At the beginning of 2019, around 112 countries, states and cities worldwide imposed bans on single-use plastics including straws and bags.
There is literally a giant patch of plastic garbage floating in the Pacific Ocean right now. Surely, a ban on plastic would prevent this problem from getting worse.
It turns out, this is not really the case.
The plastic scare
Eight million metric tons of plastic go into the world’s oceans per annum. Intuitively, eliminating the plastics that contribute to this is the next step. By doing this, clearing out the plastics — infesting our waters, affecting livelihoods, and disrupting marine ecosystems — will be easier.
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From a political standpoint, a plastic ban is an inconvenient yet desirable move: the visibility of these bans leave the impression that something substantial is being executed to curb plastic waste.
This is where the problem lies. Sure, plastic bans will forbid you from using plastic straws in your favourite fast-food restaurant and encourage you to use reusable bags. No doubt. However, these won’t eliminate the deeper seated, systemic problems which have allowed plastics to pollute the world in terrifying magnitudes we see today.
Not as good as you think
Take California for instance. A study reveals that while 40 million pounds of plastic are eliminated due to the ban, this reduction is offset by a 12 million pound increase in trash bag purchases. On top of this, the use of paper bags spiked up to 83 million pounds. In the perspective of reducing carbon emissions, that figure is definitely not environment-friendly.
Let’s put this into a clearer perspective. According to another study, a paper bag needs to be reused 43 times at the very least in order to have less harmful environmental impact than a plastic bag used once.
So we have to think again, are plastic bans really helping us achieve our goal?
While less visible than plastic bans, investing in research and development of plastics will provide more tangible results. Plastic bans don’t eliminate the plastics that are already there lying around in our cities. Right now, only 9% of the world’s plastics are recycled. This is one point that should be focused on — finding solutions on making the plastic waste we retrieve from the environment usable again.
The current designs of our plastics make them problematic. Right now it takes lifetimes for our plastics to degrade. It doesn’t have to be that way. There are existing innovations that make plastic degrade faster. By investing in these types of solutions, we allow these plastics to return to the environment instead of adding to the massive amount of waste already present.
What we need is a change in the system of how plastics are used. Plastics are consumed in a linear fashion: we make them, we use them, then we throw them away. Following this system, waste would surely pile up over time.
We should invest solutions which embody the principles of a circular economy.
The Ellen MacArthur Foundation perfectly encapsulates this in their New Plastics Economy Report. Essentially, this report states that what we must focus on is creating a system where plastics will never become a waste in the first place.
Killing the bad reputation
We have been conditioned to see plastics in a bad light. It is about time to kill this bad reputation and start investing ways on how we can optimize and circularize the use of plastic.
The path to sustainability is not a convenient way to take. However, if we are really serious in saving our environment, we must push through even if surface-level solutions seem more attractive.