time, the increase in the number of sold bags drives the winnings up*. The redesign, if anything, is geared at giving an impression of higher quality (more bang for the buck) making it easier for the customers to swallow the extra cost—a public relations thing.
*I am not a friend of paying for plastic bags in general, due to the advertising issue discussed below. However, this much can be said in favour of those chains who have always charged for their bags, not just started doing so in the last one or two years: They have never pretended that they would be doing a public service. They have clearly portrayed the charge as a groat for tote—you give us a small amount of money for our benefit and we give you a disposable plastic bag for your benefit.
**Keep in mind that the cost of making one of these bags is extremely low. The main cost factors are in transportation and handling, and many of these will remain constant or vary sublinearly with the number of bags.
Let us look closer at some aspects of the general issue:
- Not one single of these chains has made any claims along the lines of “we give the proceeds to environmental organization X”. If they did give the money away, they would sure as hell brag about it. Since they don’t brag, I conclude that every single additional cent earned is kept by the respective chain.
- These bags are invariably (now and before) filled with advertising, with the company logo and colours being the absolute minimum. This alone makes the charge unethical: No-one should ever have to pay for walking around with advertising. If they want to charge for bags, they have to remove the advertising. End of discussion.
- The immediate effect of the bags (amount of plastic needed, energy costs, etc.) are a drop in the ocean compared to many other things and should not be a main priority when fighting for the environment. Even when factoring in the later recycling cost for properly recycled (cf. below) bags, we remain at a somewhat larger drop in the ocean. Basic rule of optimization: Optimize where it has the largest effects first. We do not even have to look at the big industrial and chemical companies to find worse problems—consider the cost and waste from sending out company prospects and other types of advertising, of the employees of these chains driving their cars to and from work every day, or the considerably greater amounts of packing material, much of it redundant, that is used for the individual items sold in a grocery store…
- If we focus on plastic bags, there are better ways to help the environment, through attacking the underlying problems. What about biodegradable bags? What about increased focus on bags that are reusable in the long term, instead of being disposable or only intended for two or three trips to the store? What about some form of deposit–refund system (give the chain two Euros for the bag, get them back when returning the bag, and the bag then being expertly recycled)? (Hint: While these would all have the potential to be better for the environment, there is also less profitability in them.)
- In my understanding, the main environmental problem of plastic bags results from incorrectly disposed bags that land in nature, the oceans, kill wild-life, slowly emit various substances, … Then we should not (necessarily) reduce the number of plastic bags—we should reduce the number of plastic bags that land in nature instead of the recycling plant. This should also be carefully born in mind when looking at naive environmental statistics. For instance, a commonly circulated number in Germany, including from several chains I have complained to, is an average of 71 plastic bags per year and person. Now we are supposed to have an image of 71 plastic bags per year and person lying around on the beach, in the forest, or floating in the ocean. This is simply not the case. Take me for instance: I use my plastic bags as garbage bags, saving the environmental impact of additional bags bought for that ad hoc purpose. If I have a surplus, I eventually through it away with the rest of my garbage, and (provided that other involved parties do their duties…) the bags end up in recycling. If there was a dedicated recycling canister for plastic (but there is not…), making the recycling more efficient, I would be more than happy to use it, even were it in a store instead of my back-yard.
I stress that the above is not in anyway to deny that these incorrectly disposed plastic bags is an environmental issue worth addressing—that they are is well-established. It is a matter of intellectual honesty and presenting the facts as they actually are—not how they best fit a particular agenda. If something is bad, by all means present it as bad and do so in all its “glory”—but do not try to paint a picture that it is even worse by a magnitude. Either the true facts presented in a non-misleading manner gives sufficient support (and no manipulation is needed) or they do not (and manipulation is both unethical and harmful).
- Will a charge for plastic bags help with preventing bags from getting into nature? Not very much: The people who take their bags to the beach, to a pick-nick, whatnot, and then just leave them lying around (or otherwise are poor disposers), will keep doing so anyway. A pick-nick (and so on) is something sufficiently rare and different that the overall number of bags getting into nature through pick-nicks will decrease by far less than the overall number of bags, making all this a largely wasted effort. For that matter, I doubt that the impact on even the overall number of bags will be that impressive. For instance, if we take the 71 bags per year and person and a hypothetical 20 cent a bag, we have 14.20 Euro a year—not something that will be a true influence on decision making for most people in a country as rich as Germany. (At the same time, this is well over a billion Euro to be divided up among the chains, and here, in the profit making department, there is a very noticeable effect.)
Let me conclude by emphasizing that I have nothing against people simply prioritizing the environment higher or lower than I do, nor do I have anything against people prioritizing profit making higher or lower than I do. What I do have something against includes both dishonest claims and thinking that the man on the street is so utterly stupid that he will fall for any claim made assertively enough or repeated often enough. This type of contempt (and contempt relating to the rights of the individual) is extremely wide-spread among commercial companies, politicians, governmental institutions, and the like, and is not merely offensive but also increasingly a genuine pragmatic problem for society.