The Government’s single use plastic ban risks failing the business of environmental protection and our oceans, says Tim Evans, Professor of Business and Political Economy at Middlesex University London.
The government announced a few months ago its consultation on a range of proposals to ban popular single-use plastic products such as drinking straws, stirrers and even plastic stemmed cotton buds. The ambition for such a move is to rightly prevent plastics from polluting the world’s oceans.
However, the overwhelming majority of plastic in the oceans actually comes from China and a plethora of developing nations such as Indonesia, the Philippines and Vietnam. It is these countries that will have the final, determining say on whether and when this issue is actually resolved. That is why the best we can do is to set a sensible, balanced and sustainable approach.
While some European scientists argue that an outright ban on single-use plastics may do more harm than good, it is important to recognise that many so-called green products are not necessarily as recyclable or sustainable as some marketeers claim.
The truth is that any replacements for plastics inevitably bring their own challenges. Riven with complex science, costs and benefits, little is certain and nothing is priced at zero.
For more neutral observers, a more impactful and sustainable approach might involve bolstering and investing in the UK’s recycling infrastructure.
Reusables and Composting
My wife is a consultant infection control nurse. She is the first to point out that any reusable products carry the risk of not being sanitized properly. She is acutely aware of the importance of getting such processes right from beginning to end.
Reusables have to be washed, which requires water and detergent. Detergent comes with its own environmental costs, starting with production – and going all the way through the value chain – to disposal. Water in turn, when contaminated with the debris and detergent from dirty reusables, also has to be treated. Everything takes time, money and effort.
Whether detergent or dirty water, all of the complex steps involved carry their own environmental and economic costs. Something incidentally, that government consultations and inquiries are notoriously bad at factoring in – the world over.
Compostable products also bring environmental costs and challenges. In reality, compostable packages do not spontaneously compost when littering the streets, parks or other types of public space. Instead, they need to be sent to industrial composting facilities so they can be disposed of properly. Again, using effort and scares resources that have environmental impacts.
Putting to the side the fact that compostable products do not magically compost in a marine environment; to reap any meaningful socio-economic benefit, users must ensure that their packaging is composted once it has been used. And therein lies a host of other problems. For not only do these processes typically cost more than traditional disposable containers but, today, there are woefully few industrial composting facilities in the UK.
Of course, not all solutions need to be based on new taxes, products or policies. One of the grubby truths of our politics is that there remains a lot of room for improvement in the use of existing paradigms – such as recycling.
By the government’s own standards, a significant number of local authorities are still failing the target of getting 50 per cent of all municipal waste recycled and prepared for reuse. Moreover, there are still no basic, agreed, best practices for waste disposal in this country.
This means that our politicians seem prepared to flirt with the risky and unintended consequences of an outright ban or more taxes, before we have even enforced the basics of previously agreed European standards. A classic case of state failure and putting the cart before the horse.
Today, away from the vote and headline grabbing motives of politicians and their sectional interests, the UK’s recycling efforts remain woefully disconnected and under-resourced. Consumers remain ill-informed on how to properly recycle and poorly supported even when they are eager to engage.
In reality, perhaps no government could or should ban every single-use item. Serial litterers are not going to stop littering just because a cup is made from something other than plastic.
This is why the government would be wiser to focus their efforts on what is actually achievable and will most positively impact global behaviour.
In this country, littering needs to be eliminated through the golden thread of education, enforcing existing anti-littering laws, and by making more waste disposal options available and user friendly.
Cleaning our World
It is only when we can demonstrate the most efficient and effective approaches will the UK actually be able to positively influence the likes of China, Indonesia, the Philippines and Vietnam.
Raising our gaze, the opportunity is clear. Only through a more positive, practicable and ambitious approach, we will be able to influence behavior and help to encourage change in the countries that really matter.
Instead of letting our politicians off the hook with yet another heavy and ham-fisted ban that no doubt risks all manner of costly and unintended consequences, environmental groups should set the bar higher. They need to prioritise improvements to our country’s recycling infrastructure and campaign on the very real problems caused by littering across the spectra of public space – including our littoral waters and waterways.
It is only when we demonstrate that we can get the basics right, in a sensible, balanced and sustainable way, that countries the other side of the world will truly listen, learn and change.