Top Down vs Bottom Up: Why We Need Both

This is post is part of the Plastic Free July Series

It’s pretty common, especially in political circles, to draw a distinction between problems that can be best solved by a top down, authoritative approach and those that are better solved by a grassroots, bottom up approach.

Like many pieces of common wisdom, however, the reality is that is usually much more

Pencil crayon drawing of stick figures representing the grassroots movement and the parliament buildings representing a top down approach, with arrows going both ways.
Canada needs both a top down and a bottom up approach to tackle the problem of plastic pollution. Image: PERC.

complicated. While some issues are almost impossible to resolve working with individuals (good invasive species management plans, for example, rarely originate with community groups), some are also nigh impossible to overcome top down (mobilizing citizens to take action on climate change under a government that doesn’t acknowledge climate change springs to mind).

Usually, there’s not good evidence saying it’s one way or the other. In fact, what the evidence usually says, is that it’s best if its both. Public awareness campaigns can motivate change by changing social norms, but if the national government is still subsidizing coal, people will still use coal to generate electricity. Governments can legislate behaviour, but if the legislation is obscure or confusing and no one understands the rationale for it, people won’t obey it.

nosmokingCombine legislation banning smoking in restaurants with widespread education about the risks associated with smoking and second-hand smoke, however, and you don’t find people smoking in restaurants. Public health has a good track record on these sorts of things.

What does this have to do with Plastic Free July?

This movement was started primarily by and for individuals concerned about plastic pollution. That is awesome. It has motivated millions, probably billions, of small changes that need to happen if this problem is going to be tackled. We love Plastic Free July. But – and you knew there would be a “but” – there are some issues.

Plastic waste is a big problem. Big problems are complicated. And when problems are complicated, solutions aren’t always simple. Yes, we should absolutely cut down on the use of plastic, especially in the form of single use plastics like those targeted during the month of July. This is so important, and very possible to do.

But there is already a lot of plastic out there, and we’ll still continue to use plastic. We use it because it’s a really useful material that can have almost any combination of physical properties we want it to have. Light but strong? It can do that. Shiny and dense? That too. Flexible and watertight? Yup. Where would modern medicine be without it? Very few people have artificial heart valves, it’s true, but almost everyone has had an IV line at some point, or just worn disposable gloves for safety. Healthcare is just one area where it is hard to imagine life without any plastic.

This is where the top down approach needs to come in. An individual can refuse a plastic bag, but they can’t insist that the paramedic at the scene of an accident forgo gloves, and nor should they. What is needed is a larger scale solution, one that finds innovative ways to produce and recycle sustainable alternatives.

News about a strain of bacteria that can eat polyethylene has been big recently. Nature is

drawing of a cartoon bacterium eating a polyethylene molecule.
The bacteria Ideonella sakaiensis 201-F6 produces an enzyme called PETase that allows it to “eat” polyethylene. Note: bacteria do not actually have mouths, eyes, or tiny angry eyebrows.

great that way – if there’s potential energy in some form (in this case, chemical energy in the bonds between ethylene molecules), life usually finds a way to exploit it. But if we wait for soil bacteria to evolve the ability to eat microplastics, we’ll have been crushed by huge piles of plastic waste long before they get really good at it.

Shopping to avoid plastic packaging is great, but how often do you open up a box or carton to discover that it’s actually lined in plastic, or that everything inside has its own plastic wrapper?

Ethylene glycol (top) and Terephthalic acid (bottom), are organic molecules that bacteria can use for food. The enzyme PETase breaks polyethylene into these parts.


These are two examples of situations where top-down guidance – whether in the form of research funding to develop plastic munching bacteria we could use in landfills, or regulations that make packaging easier to recycle – would be very helpful.

So, keep bringing your Mason jars and reusable bags with you to the store – those are great ideas! But, keep an eye out for opportunities to support large scale action as well. That may be writing to a politician, donating to a charity doing advocacy work, or voting for someone who values research and sustainability.

Top down or bottom up? Plastic waste is a problem that’s going to need both.

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