California’s already banned them. The European Union isn’t far behind, and the UK seems poised to follow suit. I’m talking, of course, about single-use plastics.
To many, this may warrant little fanfare. Who cares if we have to start sipping our gin and tonic through a paper or bamboo straw rather than a plastic one? Or if we have to find a new medium of eardrum puncturing after conventional cotton buds are taken off the market? Issues such as these seem incredibly trivial when compared to the global issue of plastic pollution, especially after we’re subjected to heart-wrenching videos of the effect of plastic on marine life.
The issue of plastic pollution is, indeed, ever-present, and one that is deserving of our attention. But is a ban on single-use plastics really a significant first step towards cleaner oceans?
Unfortunately, no. The contribution of the UK – and the EU and US, for that matter – to global plastic pollution is extremely marginal. Countries like China, Indonesia and the Philippines dump gargantuan levels of plastic compared to Europe and North America. Western bans on single-use items like straws can only ever be little more than superficial.
On top of this, many of the “green” alternatives are not necessarily green at all. The logic behind the ban on single-use plastics is that, in removing accessibility to such items, businesses will be forced to adopt reusable, recyclable, or compostable alternatives like paper, bamboo, or metal.
The flaw in this logic, however, is that products are only as recyclable or compostable as infrastructure allows them to be. Without ready and available access to recycling bins, the problems of littering and pollution will remain as present among “green” products as they are with plastics.
We should also be careful not to forget that while certain green products might not be as pollutive as plastics when discarded, some actually require more fossil fuels in order to be manufactured in the first place.
For instance, according to Fortune magazine, “manufacturing a disposable paper cup requires at least 20 per cent more fossil fuel and almost 50 per cent more electricity than a styrofoam cup does”.
It is, therefore, clear that a ban on single-use plastics from either the UK or the EU – or even both – is unlikely to have any real impact on global pollution. But, while the ban might not be of much importance on a worldwide level, it’s certainly going to be noticeable back home.
While switching from plastic to paper might not warrant a second thought from many of us, it represents a great deal of new expenditure for the bars, cafes and supermarkets that have to pay for a more expensive alternative.
For instance, after Seattle banned single-use plastic shopping bags, many store owners saw their costs for bags increase from 40 per cent all the way up to 200 per cent. As a result of plastic bans like this, such businesses are often forced to make changes to account for the extra cost, either through reducing expenditure in other areas (sometimes resulting in layoffs), or by raising the cost of their products for consumers.
To those with certain disabilities, the bans will be particularly hard-hitting too. For those who lack the ability to bring a cup to their lips, plastic straws represent the best mode of accessibility to hot drinks. Alternative materials, such as bamboo or metal, sadly prove too hard and rigid for this use and can present their own health risks.
Ultimately, the ban on single-use plastics will place a great burden on both consumers and producers, and we will have little to show for it anyway. This is a shame, given that far more effective solutions exist – solutions that would be far less damaging to consumer choice and accessibility.
One route that could be taken would be to simply improve British recycling infrastructure. Previously, much of our plastic waste has been exported overseas to countries like China to be recycled, since the UK lacks the plants and infrastructure to do it ourselves. China has, however, now placed restrictions on waste importation.
As a result, the UK should strongly consider improving our own infrastructure, removing the need to export to other countries and providing an opportunity to considerably reduce our contribution to plastic pollution. While a ban on single-use plastics will burden consumers for little benefit, recycling possibilities offer a much more efficient route to reducing waste.