Will we save the ocean by banning plastic straws?
On the threshold of this week’s European Parliament vote on the EU Single-Use Plastic Directive, Janica Borg, Policy Coordinator for Marine Protection and Spatial Planning at the WWF European Policy Office, makes the case for how a seemingly narrow piece of legislation could have much wider reaching impacts on global circular economy policies, our relationship with plastic, and global ocean conservation.
Our plastic pollution legacy is already proving to be staggering. Around eight million tonnes of plastic leak into the ocean every year. It’s estimated that by 2050 our ocean will contain more plastic than fish. Plastic products have now been found in the deepest ocean trenches. Plastic dating back to the 1950s has been found in melting Arctic ice. In the North Sea alone, the majority of organisms studied have eaten on average one microplastic (<2 mm) particle. All these discoveries convey the same message: the scale of plastic pollution is extraordinary, more than we dared to ever imagine.
About 80% of plastic waste in our ocean enters from land-based sources and half of this comes from just five Southeast Asian countries: China, Indonesia, the Philippines, Vietnam and Sri Lanka. Why, then, is it relevant for the European Union (EU) to develop a Plastic Strategy and a directive on single-use plastics?
Most of the plastic we encounter as consumers is designed to be used for a very short period of time: a lunch take-away box is used for about 15 minutes and a coffee cup is rubbish as soon as you’ve finished your drink. A reusable bottle or coffee cup are excellent alternatives for reducing your daily plastic footprint, but apart from these, there are very few readily available alternatives for the convenience of plastic in our lives.
The EU Single-Use Plastic Directive is currently in legislative development with the goal of implementation in early 2019. It aims to ban plastic products that can be easily replaced whilst reducing or modifying items for which a plastic-free alternative is not yet readily available. For example, straws, cutlery, cotton buds and balloon-sticks made of single-use plastics are to be banned, whilst plastic lids of take-away cups must either be replaced by plastic-free alternatives or modified to be permanently attached to the cups and 90% of single-use drink bottles will have to be properly collected for recycling by 2025. The directive also aims to address fishing gear lost at sea, wet wipes, and sanitary pads which are other major contributors to plastic waste in our ocean.
While these initiatives are welcomed by many, the huge disconnect between plastic producers and waste management has led to uproar from sectors that profit from the plastic industry. At the European Parliament event Plastics: Part of the problem or ready for the future? in late September, several industry representatives took to the floor to explain how unfair the Extended Producer Responsibility scheme of the EU Single-Use Plastic Directive is to industry. The scheme aims to redistribute the costs of cleaning up plastic litter from volunteers, NGOs and local municipalities to make the producers of those plastics accountable for the pollution as well. The industry’s argument is that it is the public, rather than the producers, who use and irresponsibly discard the products. But this argument still revolves around the band aid solution of cleaning up the rubbish, when larger systematic efforts are essential to prevent litter from ending up in nature in the first place. This is especially true when we consider that the plastic waste that washes up on our beaches is just a small fraction of the total amount entering the ocean.
Will we save the oceans from plastic waste by banning single-use straws in Europe, knowing that most of the ocean’s plastic litter comes from Southeast Asia? Not entirely, but, it’s an excellent start to tackle this global challenge. Europeans are directly connected with the problems of the region via their massive contribution to tourism, and so higher awareness, behaviour changes and engagement with local communities and businesses can be powerful drivers for change when visiting Asia.
In addition, the global packaging industry has a responsibility to respond to the rising demand for alternatives to single-use packaging, and Europe has the required educational, economic and innovation expertise to spearhead this movement. In reality, the Single-Use Plastic Directive is a great opportunity for big industry players to show leadership, but by focusing their efforts on complaining about the directive and lobbying against the ambitious measures, they have already put themselves at the back of the pack to innovate this growing market.
We cannot beat plastic pollution by replacing all single-use plastics by other short-lived materials. In many places, we need changes in attitudes and a cultural shift in how we produce waste. It starts with the little things, like bringing a reusable cup for your take away coffee or sitting down in the coffee shop to get your caffeine hit in a real mug. These choices scale up by supporting products because they are plastic free or use recyclable materials. It comes to a head when we support businesses which design a sustainable life-cycle for products and that have measurable and ambitious targets for waste collection and recycling. While bottle deposit schemes are now on the negotiation table as a radical tool to support a circular economy, they have in fact existed in many European countries since the 1970s. The reality is, these choices aren’t difficult once they’ve been made accessible.
While our instant-access and throwaway cultures have become so convenient and exist on such a global scale that they seem impossible to live without, we can and need to make this shift. Consider how dramatically our views to smoking indoors shifted in less than ten years. Planning a sustainable future for plastics and our relationship with them will make a significant difference not only to ocean conservation, but also to the health of both people and our planet.