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 naturally 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 products truly 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. With countries like China, Indonesia, and the Philippines dumping gargantuan levels of plastic compared to Britain and Europe, Western bans on single-use items like straws can only ever be little more than superficial.
On top of this, is that 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.
A hole in this logic, however, is that a product is only as recyclable or compostable as the infrastructure allows. Without ready and available access to recycling bins, the problem of littering and pollution will remain as present amongst “green” products as it has done with plastics.
We should also be careful not to forget that while certain “green” products might not be as pollutive when discarded, some actually require more fossil fuels to produce than their plastic alternative.
For instance, according to Fortune magazine, “manufacturing a disposable paper cup requires at least 20% more fossil fuel and almost 50% more electricity than a styrofoam cup does.”
It’s therefore rather clear that a ban on single-use plastics from either the UK or EU – or even both – is unlikely to have any real impact on the global pollution issue. 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 get a second glance from many of us, to others, this is a change that 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 the US city of Seattle banned single-use plastic shopping bags, many store-owners saw their cost for bags increase from 40% all the way up to 200%. 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.
Thus, it’s likely that any ban on single-use plastics will prove costly to producers and consumers alike, all the while producing negligible results when it comes to actually reduce pollution.
To those with certain disabilities, the bans will be particularly hard-hitting. 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 will have little to show for it. This is a shame since far more effective solutions exist that would be far less damaging to consumer choice and accessibility.
One route which could be taken would be simply to 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 now, however, placed restrictions on waste importation.
As a result, the UK should now strongly consider improving our own infrastructure, removing the need to export and providing an opportunity to considerably reduce our contribution to plastic pollution. While a ban on single-use products will burden consumers for little result, better recycling possibilities offer a far more efficient route to reduced waste.