British consumers can say goodbye to the comforts of plastic cutlery, plates, and food containers. Having already banned plastic straws, cotton buds, and stirrers, England joins Scotland in outlawing the mass manufacturing and distribution of single-use plastics from October 2023 onwards. Wales is in the process of drafting similar legislation.
The reasons behind the ban are visible to the naked eye. Sadly, everyone in Britain is familiar with the plastic litter and landfills spoiling the countryside. Add the contribution that plastics make to greenhouse gas emissions and the threat they pose to the well-being of local plants and wildlife, and a ban to contain the problem begins to sound justified.
Emil Panzaru, Research Manager at the Consumer Choice Center, did not find the news welcome: “such prohibitions do more harm than good. In neglecting the dangers posed by substitutes to plastic in their impact assessments, British authorities unwittingly encourage options more damaging to the environment while depriving consumers of their choices.”
After all, it is too easy to see the awfulness of discarded forks and crushed cans gathered in a pile off the side of a road and conclude that plastics are the number one environmental threat. To support this case, the British government cites the use of 2.7 billion plastic cutlery yearly, only 10% of which are recycled, and emphasizes the link between degradable plastics and greenhouse gases.
What the government doesn’t see is the cost of producing alternatives. Once we break down the data behind greenhouse gas emissions and look at land and water consumption, ozone depletion, and resource depletion, we can see that your average consumer must reuse a cotton bag at least 7,000 times to justify its environmental impact. Compared directly, research finds that customers need to use cotton bags 52 times to reach the small footprint of a mundane Tesco carrier. These replacements are thus far more damaging than plastic ever was.
Given these issues, Panzaru suggested the following policies: “the British government needs to go beyond simplistic yet damaging solutions that paint plastic as bad and substitutes as good. If the worry is environmental, policymakers should address plastic use case-by-case, considering the costs that substitutes pose too.”
He concludes: “If the worry is that inconsiderate passers-by are spoiling the countryside, then littering and fly-tipping will not stop once the plastic is gone. Instead, the government needs to impose harsher punishments to deter people from littering in the future. This way, consumers will still be free to choose, and the environment will be better off for it.”