By Leyla Acaroglu
The lightweight and easy-to-produce nature of plastic has made it globally ubiquitous in a bazillion forms. As we are all becoming too aware, these cheap conveniences have negative impacts on the natural world and there is a growing trend in public policy actions to ban certain plastic products. Whilst there are complexities in implementing bans, there is an interesting conversation to be had on how different countries around the world are taking legislative action to discourage the use of some types of disposable plastics (like bags, cutlery, and styrofoam containers), and how impactful this is for activating change and moving toward a circular economy.
Today, the average North American or European person consumes 100 KGs of plastic each year, and half of the world’s plastic has been produced in the last 12-15 years. The statistics on just how many disposable plastics are used and end up polluting the environment are staggering. With four trillion single-use plastic bags being used around the world each year, we are drowning in plastic waste. With a collapsing recycling industry, there is clearly a strong need for a systems change to support the functional delivery that plastic products bring us, but without all the disposable consequences.
As you can imagine, things aren't always as simple as they seem on face value. Banning bags and straws can help in some ways to curb the tsunami of plastic waste, but bans alone will not address the real underlying issue: the global normalization of disposability and expectation of convenience that has become a central aspect of our fast-paced, hyper-consumption-fueled lives. Furthermore there is the important question, of what replaces the plastic products, and what impact these alternatives have?
Just some of the bans include: European Union, Mexico City, New York, Kenya, United Kingdom, and Costa Rica to name just a few. The World Economic Forum counts 127 countries with active bag regulations in place.
15 single-use plastic issues
91% of plastic waste isn’t recycled (source)
Only 1% of plastic bags are returned for recycling (source)
It costs retailers in the US alone $4 billion to give away “free” bags (source)
12 million barrels of oil are required each year to make plastic bags for the U.S (source)
There is more micro-plastic in the ocean than there are stars in the Milky Way (source)
8 million tons of plastic flow into the ocean each year (source)
As many as 8.3 billion plastic straws pollute the world's beaches (source)
Ingestion of plastic kills an estimated 1 million marine birds
Ingestion of plastic kills an estimated 100,000 marine animals each year (source)
There are 46,000 pieces of plastic in each square mile of ocean on average (source)
1 million plastic bottles are bought every minute around the world — and that number will top half a trillion by 2021 (source)
The average person eats 70,000 micro-plastics each year (source)
The top three contributors of micro plastic waste in the oceans are car tires, fibres from wash cloths, and small plastic beads from body care products (source)
If plastic consumption increases at its current rate, by 2050 there will be 12 billion metric tons of plastic in landfills (source)
Scientists have found plastic in human poop (source)
The thing that makes plastic so incredible as an ‘everything-material’ is the same reason it's a nightmare for the natural environment — it's lightweight and indestructible. The lightweightness means that bags and bottles blow out of trash cans, and float on the ocean surface until they land on beaches. The indestructible part means that the stuff stays around for a very long time. The actual number of years it takes for plastic to break down is unknown, as all plastic in the world has only been around since the 1960’s when we started to mass produce it for everything.
We are in the middle of not just a backlash to disposable plastics, but a significant cultural shift and transition to a circular economy that even has the Queen of England on board with the need to detox from disposable plastic. She recently announced that Buckingham Palace will go plastic free after watching David Attenborough’s Blue Planet series! 18 months ago, China introduced a ban on all imported plastic waste, which has sent the global plastic recycling market into a tailspin. To get a full rundown on this, listen to this fantastic podcast on 99% invisible that explains the history of plastic straws and the public health concerns that fuelled their mass appeal in the U.S.
The mounting issues are encouraging countries and companies around the world to respond to consumer outcry about not just waste washing up on beaches, but on enforced disposable culture that we are now entrenched in. There are many reasons why we need systems change for a post disposable future and a circular economy.
The European Union just banned a list of 10 everyday disposable plastic products (interesting they avoided bags!?), and there are hundreds of various types of bans in place around the world, ranging from microbeads to expanded polystyrene (EPS) to single-use plastic bags, straws, cups, and utensils.
There are many different ways countries are legislating disposable plastics. Some have a total ban, which basically says if you are caught with these items you are in deep doo doo. Kenya, for example, has the highest with a $38,000 fine if you are caught with a plastic bag (which incidentally has created a fascinating black market for bags).
Taxation is also used to disincentivize product use; often referred to as a “bag tax”, countries like Australia, Sweden, the UK, and many more are using this approach. This is a bit of an easy way out - in a user-pays system, many people with the means will continue to pay the small inconvenience tax (often around 5 or 10 cents), whilst people who are less economically mobile will be burdened with the cost. Then there are also partial bans where certain regions within a country have imposed bans.For example, in the US there is not a total ban of plastic bags, but there are cities that have total bans (like San Francisco). This also applies, in some countries, to plastic bans in religious, historic, or natural sites, as in the states of Goa and Gujarat in India.
Do Bans Work?
Banning plastic cuts off the problem at the source, so at face value, and according to statistics, these bans present an effective and sustainable solution. For example, some widely shared figures tout that Ireland’s bag tax that was imposed in 2002 has led to a 85% reduction in plastic bag litter there. And, according to reports from San Jose, California, their 2011 ban has led to plastic litter reduction of “approximately 89 percent in the storm drain system, 60 percent in the creeks and rivers, and 59 percent in City streets and neighborhoods.”
While these numbers seem promising, things start to get a little more complex when you examine them through a systems mindset. Bans can misdirect the perception of what the problem is; in the case of bags, it vilifies plastic, but many of the alternatives put in place do not fit into a circular economy and are equally as problematic from a whole systems perspective. Paper bags are not as strong, so they are often double bagged. When you look at all the processes that go into making them (such as growing trees, cutting them, bleaching and processing them, and then manufacturing the bag), you start to see that there are ecological impacts at other parts of the system.
Additionally, we’re beginning to see plastic sales increase in other areas as an unintended consequence of bag bans; in California, for example, plastic garbage bag sales increased 120%! This is due to consumers needing bags for things they previously reused their plastic grocery bags for, like collecting household waste and picking up pet waste.
The issue with all of these products being banned is the disposability of them. Paper straws or wooden chopsticks may conjure up more eco-friendly sentiments, but they still cause significant issues when they are designed for single-use outcomes. Banning one product breeds a market for a new one, and then the question is in whether the new one will end up being better than the last disposable item. That is the sustainability question that needs to be answered from the start as we move toward circular design solutions that fit into a circular economy.
Even with items that are designed to be reused, like cotton tote bags, we have to be mindful of the life cycle impacts here too. The Danish Government recently published a LCA of grocery bags, in which they found that you’d have to use an organic cotton tote bag 20,000 times more than a plastic grocery bag in order for it to be better for the environment due to cotton manufacturing impacts like water use, damage to ecosystems, air pollution, and more.
Bans are also interesting to consider from a behavioral perspective. On one hand, they create a new type of normal for people and allow society to shift perspectives on certain things — like the fact that hyper-disposable products are not good for any of us. Bans also force innovation, as people will have to find new ways of meeting their needs. But on the other hand, when something becomes harder to get, it makes it more valuable, which leads to a rise in workarounds to getting the thing that is no longer readily available. What is even more interesting is the physiology of bans — people get really irate when they have something taken away from them. In both Singapore and Australia, for instance, there was a big controversy when the supermarkets tried to ban bags, and a small percentage of very vocal people claimed this was a violation of their rights.
Dissecting the issues with plastic bans here at a high level reinforces the need to examine problems and proposed interventions through a systems lens and a life-cycle perspective in order to avoid creating more problems. While the destruction imposed by plastic makes us all want to jump to a quick-fix-solution, we need to suspend the need to solve and reframe the conversation by emphasizing the real issue of disposability.
Only time will tell if bans help ensure the disruptive shifts we need to get to a better future, but in the meantime, we can all examine how we contribute to disposability in our lives and implement micro-actions to support a sustainable future. As for bags, the best answer for now is simply to reuse the bags you have, no matter what type, over and over and over again. For some ideas on getting started with a post disposable lifestyle that fits into the future circular economy, download our free Post Disposable Activation Kit at UnSchool Online. or take our class on sustainability that covers life cycle thinking.