The Inefficacy of Bans on Single-Use Plastics

single-use plastics

Many cities countries all around the world now have bans on single-use plastics: disposable plastics that are only used once before they are thrown away or recycled. They include items like plastic bags, straws, coffee stirrers, soft drink and water bottles, and most food packaging. Single-use plastics have been creating an environmental disaster in terms of the pollution associated with them. They also pose serious threats to public health.

The radical move to ban single-use plastics is now a worldwide trend. And while this is no doubt a promising and necessary trend, it simply won’t be enough to curb pollution and climate change. In terms of making substantial changes to tackle the pollution of the oceans and seas, the focus should really not be on single-use plastics but the fishing industry.

The Plastic Pollution Problem

Annie Leonard, executive director of Greenpeace USA, wrote an article in The Guardian titled ‘Our plastic pollution crisis is too big for recycling to fix’. As Leonard writes:

Every minute, every single day, the equivalent of a truckload of plastic enters our oceans. In the name of profit and convenience, corporations are literally choking our planet with a substance that does not just “go away” when we toss it into a bin. Since the 1950s, some 8.3bn tons of plastic have been produced worldwide, and to date, only 9% of that has been recycled. Our oceans bear the brunt of our plastics epidemic – up to 12.7m tons of plastic end up in them every year.

It is, of course, important for individuals to take responsibility for their actions. If you habitually buy, use, and throw away single-use plastics, then you are contributing to the pollution of the oceans. But the thing is, while stopping this behaviour may have a positive impact, it is not going to solve the problem. We can’t save the world with reusable bags and reusable bottles. Leonard argues, “we cannot recycle our way out of this mess”.

The real solution, in her view, means addressing the root cause of the problem. We need to stop producing so much plastic in the first place. Big corporations like Coca Cola, Unilever, Starbucks, and Nestle create 500 billion single-use plastic bottles every year. Consumers can make a difference through demand for reusable plastics, and by refusing single-use plastics, but the problem is so massive that these corporations need to be held accountable as well.

The Worldwide Trend of Banning Single-Use Plastics

We really don’t need single-use plastics in order to meet our daily needs. So it’s not as if a ban on disposable plastics will end up disrupting our lives. Countries that have some form of single-use plastic ban already, or plan to phase out these plastics in the near future, include Canada, Kenya, Zimbabwe, the United Kingdom, the United States, the European Union, China, India, Vanuatu, France, Morocco, Iceland, and Rwanda. Many major cities have also banned single-use plastics, with various corporations joining the trend, too. 

A Ban Won’t Fix the Problem

Leonard continues to write in her article that these bans won’t fix the problem of pollution and environmental damage. Jeff Wooster, global sustainability director for Dow Packaging and Specialty Plastics, has said:

The fact of the matter is that without plastic, we would probably end up with more waste. It would just be a different kind of material, potentially with even more problems.

Indeed, replacing plastic bags with paper could be much worse for the environment. Paper has a much higher carbon footprint than plastic due to the fact that it requires more energy to produce and transport paper bags. Paper is, unlike plastic, degradable, but it has a bigger impact in terms of climate change. Moreover, even if there was a global, total ban on single-use plastics, what about all of the plastic that is already polluting the oceans? This also has to be tackled. For instance, one innovative part of the solution could be the Seabin, a floating rubbish bin that sucks up debris, which is placed in the water at marinas, docks, yacht clubs, and commercial ports. Two Australian surfers – Andrew Turton and Pete Ceglinksi – set up the Seabin Project in response to the problem of ocean waste. Other organisations are developing innovative technologies to rid the oceans of plastic.

Companies and countries should push for a ban on single-use plastics. However, this has to be done with the plan of replacing plastic with a genuinely sustainable alternative. The demand for the function that single-use plastics serve will still need to be met. There are several companies and startups, for example, which are utilising seaweed-based packaging as a replacement for plastic, including Notpla and Evoware (this alternative is edible, biodegradable, natural, and inexpensive to make), while other companies – like Avani Eco – are using renewable resources like cassava for packaging purposes.

Single-Use Plastics Are a Minor Issue Compared to the Fishing Industry

With all of this talk and concern about single-use plastics, I want to reiterate a point I made in a previous post: environmental campaigns related to plastic waste in the oceans are focused on single-use plastics, despite the fact that these plastics account for only 0.03% of such waste. Meanwhile, a study published in Scientific Reports found that 46% of the debris in the ocean is comprised of discarded fishing equipment (lines, ropes, and nets), which are made of plastic. But this much more problematic source of plastic is not getting enough attention. I was glad to see this issue raised in the recent documentary Seaspiracy, produced by Kip Anderson, who was behind Cowspriacy (which revealed the failings of major environmental groups to draw attention to the harm caused by the beef industry).

In a similar vein to Cowspiracy, Seaspiracy highlighted how the big marine organisations are hyper-focused on single-use plastics, recommending avoidance of them and alternatives while ignoring the issue of the fishing industry. Seaspiracy’s ending recommendation was the same as Cowspiracy’s: stop consuming the products (e.g. meat, fish) that are major contributors to severe environmental damage. Sea Shepherd, a marine conservation charity that features in Seaspiracy, has gone further than these recommendations for personal change, calling for a worldwide ban on commercial fishing, in light of the devastating and far-reaching actions of the fishing industry.

It is interesting to note that another similarity with Cowspiracy, namely that one of the major claims made in Seaspiracy is wrong. Viewers were shocked to see the claim that the oceans will be “virtually empty” by 2048 – but this is based on a poor 2006 study, which has been rejected by many experts. Cowspiracy, likewise, asserted that animal agriculture is responsible for 51% of all greenhouse gas emissions, a claim that also comes from a discredited study. These mistakes don’t mean that the documentaries as a whole are in disrepute, however. The majority of claims about the problem of overfishing in Seaspiracy are accurate, including how much of the ocean’s waste is made up of single-use plastics versus fishing gear.

Based on the true nature of plastic pollution, banning single-use plastics will be an ineffective solution. Cutting out fish from one’s diet or banning commercial fishing, on the other hand, would realistically prevent an appreciable amount of plastic waste from entering the oceans. However, this sort of radical change needs to be accompanied by measures that reduce existing plastic (and microplastics) from the ocean, as these will continue to threaten marine life if left alone. The evidence on how to make a difference exists. Governments just need to act on it.

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