Europe Moves Towards A Partial Plastics Ban

6:58 minutes

This week, European Union leaders signed a provisional agreement that would ban 10 major single-use plastic products, from plastic straws and cutlery to Q-tips with plastic stems. The agreement would need to be ratified by EU member states, likely  in the spring. If approved, the ban would be implemented in 2021. Rachel Feltman, science editor at Popular Science, joins Ira to talk about the proposed ban and what it might mean in the EU and elsewhere.

They’ll also chat about other stories from the week in science, including a battle royale in the Smithsonian’s naked mole rat colony, new research into holiday health, and the discovery of an object dubbed ‘Farout,’  far out in our solar system.

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Segment Guests

Rachel Feltman

Rachel Feltman is author of Been There, Done That: A Rousing History of Sex, and is the host of “The Weirdest Thing I Learned This Week.”

Segment Transcript

IRA FLATOW: This is Science Friday. I’m Ira Flatow. Later in the hour, we’ll be asking you did you just eat that? Stick with me– you’re going to want to hear this. 

But first, we all know that plastics in the environment are a big problem. And recently, came word that an effort to clean up some of the plastics in the Great Pacific Garbage Patch is not going as well as planned. 

In Europe, though, there are moves to tackle the problem closer to the source. The EU is finalizing rules for a ban on many single-use plastic items. Rachel Feltman, science editor at Popular Science is here to fill us in on that and other selected short subjects in science. Welcome back, Rachel. 

RACHEL FELTMAN: Thanks for having me, Ira. 

IRA FLATOW: OK, so why is the EU rule a big deal? 

RACHEL FELTMAN: Yeah, well, it’s a big deal because, obviously, there’s been a lot of talk on single-use plastic bans. It’s an obvious place to start when we talk about dealing with plastic pollution. It goes without saying that something that’s used once or twice before being thrown away is a bigger problem than a plastic item you bring into your house to use for a year, five years whatever. 

So this would be the biggest region that would undertake something like this, and it kind of begs the question of why North America isn’t doing something similar. I think in the US, we may start to see states banning single-use plastics, but we’re really just starting to see plastic bag bans, straw bans. So for the EU to take such a broad stance banning, I think, it’s 10 different items– plastic cutlery, plates, straws, Styrofoam takeout containers and cups, Q tip sticks, and oxo-degradable plastics, which includes most plastic bags. For them to take such a big stance is a big deal. 

IRA FLATOW: I know one of the hot gifts this holiday season– there are metal straws you can buy people in a nice pack. 

RACHEL FELTMAN: There are lots of options for reusable straws. It’s a good place to start if you can. 

IRA FLATOW: Let’s move on to a story from the national zoo that sounds like something out of the Game of Thrones. 

RACHEL FELTMAN: Yeah so people were really excited that the national zoo– a few weeks ago, they had announced that there was a power vacuum in their naked mole rat colony. 


RACHEL FELTMAN: And a few days ago, they announced that a queen had emerged from a bloody and long fought struggle, which I think people love the juxtaposition of like royalty and naked mole rats because, frankly, naked mole rats are really ugly. They’re very squirmy and pale and pretty much blind. And the idea of them having a queen is just kind of inherently funny. 

IRA FLATOW: How do you have a battle [INAUDIBLE]? 

RACHEL FELTMAN: Well, that’s what I love about this is that once you look more into the story, it becomes really fascinating. So naked mole rats are eusocial, which is the same kind of social structure that ants and bees have. It’s like that hive collective where there is only really one like independently operating member of the colony, and everyone else is just functioning for the common good. And in fact, there’s just that one reproductive member of the colony, the queen. 

There are only actually two mammals, by the way, that are eusocial, and they’re both kinds of mole rats, naked mole rats being one of them. So they have this really unique social structure, and it means that whenever a queen dies, the biggest females will start fighting with each other. And whichever one lives long enough to get pregnant and reproduce then becomes the queen. And once there’s a queen in place, something really interesting happens. No other females are fertile. 

But more specifically, they don’t have mature sex organs. Like it seems like the queen is able to shut down puberty. And in fact, any males she doesn’t want to reproduce with also don’t go through puberty, and that process starts up again as soon as the queen is gone. So it’s just very weird and cool. 

IRA FLATOW: See, you’re not interested in this at all. As we all know, the holidays are upon us, and there’s some news about holidays and your health. 

RACHEL FELTMAN: Yes, so this study came out claiming that Christmas Eve is the deadliest cardiovascular day of the year, and there are some caveats. The study only looked at Sweden, so it is the biggest day for heart attacks in Sweden. But of course, we can’t apply that to the rest of the world. However, there is a lot of research already that shows that heart attacks are more common on holidays, and there’s already research showing that if you live in a predominantly Christian country that Christmas is probably the deadliest day of all, which just is scientific proof that we’re all actually horribly stressed out when we’re surrounded by our family. 

IRA FLATOW: Not to mention depression. For years, we’ve read about depression’s going up. 

RACHEL FELTMAN: Right, I mean, it’s a joyful time, but it’s also a very stressful time. And people are also eating strange foods and traveling, and it’s just kind of a perfect storm, if you’re already at risk of a heart attack. 

IRA FLATOW: This isn’t new. Yeah, this is unbelievable to add something else– to be stressed about stressing about things. 

RACHEL FELTMAN: Yeah, but one related thing is that there was another study showing that people who are discharged from hospitals during the holiday season are more likely to die afterward just because they tend to not follow up on their care. So one thing you can do is that if you’re unfortunate enough to end up in the hospital, make that follow up appointment and follow the instructions. Don’t feel like you’re being a buzzkill because you’re dealing with your health. A lot of it can be prevented by just advocating for yourself and taking care of yourself. 

IRA FLATOW: And finally, there is a distant space object far, far away. 

RACHEL FELTMAN: Yes, in fact, scientists have named it Far Out. 

IRA FLATOW: Is that right? 


IRA FLATOW: Is that the official name? 




IRA FLATOW: Somebody from the ’60s named it that. 

IRA FLATOW: But it’s about 120 to 138 AU away. And AU, an Astronomical Unit being the distance between the Earth and the sun. And Pluto is only 34 AU away, so this thing is really far out. 

IRA FLATOW: That’s far out, man, then. 

RACHEL FELTMAN: Yeah. The thing I love about it is that the most distant objects that we consider part of the solar system are actually like tens of thousands of AUs out. So this is just a reminder of how much space there is in just our solar system and how much room there is for perhaps a planet nine to be hiding. 

IRA FLATOW: So this is something maybe the size of Pluto or something smaller? 

RACHEL FELTMAN: Yeah, it’s still too soon. They’re saying maybe it’s a dwarf planet, but they don’t have enough data to tell. But it’s definitely like a large asteroid at the very least. 

IRA FLATOW: Far out, man. All right, Rachel, thank you very much. 

RACHEL FELTMAN: Yeah, thanks, Ira. 

IRA FLATOW: [INAUDIBLE] love. Rachel Feltman, science editor at Popular Science. Thanks for being with us today. 

IRA FLATOW: Thanks for having me, Ira.

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