California’s already banned them. The European Union isn’t far behind, and the UK seems poised to follow suit. I’m talking, of course, about single-use plastics.
To many, this may warrant little fanfare. Who cares if we have to start sipping our gin and tonic through a paper or bamboo straw rather than a plastic one? Or if we have to find a new medium of eardrum puncturing after conventional cotton buds are taken off the market? Issues such as these seem incredibly trivial when compared to the global issue of plastic pollution, especially after we’re subjected to heart-wrenching videos of the effect of plastic on marine life.
The issue of plastic pollution is, indeed, ever-present, and one that is deserving of our attention. But is a ban on single-use plastics really a significant first step towards cleaner oceans?
Unfortunately, no. The contribution of the UK – and the EU and US, for that matter – to global plastic pollution is extremely marginal. Countries like China, Indonesia and the Philippines dump gargantuan levels of plastic compared to Europe and North America. Western bans on single-use items like straws can only ever be little more than superficial.
On top of this, many of the “green” alternatives are not necessarily green at all. The logic behind the ban on single-use plastics is that, in removing accessibility to such items, businesses will be forced to adopt reusable, recyclable, or compostable alternatives like paper, bamboo, or metal.
The flaw in this logic, however, is that products are only as recyclable or compostable as infrastructure allows them to be. Without ready and available access to recycling bins, the problems of littering and pollution will remain as present among “green” products as they are with plastics.
We should also be careful not to forget that while certain green products might not be as pollutive as plastics when discarded, some actually require more fossil fuels in order to be manufactured in the first place.