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



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Sure, ditch the coffee cups. But don’t say goodbye to these too soon.
Lubos Chlubny/Shutterstock.com

Paul Harvey, Macquarie University

A Senate report this week recommended a ban on single-use plastics such as takeaway food containers and plastic-lined coffee cups by 2023.

This week will see Australians take a significant step towards that plastic-free future, with major supermarkets turning their backs on throwaway plastic bags, and an outright ban on free plastic bags at shops in Queensland and Western Australia.




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It is remarkable how far we have already come in the effort to reduce our plastic pollution. We are rapidly reaching the point at which the relevant question is not “which plastics can we do without?”, but “which single-use plastics do we genuinely need?”

Legitimate uses

Most of us will get along just fine without throwaway plastic in our daily lives. But there are nevertheless many legitimate applications for single-use plastics.

Take medicine, for example, where single-use plastics are a key part of infection control. Having a blood test requires gloves made from plastic, a plastic syringe, and a plastic vial, all of which are single-use to control contamination and infection. While glass is often suggested as an alternative, this introduces challenges in cleaning, transport and availability, particularly in emergency situations where resources may be limited.

Single-use plastics also play a role in scientific research. Many scientists cringe as they look at their waste bin at the end of a session in the lab. Typically, it will be filled with pipettes, gloves, vials, sample bags, and the list goes on.

These items are used for their strength and resilience, and because they prevent cross-contamination of sampling. As with medical applications, many substitute materials do not provide the protection or stability that single-use plastics do.

Single-use plastics are often used to package food and water. While this is unnecessary in most settings, certain situations do require single-use packaging to ensure food and water safety. Domestic food aid, emergency responses, and international aid efforts all require food and water that can be stored without refrigeration and distributed when and where it’s needed. Often this means packaging it in lightweight, single-use plastics.

While the proposed bans on single-use plastics should be recognised and applauded as an important step forward in the global fight to prevent plastic pollution, we should ensure that we have thought through all the scenarios where single-use plastic may be a legitimate necessity.

Consider the case of someone with a disability who can only eat with the aid of a flexible plastic straw. Without appropriate exemptions, a federal legislative ban on single-use plastic straws could prevent people in need from accessing a basic medical aid.

Mass plastic begone

There is no doubt that single-use plastics are a major source of pollution. Recent research has shown plastic pollution to be as ubiquitous in the global environment as the more familiar pollutants like lead. Plastic has been found at the deepest depths of our oceans and the greatest heights of our mountains. No country on Earth is immune to plastic pollution, from tropical islands to deserts. All of this pollution has happened in less than a century.

As a society we are realising the damage that single-use plastic is doing to the environment. That’s why a carefully legislated ban on almost all single-use plastics is a good idea. From throwaway food containers, to drinking straws, to coffee cups – we can live without almost all of it.

If you take a stroll down a busy city block today, you will see a people clutching reusable coffee cups, or eating food wrapped in brown paper, or carrying a drink bottle that they can refill at a free public water station. We as a society are changing.

We are also seeing a shift in governance and policy. Earlier this year, the European Union announced a ban on single-use plastic products with readily available alternatives. Seattle has been on a path to ban single-use plastics for many years, with the latest efforts aimed at banning plastic utensils, straws and cocktail picks. The move away from single-use plastics has even been adopted by McDonald’s, which will trial plastic-free straws later this year.




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Amid these trends, we need to ensure that we have the right strategy to accommodate those who still depend on single-use plastics. This would include thinking seriously and developing single-use products that have a reduced environmental impact and can be used in these applications.

The ConversationFor the rest of us who need to kick our single-use plastic addiction, you can start today (if you haven’t already) by saying no to plastic straws and taking a reusable cup to your favourite coffee cart.

Paul Harvey, Researcher of Environmental Science, Macquarie University

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