Technological watch

Plastic bans address waste management symptoms, not the sources of our problem

Bans on plastic are the latest trend. Politicians, environmental groups, and many in the general public are championing bans on plastic, particularly single use plastics, as a viable solution to stem the growth and reverse the trend of plastic waste.

Here are a few examples: 

·         The states of California and Hawaii have banned single use plastic bags and dozens of U.S. municipalities in other states have followed suit;

·         Many organizations, including well-known coffee and hotel chains are phasing out the use of plastic straws;

·         European Parliament voted to ban all single use plastics by 2021, subject to approval by its member countries; and

·         The New Democratic Party in Ontario, Canada is poised to introduce a private member’s bill calling for the phase-out of single use plastics by 2025

Before accepting bans on plastic as the remedy to managing our plastic waste, consider this: Putting bans on plastic is like putting a bandage on a bullet wound. Though well-intentioned, it is a superficial cover that neither repairs the wound nor addresses the root cause of the situation. In much the same way, bans on plastic do not move us closer to a circular economy. Like an improperly treated wound, such bans can compound the problem by creating new, albeit unintended, negative effects. 

A 2016 report by the American Chemistry Council (Washington, D.C.)and TRUCOST on plastics and sustainability shows that the environmental costs associated with the use of plastic in consumer goods is 3.8 times less than the environmental costs associated with the alternative materials that would potentially be used  to replace plastics.

Further, a 2018 lifecycle assessment of grocery bags completed by Denmark’s Environmental Protection Agency calculates that a person needs to use a paper bag 43 times before its environmental impact is less than the environmental impact of using a plastic grocery bag once. 

How many are using a paper bag 43 times before we toss it?

What about cotton? For bags made of cotton--a popular replacement for plastic--a study by the UK Environmental Agency shows that a cotton bag must be used 131 times before its environmental impact is less than the impact of using a plastic grocery bag once.  Cotton is durable, so we may well be able to use that cotton bag 131 times. As such, cotton may be a better alternative to paper and plastic, but only if we all make the commitment to use our cotton bags at least 131 times before we replace them.

Paper cups are an alternative to single use plastics foam cups, but are they a more sustainable alternative? An article published by the American Institute of Chemical Engineers shows the lower relative emissions associated with the life cycle of plastic foam cups as compared to paper cups. 

These examples demonstrate that there are a number of important factors to consider when assessing the sustainability of a particular material. We cannot lose sight of the fact that, for example, a paper straw or a paper cup begins as a tree. Valuable resources are used to grow, harvest, transport, mill, and convert that tree into single use paper straws or paper cups. Where a product ultimately ends up after completion of its initial use, and how we manage it thereafter—no matter the material it is made of—is only part of the sustainability discussion. To move toward a circular economy, we must take a holistic approach to our waste management problems to ensure the outcome of our efforts align with our intentions. 

Images of plastics in our oceans or in the bellies of majestic animals are impactful—and they should be! The problem of plastic waste in our environment is real and growing.  Now that we are impassioned, it is important that we educate ourselves on both the symptoms and the sources of the problems so that we support meaningful solutions. 

In my view, it is not a foregone conclusion that we are incapable of properly disposing, collecting, recycling, and reusing plastic, or that plastics will end up in our waterways. Plastic bans accept the failures in our current system, rather than correct them.

Next: Circular solutions for all stakeholders

Publication date: 16/09/2019

Plastics Today

This project has been co-funded with the support of the LIFE financial instrument of the European Union [LIFE17 ENV/ES/000438] Life programme

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Last update: 2020-07-14