We are all familiar with the concept of “fake news”: stories that are factually incorrect, but succeed because their message fits well with the recipient’s prior beliefs.
We and our colleagues in conservation science warn that a form of this misinformation – so-called “feelgood conservation” – is threatening approaches for wild animal management that have been developed by decades of research.
The issue came to a head in February when major UK-based retailer Selfridges announced it would no longer sell “exotic” skins – those of reptile species such as crocodiles, lizards and snakes – in order to protect wild populations from over-exploitation.
Banning the use of animal skins in the fashion industry sounds straightforward and may seem commendable – wild reptiles will be left in peace, instead of being killed for the luxury leather trade.
But decades of research show that by walking away from the commercial trade in reptile skins, Selfridges may well achieve the opposite to what it intends. Curtailing commercial trade will be a disaster for some wild populations of reptiles.
How can that be true? Surely commercial harvesting is a threat to the tropical reptiles that are collected and killed for their skins?
Actually, no. You have to look past the fate of the individual animal and consider the future of the species. Commercial harvesting gives local people – often very poor people – a direct financial incentive to conserve reptile populations and the habitats upon which they depend.
If lizards, snakes and (especially) crocodiles aren’t worth money to you, why would you want to keep them around, or to protect the forests and swamps that house them?
The iconic case study that supports this principle involves saltwater crocodiles in tropical Australia – the biggest, meanest man-eaters in the billabong.
Overharvested to the point of near-extinction, the giant reptiles were finally protected in the Northern Territory in 1971. The populations started to recover, but by 1979-80, when attacks on people started to occur again, the public and politicians wanted the crocodiles culled again. It’s difficult to blame them for that. Who wants a hungry croc in the pond where your children would like to swim?
But fast-forward to now and that situation has changed completely. Saltwater crocs are back to their original abundance. Their populations bounced back. These massive reptiles are now in every river and creek – even around the city of Darwin, capital of the Northern Territory.
Eggs are collected from the wild every year, landowners get paid for them, and the resulting hatchlings go to crocodile farms where they are raised, then killed to provide luxury leather items, meat and other products. Landowners have a financial interest in conserving crocodiles and their habitats because they profit from it.
The key to the success was buy-in by the community. There are undeniable negatives in having large crocodiles as neighbours – but if those crocs can contribute to the family budget, you may want to keep them around. In Australia, it has worked.
The trade in giant pythons in Indonesia, Australia’s northern neighbour, has been examined in the same way, and the conclusion is the same. The harvest is sustainable because it provides cash to local people, in a society where cash is difficult to come by.
So the evidence says commercial exploitation can conserve populations, not annihilate them.
Why then do companies make decisions that could imperil wild animals? Probably because they don’t know any better.
Media campaigns by animal-rights activists aim to convince kind-hearted urbanites that the best way to conserve animals is to stop people from harming them. This might work for some animals, but it fails miserably for wild reptiles.
We argue that if we want to keep wild populations of giant snakes and crocodiles around for our grandchildren to see (hopefully, at a safe distance), we need to abandon simplistic “feelgood conservation” and look towards evidence-based scientific management.
We need to move beyond “let’s not harm that beautiful animal” and get serious about looking at the hard evidence. And when it comes to giant reptiles, the answer is clear.
The ban announced by Selfridges is a disastrous move that could imperil some of the world’s most spectacular wild animals and alienate the people living with them.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Closing Uluru to climbers empowers Indigenous people to teach visitors about their culture on their own terms, which is more sustainable for tourism in the long run.
Uluru is a drawcard for international and domestic tourists, and is visited by over 250,000 people per year. A substantial number of these choose to climb the rock. On busy days, the number can be in the hundreds. This is despite being asked by the traditional owners, the Anangu people, to respect their wishes, culture and law and not climb Uluru.
The Anangu people actually offer visitors a range of eco-cultural tourism activities that focus on sharing Indigenous culture, knowledge and traditions, which don’t involve planting feet on a sacred place. These activities including nature walks, painting workshops, bush yarns and bush food experiences.
This decision to close the rock to climbers comes after many years of conceding rights back to the Anangu, and is possibly one of the few times where Indigenous values have truly been prioritised over other interests.
Giving power back to Uluru’s traditional owners
The Uluru-Kata Tjuta National Park, declared in 1950, was handed back to the Anangu on October 26, 1985. While the agreement required the park to be leased to the Australian Parks and Wildlife Services under a co-management arrangement, the handover was a symbolic high point for land rights.
In practice, however, aspects of the park’s operations were contrary to the traditional owners’ approach to conservation and management. For instance, park management models stated the need to place:
… emphasis on developing acceptable patterns of use of the physical environment and not on recognition of social and spiritual values of land to Indigenous people.
In 2010, the park’s management plan proposed to close the rock if the proportion of visitors who wished to climb Uluru was below 20%. An independent analysis of track counter data and visitor statistics undertaken by the Griffith Institute for Tourism over a four year period revealed that in almost all circumstances (and even with allowance for track counter inaccuracy) the proportion was under 20%.
Finally on November 1, the Uluru-Kata Tjuta National Park Board of Management, consisting of eight traditional owners and four government officials, voted unanimously to close Uluru (Ayers Rock) to climbers. The local tourism industry supported the decision.
But for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples, getting involved in the tourism industry comes with its own set of problems. They have been tasked with juggling their heritage, customs, culture and traditions with government initiatives that prioritise economic over socio-cultural development. For example, as Quandamooka Dreaming “targets big dollars from tourism” in SE Queensland, the traditional owners are successfully balancing their socio-economic aspirations with cultural lores by determining that some sacred sites will remain accessible only to elders and initiated Indigenous Quandamooka people. But other sites will be open to eco-tourists.
Given the considerable pressure tourism places on local resources and places, the involvement of local communities and different groups within them is now considered critical for achieving sustainable tourism.
A recent report concludes that participation and empowerment of local communities are success factors to managing tourism growth. It’s the local community that looks after the destination, and it can make or break a tourist’s experience. The report finds developing tourism without input from the local people has often led to conflict.
Closing Uluru for climbing should be seen as a shining example of sustainable tourism being a vehicle for the preservation, maintenance and ongoing development of culture, traditions and knowledge.
And when reconciliation principles are practised not preached, traditional custodians of the land are afforded due respect. This then leads them to share their 60,000 year old knowledge of the management of the land we are privileged to utilise as tourism destinations.
The Uluru-Kata Tjuta National Park board of management has announced that tourists will be banned from climbing Uluru from 2019. The climb has always been discouraged by the park’s Traditional Owners (the Anangu people) but a number of tourists continued to climb the rock on a daily basis. Below, in English and Indigenous language, Sammy Wilson, chairman of the park board, explains why his people have decided to ban the climb outright.
THE Uluru-Kata Tjuta National Park Board has announced tourists will be banned from climbing Uluru, an activity long considered disrespectful by the region’s traditional owners.
Anangu have always held this place of Law. Other people have found it hard to understand what this means; they can’t see it. But for Anangu it is indisputable. So this climb issue has been widely discussed, including by many who have long since passed away. More recently people have come together to focus on it again and it was decided to take it to a broader group of Anangu. They declared it should be closed. This is a sacred place restricted by law.
It’s not just at board meetings that we discussed this but it’s been talked about over many a camp fire, out hunting, waiting for the kangaroo to cook, they’ve always talked about it.
The climb is a men’s sacred area. The men have closed it. It has cultural significance that includes certain restrictions and so this is as much as we can say. If you ask, you know they can’t tell you, except to say it has been closed for cultural reasons.
What does this mean? You know it can be hard to understand – what is cultural law? Which one are you talking about? It exists; both historically and today. Tjukurpa includes everything: the trees; grasses; landforms; hills; rocks and all.
You have to think in these terms; to understand that country has meaning that needs to be respected. If you walk around here you will learn this and understand. If you climb you won’t be able to. What are you learning? This is why Tjukurpa exists. We can’t control everything you do but if you walk around here you will start to understand us.
Some people, in tourism and government for example, might have been saying we need to keep it open but it’s not their law that lies in this land. It is an extremely important place, not a playground or theme park like Disneyland. We want you to come, hear us and learn. We’ve been thinking about this for a very long time.
We work on the principle of mutual obligation, of working together, but this requires understanding and acceptance of the climb closure because of the sacred nature of this place. If I travel to another country and there is a sacred site, an area of restricted access, I don’t enter or climb it, I respect it. It is the same here for Anangu. We welcome tourists here. We are not stopping tourism, just this activity.
On tour with us, tourists talk about it. They often ask why people are still climbing and I always reply, ‘things might change…’ They ask, ‘why don’t they close it?’ I feel for them and usually say that change is coming. Some people come wanting to climb and perhaps do so before coming on tour with us. They then wish they hadn’t and want to know why it hasn’t already been closed. But it’s about teaching people to understand and come to their own realisation about it. We’re always having these conversations with tourists.
And now that the majority of people have come to understand us, if you don’t mind, we will close it! After much discussion, we’ve decided it’s time.
Visitors needn’t be worrying there will be nothing for them with the climb closed because there is so much else besides that in the culture here. It’s not just inside the park and if we have the right support to take tourists outside it will benefit everyone. People might say there is no one living on the homelands but they hold good potential for tourists. We want support from the government to hear what we need and help us. We have a lot to offer in this country. There are so many other smaller places that still have cultural significance that we can share publicly. So instead of tourists feeling disappointed in what they can do here they can experience the homelands with Anangu and really enjoy the fact that they learnt so much more about culture.
Whitefellas see the land in economic terms where Anangu see it as Tjukurpa. If the Tjukurpa is gone so is everything. We want to hold on to our culture. If we don’t it could disappear completely in another 50 or 100 years. We have to be strong to avoid this. The government needs to respect what we are saying about our culture in the same way it expects us to abide by its laws. It doesn’t work with money. Money is transient, it comes and goes like the wind. In Anangu culture Tjukurpa is ever lasting.
Years ago, Anangu went to work on the stations. They were working for station managers who wanted to mark the boundaries of their properties at a time when Anangu were living in the bush. Anangu were the ones who built the fences as boundaries to accord with whitefella law, to protect animal stock. It was Anangu labour that created the very thing that excluded them from their own land. This was impossible to fathom for us! Why have we built these fences that lock us out? I was the one that did it! I built a fence for that person who doesn’t want anything to do with me and now I’m on the outside. This is just one example of our situation today.
You might also think of it in terms of what would happen if I started making and selling coca cola here without a license. The coca cola company would probably not allow it and I’d have to close it in order to avoid being taken to court. This is something similar for Anangu.
A long time ago they brought one of the boulders from the Devil’s Marbles to Alice Springs. From the time they brought it down Anangu kept trying to tell people it shouldn’t have been brought here. They talked about it for so long that many people had passed away in the meantime before their concerns were understood and it was returned. People had finally understood the Anangu perspective.
That’s the same as here. We’ve talked about it for so long and now we’re able to close the climb. It’s about protection through combining two systems, the government and Anangu. Anangu have a governing system but the whitefella government has been acting in a way that breaches our laws. Please don’t break our law, we need to be united and respect both.
Over the years Anangu have felt a sense of intimidation, as if someone is holding a gun to our heads to keep it open. Please don’t hold us to ransom…. This decision is for both Anangu and non-Anangu together to feel proud about; to realise, of course it’s the right thing to close the ‘playground’.
The land has law and culture. We welcome tourists here. Closing the climb is not something to feel upset about but a cause for celebration.
Let’s come together; let’s close it together.
In Pitjantjatjara language
Anangungku iriti kanyiningi ngura Tjukurpa tjara panya. Tjinguru kulipai, ‘ai,ai, ah, nyaa nyangatja? What is Tjukurpa?’ Putu nyangangi panya. Palu Tjukurpa pala palula ngarinyi Ananguku. Ka palunya kulira wangka katiningi tjutangku. Kutjupa tjuta not with us panya. Kuwari wangka katiningi, wangka katiningi munuya kaputura piruku wangkanyi ka wiya, Anangu tjutangka piruku wangkara wangkara kati. Uwa ngalya katingu Anangu tjuta kutu. Ka Anangu tjutangku wangkangu palya, patila. Ngura miil-miilpa.
Not only the board meeting kutjuya wangkapai, meeting time kutju but meeting out in the campfire, waru kutjara. Waru kutjaraya malu paulpai tjana wangkapaitu still.
Uwa Tjukurpa wati tjutaku uwa… wati tjutangku patini, that’s it, Tjukurpa palatja patini.
Only Tjukurpa kutju, uwa Tjukurpa tjarala patini, miil-miilpa. If you ask some people, kutjupa tjapini ka, you know they can’t tell you, palu tjinguru patini, Tjukurpa.
Nyaa palatja, nyaa panya? You know sometimes it’s hard to understand panya: Tjukurpa nyaa? Which one? Ngarinyi tjukurpa, iriti tjinguru ngarinyi, Tjukurpa and he’s still there today. You know Tjukurpa is everything, its punu, grass or the land or hill, rock or what.
Palula tjanala kulintjaku, uwa kulinma nyuntu: ‘Uwa ngura Tjukurpa tjara’. Respect ngura, the country. You walk around, you’ll learn, understand. Tatini nyuntu munu putu kulini, nyaa nyuntu? What you learning? Pala palutawara; Tjukurpa. Ka we can’t tell you what you’re doing but when you walk around you understand. Kulini.
Some might be… you know, tourism, government-ngka, ‘no, leave it open, leave it’ Why? palumpa tjukurpa wiya nyangakutu. This is a very important place nyangatja panya. Not inka-inka, not to come and see the Disney land. Wiya come and learn about this place.
Rawangkula kulilkatira kulilkatira everywhere.
Ngapartji ngapartjila tjunu, to work together, but they gotta kulinma panya. Munta-uwa, tjana patini nyangatja, ngura miil-miilpa. Uwa. If I go some sort of country tjinguru ngura miil-miilpa, some place in the world they got miil-miilpa, I don’t climb panya, I respect that place. Pala purunypa nyangatja Ananguku panya. Ka tourist nganana stop-amilantja wiya; tourist welcome palu these things, nyangatja nyanga, panya.
Uwa, tour-ngkala ankupai. Visitors-ngku kulu kulu wangkapai, you know sometimes we was working with tourism panya, tourist-angka and, ‘why these people climbing? Kana, ‘Something is coming’. I always talk panya. Ka, ‘why don’t they close it?’ Ka uwa its coming always, ngaltu tourist tjuta, visitors. Some people, ‘I want to climb’ sometimes visitors climb Uluru munu ngalya pitjala on tour, why I climb? Alatji, why don’t they close it. Ka wiya, it’s coming now you know, nintintjaku, visitors kulintjaku munta-uwa. Uwa minga tjutangka wangkapai, always.
Uwa kuwari nyanga kulini, kulini, everybody kulinu, munta-uwa wanyu kala patila. Wangkara wangkarala kulini, munta-uwa.
Visitors-ngku panya kulilpai, ‘ai nyangatjaya patinu ka nganana yaaltji yaaltji kuwari? Nganana wai putu kulilpai’. Wiya, Tjukurpa ngarinyitu ngura, outside. Not only this park unngu kutju palu tjukurpa nganananya help-amilalatu ngapartji ngapartji ka nganana ngapartji katinyi visitors tjuta. Some reckon nobody living in the homelands but this good story to tell to the visitors panya. Ka nganananya help-amilantjaku kulu kulu. Government gotta really sit down and help. We got good places up here.
Ngura kulunypa tjuta nyarakutu ngarinyi but he got Tjukurpa tjara. Not Tjukurpa panya nyanga side but only this side, the public story. Uwa. Uwa. Ka tourist tjinguru kulilpai, ‘ah, I done nothing in this place’ but katira nintini, sit down and talk on the homeland, uwa. Nyinara wangkara visitors kulira kulira, they’ll go happy, ‘munta-uwa I learnt a lot about Anangu’.
Money is the land whitefella see, ka Anangu see the ngura, the land is Tjukurpa. Tjukurpa wiyangka tjinguru wiya. Culture kanyintjikitjala mukuringanyi. Culture tjinguru mala, another fifty years tjinguru panya, another hundred years, culture is gone, ma-wiyaringanyi. Nyara palula we gotta be strong. Ngapartji ngapartji panya government will understand, munta-uwa, what they saying. It doesn’t work with money. Money will go away, it’s like blowing in the wind, panya. Walpangku puriny waninyi. Culture panya Ananguku culture – Tjukurpa is there ngarinyi alatjitu.
Iriti Anangu bin go and work on the stations. They work for the station manager he want his land, block of land and uwa munta-uwa nyangatja nyangatja. Anangu was camping there, putingka. Building their fence because its boundary. Boundary palyanu that’s the law, whitefella-ku law to look after cattle or sheep or whatever oh that’s the law, Anangu was building it, Anangu working and Anangu now is sitting outside, he can’t get in! malaku, ngura nyakuntjikitja. Putulta kulini, ‘ai? Why? nyaakula fence-ingka patinu? That was me! I built a fence for that bloke and that bloke don’t like me, I’m outside now. Munta nyanga purunypa, same, what I’m saying.
Tjinguru nyaa kulintjaku you know… I built a coca cola factory here. That coca cola factory might say no! Hello, close it otherwise he’ll take me to court. Pala purunypa is Ananguku panya.
Iriti they bring this rock without knowing. They bring the rock from Devil’s Marbles to Alice Springs. Palunya ngalya katingu ka Anangu tjutangku putu wangkara wangkara that tjinguru paluru iriti righta ‘wai! Why that thing from here is over here?’ Wangkara wangkara wangkara wangkara wangkara wangkara, some pass away-aringu palu purunypa people understand, ‘hey we gotta take this back!’ Tjukurpa paluru tjana kulinu.
That’s the same as here, wangkara, wangkara hello, palya patinila. You know, ngura look out-amilani tjungu, still the same panya, government and Anangu. Anangu is the government too but this government, whitefella government, panparangu nguwanpa. Wiya, panparangkuntja wiya please, we gotta be tjungu. Respect.
Iritinguru Anangu nguluringanyi nguwanpa, nguluringanyi, ah! someone is watching us like with a gun: ‘Don’t close it please’… don’t point me with a gun. Pukularintjaku Anangu and piranpa, together, tjungu, uwa munta-uwa, patinu palya nyanganyi the playground.
On October 28, Australia ratified the Kigali Amendment to the Montreal Protocol. Australia is the tenth country to ratify, joining others as diverse as Mali, the United Kingdom and Rwanda in a global commitment to dramatically reduce hydrofluorocarbons (HFCs) in the atmosphere. Once 20 countries have ratified the amendment, it will become binding.
HFCs were designed specifically to replace ozone-destroying compounds previously used in air conditioners and refrigerants. Unfortunately, we now know that HFCs are massively potent greenhouse gases – thousands of times more powerful than carbon dioxide (albeit released in far smaller quantities).
If the Kigali Amendment becomes binding, the hunt will begin for a replacement for HFCs and their uses in industry. In a strange twist, the least environmentally harmful option may well be carbon dioxide.
Where do HFCs come from?
HFCs are made of carbon, fluorine and hydrogen. They are exclusively synthetic, meaning they have no known natural sources. To understand why they came into existence requires a quick history lesson.
Throughout the second half of the 20th century, another class of compounds called chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs) were widely used. CFCs are very stable, which made them ideal for many practical uses, including in refrigeration, foam packaging, and even aerosol cans for hair spray.
The Montreal Protocol was a global agreement developed to stop this harmful ozone destruction. The protocol mandated a time frame to completely abolish CFCs. To replace them, new compounds were developed that do not destroy ozone: HFCs.
But the solution to one environmental problem became the cause of another: these replacements are potent contributors to warming the climate.
Why are HFCs so bad?
All greenhouse gases work by absorbing infrared radiation, which would otherwise escape into space. But not all greenhouse gases are created equal. The potency of a greenhouse gas depends on three properties:
how long it remains in the atmosphere (its “lifetime”)
how much radiation it absorbs
whether the specific wavelength of radiation it absorbs would otherwise be absorbed by something else in the atmosphere (like water).
Combined, these three properties can be used to determine the global warming potential for each greenhouse gas. This is a measure of how potent the gas is relative to carbon dioxide (CO₂). By definition, CO₂ has a global warming potential of 1. Methane, commonly considered the second most important greenhouse gas, has a global warming potential of 34 – meaning that 1 tonne of methane would trap 34 times more heat than 1 tonne of CO₂.
The global warming potentials for the three most abundant HFCs range from 1,370 to 4,180. In other words, these gases trap thousands of times more heat in our atmosphere than an equivalent amount of CO₂.
What will replace HFCs?
The nearly 200 countries that signed the original Montreal Protocol have unanimously agreed that the climate risks posed by HFCs are too significant to ignore. Developed countries will begin phasing out HFCs in 2019. Developing countries will follow suit between 2024 and 2028.
So what will our refrigerators and air conditioners use instead? Several replacements are being considered.
Another option is to use mixtures of hydrocarbons such as butane. Hydrocarbons pose safety risks as they are highly flammable and may also adversely affect air quality. Ammonia is another alternative that has been used as a refrigerant for a long time but is highly toxic.
And, finally, there is the surprise candidate: CO₂. Although using CO₂ as a refrigerant poses technical challenges, it is non-toxic and non-flammable and a much weaker greenhouse gas than the HFCs it would replace. Strangely, from an environmental perspective, CO₂ may actually be the “best” refrigerant available.
A cooler future ahead?
The Montreal Protocol has long been considered one of the greatest environmental success stories of all time. It brought together the world’s governments and chemical industries to protect the ozone layer.
The adoption of the Kigali Amendment will be another feather in the cap of this important agreement. HFCs aren’t overly prevalent yet – but without Kigali they are expected to grow rapidly. By banning them now, we will avoid their impacts before it is too late.
So far, so good. But are there any downsides? Many of you, for instance, face the prospect of paying for bin liners for the first time ever. And while that might sound tongue-in-cheek, it shows the importance of considering the full life-cycle of the plastics we use.
However, the ACT government also noted an increase in sales of plastic bags designed specifically for waste. These are typically similar in size to single-use shopping bags but heavier and therefore contain more plastic.
Keep Australia Beautiful, in its 2015-16 National Litter Index, reported a 6.2% reduction in the littering of plastic bags relative to the previous year, while also noting that these represent only 1% of litter.
Meanwhile, alternatives such as paper or canvas bags have environmental impacts of their own. According to a UK Environmental Agency report, a paper bag would need to be re-used at least four times, and cotton bags at least 173 times, to have a lower environmental impact than single-use plastic bags in terms of resource use, energy and greenhouse outcomes.
This illustrates the importance of considering the full life cycle of shopping bags to arrive at an evidence-based decision rather than one based on emotion or incomplete data. I am not suggesting this is the case with plastic shopping bags; I’m just pointing out the value of proper analysis.
Simply banning a certain type of bag, while this may be a good idea in itself, could result in other knock-on impacts that are harder to manage. Replacing shopping bags with heavier, more resource-intensive ones may solve some environmental impacts but exacerbate others.
Plastics, not plastic bags
In a 2016 discussion paper, Western Australia’s Local Government Association suggested that the focus of action should be plastics in general, not just shopping bags.
As the Keep Australia Beautiful data show, plastic bags are just a small part of a much bigger problem. Many other plastic items are entering the litter stream too.
With this in mind, it pays to ask exactly why we are banning plastic shopping bags. Is it the litter issue, the potential impact on wildlife, the resource consumption, all of the above, or something else? Is it because they are plastic, because they are disposable, or because it saves supermarkets money?
The answers to these questions can guide the development of an effective strategy to reduce the environmental (and perhaps economic) burden of taking our shopping home. With that in place, we can then develop an education strategy to help shoppers adapt and make the scheme a success. But this costs money.
The triple bottom line
There should be plenty of money available. The Victorian state government’s Sustainability Fund, for instance, has A$419 million to spend over the next five years on researching alternatives to shopping and household waste management. Developing a shopping bag strategy would consume only a small part of this and would be money well spent.
The concept of the “triple bottom line” – ensuring that decisions are based equally on environmental, social and economic considerations – needs to be applied to decisions about whether to ban single-use plastic bags, and what alternatives will result. The problem with simply announcing a ban is that this leaves it up to shoppers themselves to work out what to do to replace them.
Evidence-based policy is crucial. We first need to find out how many people already use re-usable bags, whether they always take them to the shops, and what items they put in them. Do people generally know how many times each type of bag should be re-used in order to be an environmentally better choice than the current plastic bags? What’s the best material for re-usable bags, taking into account not only their environmental credentials but also their ability to get your shopping home without breaking?
When it comes to environmental impacts, it’s important not to simply exchange one problem for another. If all we’re doing is swapping between different types of plastic, it’s hard to see how we’re solving anything.
On your way home tonight, you might stop at the supermarket to grab some ingredients for the evening meal. If you’re like many shoppers, you’ll pass through the self-service checkout, scan your items, and hurriedly place them in the conveniently waiting thin, grey plastic bag before finalising the purchase.
At home, the purchases are packed away or lined up for immediate preparation. The plastic bag is scrunched into a little ball and stuffed away with others in your collection, to be used as bin liners or otherwise thrown away. All of these behaviours are, by and large, done without a great deal of thought.
One of the most challenging tasks for marketers is to bring about changes in consumer behaviours that have become habitual, routine and “low involvement” – why spend time stopping and considering various brands of laundry detergent, for instance, when you can just quickly grab the one you’ve always used?
The very nature of habitual behaviour means that responses to the same situational cues happen automatically and with little conscious thought. Habits are powerfully ingrained. One study estimates that around 45% of our daily actions are habitual, and most of our purchases and consumption is of the low-involvement variety.
Repetitive consumer behaviour is a tough cycle to disrupt. And it is the very nature of these habitual responses that make many standard interventions relatively ineffective.
But this is the task facing supermarkets in taking away customers’ access to free plastic bags.
Banning the bags
The recently announced plans by supermarket giants Coles and Woolworths to ban single-use plastic bags seem admirable enough, but the environmental benefits will only be fully realised if the ban drives a permanent change in shoppers’ behaviour.
Many countries have tried a variety of strategies to get rid of single-use plastic bags, including bans, educational campaigns, and levies. Most have had mixed results. There is no overwhelming evidence to suggest that any of these approaches has fully broken shoppers’ disposable bag habit.
Even where use has been dramatically reduced, the environmental impact has been mitigated by unintended consequences such as a 65% increase in the purchase of bin liners, and the disposal of re-usable bags. And despite a general shift in attitude towards environmentally sustainable consumption, this “intention-behaviour gap” still prevails.
Breaking the habit
Here is where some behavioural psychology can be brought to bear on the problem. We know that habitual behaviours are learned and reinforced through repeated responses to particular situations. Theoretically, if these behaviours are learned, they can be unlearned by providing different situations.
Behavioural nudges aim to make people stop and think about what would otherwise be an unconscious behaviour. Often this takes the form of a short, simple message. Electricity providers have been known to use this method of nudging. Power usage by their customers will drop when they are shown that the usage rate of a similar-sized household is more efficient than their own.
But it can also involve a minor adjustment to the environment in which the behaviour occurs. Such a strategy could be applied in supermarkets where “footprints” could lead to reusable bags that are available for purchase. Repeating this over time could result in consumers associating the footprints with a reminder to bring their own bags. Varying the location of the footprints, or even their colour or shape, might encourage shoppers’ curiosity and thus increase the likelihood of consciousness about the plastic bag ban.
Economic nudges can also be used to help shoppers quit plastic bags – as in the case of Toronto, which introduced a 5-cent levy on plastic bags. There are many ways to gently encourage shoppers to make better decisions.
Australia’s big shopping brands
Given that much of the problem involves challenging current behaviours, it stands to reason that the big brands’ responses to this question will hinge on what their customers are already used to.
Retailers such as Bunnings and Aldi have never provided their customers with free, disposable plastic bags. Their customers learned quickly from the outset to use alternatives, such as the stash of old cardboard boxes typically found behind the checkouts at Bunnings.
Woolworths and Coles, on the other hand, face a tougher challenge. They are taking something away from shoppers, and some customers may be resentful and resistant to change as a result.
To avoid a repeat of Target’s aborted effort to remove free bags in 2013, Coles and Woolworths might find that the best way to avoid a similar customer revolt is to use in-store cues as behavioural nudges, alongside the economic incentive of offering durable plastic bags for a price. Many consumers will be willing to pay for plastic bag alternatives during the transition phase. Combining this with gentle reminders such as in-store “footprints” will aim to gradually change those low-involvement, highly habitual shopping patterns.
Whether economic or non-economic, messages to shoppers need to be as pervasive and repetitive as the ingrained behaviours they are trying to change.