Why stop at plastic bags and straws? The case for a global treaty banning most single-use plastics



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Joyce Njeri, 8, walks amidst garbage and plastic bags in the Dandora slum of Nairobi, Kenya.
AP Photo/Ben Curtis, File

Anastasia Telesetsky, University of Idaho

Single-use plastics are a blessing and a curse. They have fueled a revolution in commercial and consumer convenience and improved hygiene standards, but also have saturated the world’s coastlines and clogged landfills. By one estimate 79 percent of all plastic ever produced is now in a dump, a landfill or the environment, and only 9 percent has been recycled.

This growing legacy poses real risks. Plastic packaging is clogging city sewer systems, leading to flooding. Abandoned plastic goods create breeding grounds for mosquitoes, and can leach toxic additives such as styrene and benzene as they decompose. Single-use plastics are killing birds and harming marine life.

I study international environmental law with a focus on marine ecosystems. In my view, land-based pollution from single-use plastics is a slow-onset disaster that demands a global response.

One attractive strategy is pursuing a legally binding phase-out of most single-use plastics at the global level. I believe this approach makes sense because it would build on current national and municipal efforts to eliminate single-use packaging, and would create opportunities for new small and medium-sized businesses to develop more benign substitutes.

Plastic bag litter along the Jukskei River, Johannesburg, South Africa.
NJR ZA/Wikimedia, CC BY-SA

Single-use plastic bans

About 112 countries, states and cities around the world have already imposed bans on various single-use plastic goods. Of these measures, 57 are national and 25 are in Africa. And the list of these restrictions continues to grow.

Most of these bans target thin single-use plastic carrier bags or imports of non-biodegradable bags. Some, such as the one in Antigua-Barbuda, include other single-use or problematic items, such as foam coolers and plastic utensils. A few measures – notably, Kenya’s plastic bag law – impose stiff punishments on violators, including jail time and fines of up to US$38,000.

Groups of states are starting to enact regional policies. The East African Legislative Assembly has passed a bill to ban the manufacture, sale, import and use of certain plastic bags across its six member states, with a combined population of approximately 186 million people. And in October 2018 the European Union Parliament approved a ban on a number of single-use plastic items by 2021, along with a requirement to reduce plastic in food packaging by 25 percent by 2025 and cut plastic content in cigarette filters 80 percent by 2030.

Most of these bans are quite new or still being implemented, so there is limited research on how well they work. However, researchers at the United Nations who have reviewed 60 “national bans and levies” estimate that 30 percent of these measures have reduced consumption of plastics.

Plastics manufacturers contend that better recycling is the most effective way to reduce the environmental impact of their products. But many factors make it hard to recycle plastic, from its physical characteristics to insufficient market demand for many types of recycled plastics. In many instances, single-use plastics can only be recycled, optimistically, 10 times before their fibers become too short to be reprocessed.

Estimated number of new regulations on single-use plastics entering into force at the national level worldwide.
UNEP, CC BY

Lessons from other global bans

Several global bans and product phase-outs offer lessons for a treaty banning single-use plastic goods. The most successful case is the 1987 Montreal Protocol on Substances that Deplete the Ozone Layer. This treaty phased out production and use of chlorofluorocarbons in a variety of products, including refrigerators and spray cans, after they were shown to harm Earth’s protective ozone layer.

Today scientists predict that stratospheric ozone concentrations will rebound to 1980 levels by the middle of this century. According to the Environmental Protection Agency, the Montreal Protocol has prevented millions of cases of skin cancer and cataracts from exposure to ultraviolet radiation. In 2016 nations adopted the Kigali Amendment, which will phase out production and use of hydrofluorocarbons, another class of ozone-depleting chemicals.

Why has the Montreal Protocol worked so well? One key factor is that every nation in the world has joined it. They did so because alternative materials were available to substitute for chlorofluorocarbons. The treaty also provided financial support to countries that needed help transitioning away from the banned substances.

Sir David Attenborough narrates the extraordinary history of the Montreal Protocol.

Where countries trying to reduce use of these chemicals fell short of their goals, the Protocol provided institutional support rather than punishing them. But it also included the option to impose trade sanctions on nations that refused to cooperate.

Another pact, the 2001 Stockholm Convention on Persistent Organic Pollutants, banned or severely limited production and use of certain chemicals that threatened human and environmental health, including specific insecticides and industrial chemicals. Today 182 nations have signed the treaty. Concentrations of several dangerous POPs in the Arctic, where global air and water currents tend to concentrate them, have declined.

Nations have added new chemicals to the list and created “elimination networks” to help members phase out use of dangerous materials such as PCBs. And producers of goods such as semiconductors and carpets that use listed chemicals are working to develop new, safer processes.

Even though the United States has not signed the Stockholm Convention, U.S. companies have largely eliminated production of the chemicals that the treaty regulates. This shows that setting a global standard may encourage nations to conform in order to maintain access to global markets.

Other international bans have been less successful. In 1989, seeking to reduce the slaughter of elephants for their tusks, parties to the Convention in Trade of Endangered Species banned ivory sales by ending trade in African elephant parts. Initially demand for ivory fell, but in 1999 and 2008 treaty states allowed African nations to sell ivory stockpiles to Japan and China, ostensibly to fund conservation. These two sales reignited global demand for ivory and created unregulated domestic markets that stimulated high levels of poaching.

Malaysian customs officials display smuggled tusks seized at Kuala Lumpur International Airport in 2017. Demand for ivory continues to fuel poaching and illegal trade despite an international ban on sales of elephant parts.
AP Photo/Vincent Thian

An opportunity to lead

What lessons do these treaties offer for curbing plastic pollution? The Montreal Protocol shows that bans can work where substitute products are available, but require reliable monitoring and the threat of sanctions to deter cheating. The Stockholm Convention suggests that industries will innovate to meet global production challenges. And struggles to curb the ivory trade offer a cautionary message about allowing exceptions to global bans.

I believe the rapid spread of single-use plastic bans shows that enough political support exists to launch negotiations toward a global treaty. Emerging economies such as Kenya that are aggressively tackling the problem are especially well placed to take a lead at the U.N. General Assembly in calling for talks on stemming the tide of plastic pollution.The Conversation

Anastasia Telesetsky, Professor of International Environmental Law , University of Idaho

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

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Botswana set to weigh in on whether ban on elephant hunting should be lifted



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Elephants at the Okavango Delta, Botswana.
Shutterstock

Keith Somerville, University of Kent

The government of President Mokgweetsi Masisi in Botswana has announced that it will hold a two-month nationwide consultation to review the ban on hunting, notably of elephants. The ban, introduced by Masisi’s predecessor, Ian Khama in 2014, has come under increasing criticism from people living in areas with significant wildlife populations as well as impoverished communities previously reliant on hunting income.

The announcement of the consultation followed a vote in the country’s parliament calling for the government to consider lifting the hunting ban on elephants. The motion was put before parliament by Konstantinos Markus, a member of the governing Botswana Democratic Party of President Masisi. The consultation will be run by the minister of local government and rural development.

Markus, who got support of a majority of MPs from all parties, argued that there were several factors necessitating the lifting of the ban. These included the increase in Botswana’s elephant population, the growing conflict between people and elephants (such as crops being destroyed and people’s lives being endangered) and the loss to local communities of income from hunting. He also argued that the ban contradicted the aims of one of the country’s key conservation efforts designed to contribute to rural development.

It’s significant that the environment and tourism ministry isn’t running the process. Given that it’s the local government and rural development ministry in charge the focus is likely to be on rural livelihoods rather than environmental protection.

The history of the ban

Hunting was banned by President Ian Khama in January 2014. The decision followed a survey on Botswana’s wildlife. It suggested that a number of species were declining in northern Botswana, where most sports and commercial hunting occurred. It found that ostrich numbers had fallen by 95%, wildebeest 90%, tsessebe 84%, warthog and kudu 81% and giraffes (66%)between 1966 and 2011.

A weakness of the survey was that it only looked at the numbers and failed to take into account what had caused declines, or what the long-term trends or seasonal factors were.

Khama and his brother Tshekedi, who was minister of the environment and natural resources, blamed the decline on hunting. With urging from animal rights NGOs as well as some wildlife filmmakers they opted to ban sports and most forms of commercial hunting, blaming them for species decline.

But a study carried out by Joseph Mbaiwa of the Okavango Research Unit at the University of Botswana, found that the ban was

not supported by any scientific evidence, and there was no involvement of local communities in the decision-making process.

Mbaiwa found that the ban was opposed in local communities where there had been hunting. This was because it had contributed significantly to incomes which they’d lost. In addition, wildlife was increasingly damaging crops while increased livestock farming in the wake of ban was affecting water resources.

Elephant damage to the Mopane woodlands in Linyanti, northern Botswana.
Author Supplied

Mbaiwa also found that rural communities had lost an important source of meat which provided vital protein.

Why MPs oppose the ban

The combination of lost income, increased conflict with wildlife and increased poaching all weighed on MPs minds when they voted overwhelmingly to call on the government to reconsider the ban. Markus tabled his motion as a matter of “urgent public importance. He said the urgency was partly due to the latest figures showing a national elephant population of 237,000, compared with a carrying capacity of 50,000.

He also argued that the

expansion of the elephant population in Botswana has impoverished communities, especially those in Boteti, Ngamiland, Chobe or northern Botswana where crop damage and lack of harvest due to elephants is prevalent.

The size of the elephant population is hard to pin down accurately as huge numbers migrate between Botswana, Zimbabwe, Zambia, Namibia and Angola. The Great Elephant Census survey carried out in 2014 put the population at 130,451, but the 2012 dry season survey showed 207,545.

Possible explanations for the fluctuation in numbers could include migration as well as seasonal factors rather than an outright decline.

What happens next?

The consultation process is due to start when the current parliamentary session ends in the first week of August. It will involve a series of traditional kgotla meetings – public meetings at which everyone is allowed to have their say before leaders come to a decision.

It’s significant that the chair process is being chaired by the minister responsible for rural livelihoods rather than Tshekedi Khama, the environment minister, who was one of the chief proponents of the ban.

One reason for this decision may be that the new president, who replaced Ian Khama on 1 April 2018, wants to placate an increasing number of BDP MPs, local councillors and chiefs who say the ban is damaging the livelihoods of people in rural areas and having a bad effect on rural development. If these issues aren’t resolved the party risks losing rural votes in Ngamiland in elections next year.

The ConversationThere are likely to be very heated debates in the coming months as the government weighs up whether to lift the ban to meet popular demand and economic reality, or whether the Khama factor will still weigh heavily on the decision.

Keith Somerville, Visiting Professor, University of Kent

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

How the ‘yeah-but’ mentality stalls progress on bag bans and other green issues



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Is forgetting your bags really such an inconvenience?
AAP Image/Peter Rae

Anne Lane, Queensland University of Technology

The debacle over the removal of single-use plastic bags from supermarkets has been analysed from a range of different perspectives. Supermarkets have been described as breaking a psychological trust contract with their customers and cynically using environmental concerns to reduce their costs and increase their profits. The pushback by Australian shoppers has been the cause of much amusement and bewildered head-shaking.

But there’s one aspect of people’s resistance to this type of change that has major implications for every environmental initiative in the country. Let’s call it the “yeah-but” mentality.




Read more:
Why plastic bag bans triggered such a huge reaction


Yeah-buts know when things are bad for the environment. They know about the dangers of throwaway plastic, whether it be bags, straws or bottles. They know that eating farmed meat, leaving the tap running, and driving cars powered by fossil fuels are not good for the world we live in.

They know this situation is not sustainable and that someone must do something about it. They might even be willing to make an occasional donation to an environmental charity. But ask them to take action themselves, especially if that involves even a low level of inconvenience, and the Yeah-buts sound their call.

Yeah-buts know they shouldn’t really drive to work, but then again public transport takes longer and doesn’t go door-to-door.

Yeah-buts know that farmed meat has a large environmental footprint, but they like the taste, and anyway veggies are only really an accompaniment.

This mentality has significant implications for any organisation attempting to address environmental challenges in Australia, or any other democratic society.

Previous research – such as that into the low take-up of electric cars – has found that consumers can be resistant to eco-friendly innovations in products and behaviour where they perceive that the proposed alternative is more expensive and/or less practical.

A requirement for people to actually put in some effort to acquire new behaviour that helps the environment is almost certainly going to encounter resistance.

How to drive behaviour change

Encouraging people to adopt new behaviours – especially those that involve personal inconvenience – is traditionally done through a “standard learning hierarchy approach”. The first step is to provide people with new knowledge and information on a topic or issue, thus increasing their understanding. As a result they will change the way they feel about the topic, and ultimately change their behaviour to reflect this new understanding and feeling.

Research has shown, however, that giving people new knowledge doesn’t necessarily mean they’ll do the right thing.

For years, organisations have been telling us how bad plastic bags are for the environment. As a result, people have been feeling increasingly negative towards the use of plastic bags. But despite some shoppers changing their ways, many didn’t. Until this month, supermarkets were still supplying millions of single-use bags, and thousands of their customers were still using them.

Then came the prospect of a ban, and the yeah-but excuses began to flow. One shopper told A Current Affair:

It’s just one extra thing (to remember) and invariably as I get older my memory gets worse.

Clearly the standard learning hierarchy wasn’t working here. The Yeah-buts persisted because their unwillingness to be inconvenienced by the need to provide their own shopping bags triumphed over their knowledge of the harm that plastic bags do. For these people, the inconvenience of forgetting their bags is acute, whereas the guilt over using unnecessary plastic is more vague. So this is where the government stepped in and removed the option of single-use plastic bags altogether.

Under pressure from environmental groups and concerned individuals, governments introduced a legislated ban on single-use plastic bags. This is a different approach to the standard learning hierarchy, which seeks to change people’s perception first, and then their behaviour. Here, people’s behaviour was forcibly altered in the hope that their knowledge and feelings would catch up.

The idea that people will reject an opportunity to acquire a new habit that will bring positive environmental change because it inconveniences them is one that clearly needs more research. It’s hard to think of another example where this inconvenience has resulted from a government mandating the withdrawal of a legal product to benefit the environment.

The case of the plastic bag ban is still being analysed, but could it provoke copycat behaviour by other environmental agencies – lobbying for legislation to force people to take a particular course of action while waiting for them to realise it’s the “right” thing to do and it makes them feel good? It’s an avenue that has been explored by some over many years, with varying degrees of success.




Read more:
Target’s plastic bag backdown a loss for the silent majority


Only time will tell if the use of legislation makes the Yeah-buts’ resistance over the single-use plastic bag futile. If it does seem to work, watch out for a slew of applications from other environmental agencies and charities for similar levels of strong-arm government support.

The ConversationBut those organisations will have to be prepared to weather a severe storm of backlash and negative public sentiment if they think legislation is the way to go. It’s not the governments that will be held liable: just ask Coles and Woolies!

Anne Lane, Academic and researcher, Queensland University of Technology

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

Why Coles’ plastic bag backflip leaves us worse off than before


Kim Borg, Monash University and Edwin Ip, Monash University

One month after removing free lightweight plastic bags from checkouts, Australian supermarket giant Coles has decided to offer thicker reusable plastics bags for free, indefinitely. This unprecedented move is in response to strong backlash by customers who are struggling to switch to reusable bags.




Read more:
Why plastic bag bans triggered such a huge reaction


We know that offering free lightweight plastic bags causes excessive plastic use. We also know that banning lightweight bags can increase the use of heavier plastic bags (such as bin liners). Coles’ decision brings out the worst of both worlds: giving out heavier plastic bags for free.

Free vs. fee

Consumers respond to price changes: if prices go up, demand falls. Increasing the use of reusable bags by introducing a small fee has generally been successful around the world. This includes examples from Canada, Botswana, Portugal and Ireland, where introducing a €0.15 tax on plastic shopping bags reduced usage by over 90%.

An alarming example for Coles is that of South Africa. They removed lightweight plastic bags and introduced a fee of 46 rand cents for thicker plastic bags, later reducing it to 17 cents. The initial high price point almost halved the use of plastic bags, but when the price was lowered the use of plastic bags increased over time.




Read more:
In banning plastic bags we need to make sure we’re not creating new problems


Behavioural economics suggests that people are more sensitive to loss than gains, so financial disincentives for plastic bags are particularly useful. For example, it has been found that use of single-use bags can decrease substantially when a charge is framed as a tax, compared to a bonus for bringing reusable bags.

A habit of free bags

Cole’s backflip is particularly troubling from a behavioural economics perspective. The thicker reusable plastic bags were meant to cost 15c. Coles are essentially offering a 100% discount on these bags compared to rival supermarkets. This, combined with the “power of free”, means that people may take more bags than they need when shopping – increasing plastic usage.

Switching to reusable bags without an added cost means that they are conceptually very similar to the old single-use bags (but with more plastic content). This replacement will not help people to kick their old single-use habits. In fact, they may develop a new habit of using the reusable bags as single-use products. If consumers continue their old habits, this could lead to even more plastic going to landfill and entering the environment.




Read more:
There are some single-use plastics we truly need. The rest we can live without


Alternative solutions

Coles is in a difficult situation. Not only has this decision divided shoppers, but if they decide to charge for these bags in the future, they are likely to experience another round of backlash as consumers experience another bout of loss aversion – but this time the loss will be associated with a higher quality product.

Now that the decision is made, it is important that Coles is able to evaluate the impact: How many free bags are being distributed? How many bin liners are being sold? How are the thicker plastic bags being used?

Coles also has a responsibility to take alternative measures to reduce plastic use. Financial disincentives are not always the best option (for example charging for bags can cause additional hardships for low income households). They are also not the only option for reducing our reliance on plastic bags.




Read more:
How to break up with plastics (using behavioural science)


The ConversationA more equitable solution could be to use behavioural science to help consumers break their habits. For example, instead of giving out free plastic bags, Coles could loan their reusable canvas bags for a small fee that is refunded on return. This would encourage reuse while avoiding additional costs for low income households or backlash from customers – everybody wins.

Kim Borg, Doctoral Candidate & Research Officer at BehaviourWorks Australia, Monash Sustainable Development Institute, Monash University and Edwin Ip, Research Fellow, Monash University

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

Why plastic bag bans triggered such a huge reaction


Gary Mortimer, Queensland University of Technology and Rebekah Russell-Bennett, Queensland University of Technology

Woolworths’ and Coles’ bans on plastic bags have been applauded by environmental groups, but were reportedly met with abuse and assault and claims of profiteering. Even comedians saw value in the theatre of the bag ban.

This reaction is due to supermarkets breaching their “psychological contract” with customers. When both major supermarkets appeared to back flip in the face of irate customers it only compounded the problem”.

Unlike written legal contracts, psychological contracts are a set of “unwritten rules” or “expectations” exchanged between the parties in a transaction. This can be between an employee and employer, or a customer and a retailer.

These understandings are often tacit or implicit. They tend to be invisible, assumed, unspoken, informal or at best only partially vocalised.

The pre-ban psychological contract between supermarket and shopper was something like “I’ll shop with you and, in exchange, you’ll pack my purchases into a free plastic bag.”

There was an implicit financial exchange between parties. Shoppers spent money on groceries and the supermarket paid for providing a plastic bag.

With the bag ban the psychological contract changed: “I’ll shop with you and give up a plastic bag, you’ll also give up plastic in the store in other areas, and the environment will benefit.”

Supermarkets justified phasing out lightweight plastic bags with the idea of a corporate social responsibility strategy. Customers might have been glad to forgo single-use plastic bans to support a greener future, but this is where the problem occurred.

Shoppers began to realise that supermarkets were saving money (by no longer giving away bags for nothing), while they themselves incurred a cost (paying 15 cents or more, depending on the type of re-usable bag).

The supermarkets had not kept up their end of the psychological contract by reducing the use of plastic in the store, particularly in packaging. The social media comments largely reflect this.

When there is a psychological contract breach, people can engage in revenge and retaliation.

This can range from mild, such as venting on social media, to acts of sabotage like altering floor stock and stealing shopping baskets.

Compounding factors

A couple of other factors have compounded the perceived breach of contract.

Unlike smaller states and territories (South Australia, Tasmania, Northern Territory and the ACT) where state legislation has banned single-use plastic bags by all retailers, this was a retailer-imposed national ban.

Shoppers in these smaller states quickly became accustomed to not having free bags, as these were not available anywhere.

By simply backflipping soon after implementing the policy, the supermarkets also prompted shoppers to question their intentions and integrity.

While shoppers may have at first accepted the rationale for the ban, extended free bag periods sent the message that the supermarkets are not that serious about banning plastic bags for environmental reasons.




Read more:
Getting rid of plastic bags: a windfall for supermarkets but it won’t do much for the environment


While Woolworths has said it will channel “money made” from selling its “Bag for Good” scheme into a youth environmental scheme, customers also rightly question the cost savings and revenues generated.

Removing a single-use plastic bag is a positive first step, but it is only the beginning. Customers still walk in to supermarkets today and see many varieties of food wrapped in plastic, and they themselves place loose fruit and vegetables into plastic bags.

As a result of media coverage, customers are now more aware and sensitive of plastics throughout dry grocery departments. They see more and more unnecessary plastic packaging, like dry pasta in a box with a clear plastic window.

Fixing the plastic bag ban

There is certainly enough evidence that removing single-use bags leads to positive environmental outcomes. But a national, uniform approach is needed, supported by consumer awareness and education programs.

While many state and territory governments have legislated plastic bag bans, others have held out. The Victorian government last year announced plans to ban single-use plastic bags, but despite widespread consumer support, it is yet to come into effect.

Supermarkets need to be open about the financial aspects of plastic bags, both costs and revenues.

Consumers may understand the procurement and logistics costs of the replacement plastic bag options will be higher – because the bags are thicker and heavier, and it takes extra time to pack different-sized bag options.




Read more:
How to break up with plastics (using behavioural science)


The distribution of net profits (not gross profits) from the sale of all re-usable bag options should be channelled into sustainability programs, research grants and education schemes. Programs need to be benchmarked, measured and publicly announced.

Shoppers will be more accepting of change if they can comprehend how their small sacrifice (say 15 cents) is helping the environment.

Shoppers also have an important role to play in the scheme of things. While it will take some time to break old habits, responsibility rests with shoppers to remember to bring a bag. If they forget, they simply need to buy another one.

The ConversationUltimately, the psychological contract needs to once again be aligned and in balance. To do this governments, retailers and consumers need to work together to solve this important environmental issue.

Gary Mortimer, Associate Professor in Marketing and International Business, Queensland University of Technology and Rebekah Russell-Bennett, Social Marketing Professor, School of Advertising, Marketing and Public Relations, Queensland University of Technology

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.