OPINION: Why We Must Support a Ban on Plastic Straws

OPINION: Why We Must Support a Ban on Plastic Straws
Photo Credit: Reuters / TPG
What you need to know

Plastic is the past and banning its use is an effective step towards a sustainable future.

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In a perfect world, you would not eat that entire box of donuts, or finish off the bottle of wine because “it was almost out.” Sadly, we do not live in that world and often do things against our best interest. To preserve our health we commonly set boundaries, abstain, or “ban” certain substances from our lives.

Much like sugar or alcohol, plastic is cheap, widespread, and socially ingrained. While some hang on for technological innovations to save us, others realize they we must self-impose creative limits to steer our world towards greater sustainability.

Why ban?

Through a combination of subsidies and technical innovation humans have made plastic very cheap. Global fossil fuel subsidies reached US$5.3 trillion in 2015 (including undercharging for carbon and air pollution.)

Given that 99 percent of plastics use fossil fuels as the base for production, these subsides help to drive down the true cost of plastic manufacturing. Global governments give producers trillions in “free” support.

Since single-use plastic is artificially cheap, naturally lightweight, durable, and flexible, plastic once it enters the environment will persist for a very long time. Since most plastics make poor recycling feedstocks and seldom end up in the proper re-use supply chain, we have a recipe for a global plastic flood.

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Photo Credit: Maxpixel
Straws flood earth and its ecosystems with plastic.

We lack the tools and the systems to manage this petrochemical deluge. Only 9 percent of all plastic generated ends up in the recycling stream, another 12 percent is incinerated, and a punishing 79 percent is disposed of in landfills or in open dumping.

This data comes from a recent United Nations Environment Program Report (UNEP) that highlights some other disturbing information:

  • By 2050, an estimated 99 percent of seabirds will have ingested plastic
  • Marine litter harms over 600 different marine species
  • 15 percent of the species affected by marine plastic pollution are endangered

With little ability to stem the tide, we must rely on alternatives to single-use plastic. Redesigning traditionally single-use systems provides the most robust solution. On a personal scale, this means bringing your own shopping bag. On a corporate one, it means supporting initiatives like PepsiCo’s experiment in BYOB (bring your own bottle) vending machines.

Thinking about bags, we have durable plastic ones, and some made from recycled or sustainable materials. For straws, alternative materials like PLA (polylactic acid – better known as polyester – is made from renewable resources like cornstarch or sugar cane) or metal are readily available.

Yet PLA has many potential environmental complications. When corporations want to appear green, they often fall back on PLA, without taking in to account the impact that new material might have on local waste management. You can’t mix PLA with other plastics during recycling: it causes cross-contamination. Because plastic is so cheap, other more readily plastics cannot compete as easily as PLA.

Yet if such solutions exist, why are they not more widespread? Simply put, plastic is too cheap. Developing new materials, making them cost efficient, and getting designers to adopt them takes time. You may have heard about an edible water ball that will “replace plastic bottles” – so why haven’t we seen it in grocery stores yet? Businesses will not sacrifice profits or convenience for a better planet, despite marketing intended to convince us otherwise.

Single-use item bans or taxes are thus one of the best options for eliminating litter and waste. These policies peel back decades of subsidies to create a more level playing field for alternatives, whether material or service based, to come into play.

Global bans

Banning potential litter is nothing new. Hawaii first banned smoking, and therefore cigarette butts, in Hanauma Bay Beach in Hawaii in 1993. While enforcement remains questionable, Bangladesh was the first country to enact a national ban of plastic bags in 2002. Ireland was one of the first to implement a successful bag tax.

These initiatives work. In Europe, researchers involved in a 25-year study found 30 percent fewer plastic bags then previous surveys in the ocean near Norway, Germany, Northern France, and Ireland after England became the last country in the European Union to implement a plastic bag tax in 2015.

What about Asia?

Given that most of the plastic in the ocean comes from just five Asian countries (China, Indonesia, the Philippines, Thailand and Vietnam), clearly these solutions should also be put to work there as well.

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Photo Credit: Reuters / TPG
Residents gather plastic out of floodwaters after a typhoon strikes Manila, Philippines.

Taiwan’s straw ban will begin on July 1, 2019, and some stores have already started to take part. Taipei’s plastic bag ban is already in effect after years of a plastic bag tax.

At the other end of the spectrum you have India, which committed to abolish single use plastics by 2022. While ambitious goals are the Modi government’s style, this one is surely impossible. Worse, it may create perverse incentives such as the mass adoption of PLA plastics or metal plastics without the corresponding social systems. Change is possible in short time scales, it took Taiwan only 10 years to revolutionize its approach, but India has waste problems of a wholly different scale.

With plastic bans and taxes in effect for more than 10 years, humans have continued to survive and thrive. Misleading industry-funded reports claiming that plastic bag bans would cause an uptick in deaths due to foodborne illness have been debunked. Yet this has not stopped the plastics lobby from growing – plastics is, after all, a trillion-dollar industry.

A new wave of bans and backlash

Yet all the plastic bag industry’s lobbying failed to stop one legendary conservationist.

Following what many now call the Attenborough Effect, made famous as a result of the “Blue Planet” series of nature documentaries, many cities, countries, and even companies have begun to ban single-use plastics.

And after being popularized by the horrific video of conservationists removing a straw from a turtle’s nose, straws are now tracking cigarettes and bags as the new area of focus.

From airlines to consumer beverages to hotels, many corporations have begun to ban straws. Yet what would normally be greeted with mass appeal has drawn criticism, or accusations of green washing. One article in Reason and a corresponding Facebook post made the rounds claiming that Starbucks’ new sippy cup lid would actually increase plastic use.

Others argue that straws are essential for people with certain medical needs. While these criticisms are vitally important in ensuring that companies do not greenwash their way towards a straw-less future, we should not lose focus on the larger target: responsibly managed materials.

Clarification and an actionable future

As someone immersed in the marine plastics scene, it can be difficult to convey the nuances of an anti-litter message in such a rapid world. It seems overly verbose to explain that we actually need to phase out all types of non-recyclable materials, establish extended producer responsibility schemes, and fund waste management in rising economies. Instead, with only a few seconds to grab someone’s attention, journalists, NGOs, and social media marketers resort to the simplest possible message: “Ban straws!”

Fortunately, opposition to single-use plastics has reached peak global momentum – companies, cities, and federal governments are all working (not always together) to reduce waste. Consumers play their part by voting and purchasing recyclable, recycled, or zero-waste products. Companies must then respond to consumer demands or, in some cases, lead environmental change. Governments have the widest range of tools but must ultimately serve their stakeholders. In this context, bans become extremely attractive.

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Photo Credit: Reuters / TPG
Plastic bottles and other rubbish block a Phnom Penh sewage canal.

How do you tax a straw? How much extra should you pay for it? Unlike plastic bags, a plastic straw cannot really be re-used, nor can it be recycled as it is often contaminated with food waste. This complexity means that governments must rely on bans for “uneconomic plastics” like styrofoam, straws, or other low-value, high-waste products.

Single-use item bans are not the ideal tool for policy makers or companies. But they are the practical option when faced with abundant cheap plastic. Ultimately, these bans will drive innovation through new materials, services, and systems. We did not always use plastic to carry our goods and we don’t have to in the future.

Redesigning a new world of consumption requires the active participation (or at least active support) of everyone. We will not have the right solutions right away, but bans help raise the profile of these discussions to a national level. From there, change is possible.

Read Next: Plastic Fantastic: A Potted History of Taiwan's Plastics Industry

Editor: David Green (@DavidPeterGreen)

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