‘Single-use’ and Sustainable Development

‘Single-use’ has been named Word of the Year in 2018. Why is the banning of ‘single-use’ plastics relevant to sustainable development?

By James Rennie

The following piece was chosen as the winning entry to the Warwick Global Sustainable Development Year 12 Essay Competition.

Plastic – an essential product; one which we use every day, whether to carry our shopping or slurp our favourite drink. We think we cannot do without it and so turn a blind eye to the devastating consequences of our global plastic addiction. Single-use plastics are the primary cause of an overwhelming amount of preventable plastic waste which pollutes the environment and exhausts valuable resources. Today there is over 6.3 billion tonnes of plastic waste in landfill sites1; by 2050 this is projected to almost double to 12 billion tonnes2. This mass of waste exists due to the severe lack of recycling of plastic: just 9% of plastics ever produced hasve been recycled3. This figure shows that with our current use of plastic, sustainable development is extremely difficult, as the increased production of plastic combined with a lack of reusing it means that the finite resources used in its production are being used up too quickly. Therefore, the banning of single-use plastics and the use instead of reusable products means that both the environmental and economic aspects of sustainable development (to meet the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs) are more likely to be achieved. 

The excessive use of single-use plastics is damaging for sustainable development as their use requires the production of far more plastic than if we were instead to manufacture reusable products. Currently 50% of all plastic produced is for single-use purposes, meaning that 150 million tons of plastic per year is being produced to be used once only4. This is so crucial for the issue of sustainable development because the mass production of single-use plastics is preventable: by banning them, and focusing solely on producing reusable plastics and replacement products made from other materials (such as drinking straws made from steel or natural products like bamboo), the world could be producing up to 50% less plastic. 

However, some of these replacement products arguably do more harm than good to our environment when compared with the effects of single-use plastics. The popularisation of bamboo straws in the USA in particular has come at the cost of a damagingly high carbon footprint owing to the fact that the bamboo must be sourced from China and transported to the US. Furthermore, many bamboo straws contain other products as well – some ‘bamboo’ products contain up to 60% resin (a chemically formed plastic containing formaldehyde) to strengthen them5. Whilst bamboo straws appear to be a simple solution to the single-use plastic straw problem, consumers must be wary of the potentially negative secondary effects (such as the carbon footprint increase) of their choices. 

Reducing our consumption of single-use plastics and instead choosing to work on alternative products would clearly help to alleviate another issue created by their use – sustainability of production. According to the UN, in order to be in a position of sustainable development the world must be able to “meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs”6. The banning of single-use plastics is clearly relevant to this because of the amount of resources their manufacture requires. 4% of the earth’s oil supply is currently used in plastic production, which is expected to increase hugely to 20% by 20507. Some analysts predict that the world’s oil reserves could be depleted before the end of the 21st century, but even if there are still some sources of oil remaining by this time, the lower supply will lead to a large increase in prices from the current generation to the future. A decrease in the amount of plastic produced would be a clear way in which the world’s oil consumption could be decreased, reducing mankind’s dependence upon it. This would also have the secondary effect of helping to decrease climate change. 

In addition to depleting valuable and non-renewable resources, single-use plastics can also be extremely damaging environmentally. Microplastics (plastic particles less than 5mm long) in items such as plastic bags and Styrofoam containers can contaminate soil and water as they decompose extremely slowly, fragmenting into tiny pieces of debris that can be consumed by marine life. This can have a significant impact on animals, with the toxicity of plastic combined with the detrimental affect it has on their food consumption leading to many marine creatures dying of starvation or disease8. Furthermore, the impact of microplastics in the ocean have a knock-on effect on humans, with shellfish in particular proven to pose a concern of toxicity when consumed by humans9. Contamination of the food chain due to the consumption of single-use plastics by marine life is a major environmental issue affecting animals and humans alike – there is significant evidence showing that the toxic chemicals added in the manufacture of plastic can transfer ionto animal tissue10, ultimately reaching humans at the top of the food chain. Additionally, the presence of microplastics impacts sea salt which is consumed by humans. A study into this concluded that sea salt in Chinese supermarkets contained more than three times as many particles per kilogram of microplastics than rock salts11. Whilst there have been few studies on the direct impact of microplastics on humans, studies using test tubes have seen an increase in the growth of cancer cells as a result of phthalates in microplastics12 as well as the production of inflammatory chemicals in lung cells when exposed to microplastics13.  

Theis evidence highlights how damaging the existence of high levels of microplastics as waste in the oceans can be to humans. With emphasis placed on reusable products as opposed to single-use and non-recyclable plastics, the amount of plastic waste will decrease rapidly and therefore the amount of plastic adding to pollution in our oceans can be greatly decreased. This will lead to lower environmental risks being posed by plastics. The decreased pollution of our oceans will result in achieving another of the UN’s Global Sustainable Development Goals – to keep the oceans safe and clean: another way in which it is clear that the banning of single-use plastics is highly relevant to sustainable development. 

Whilst the environmental problems which single-use plastics introduce to our world are beginning to become popularised and understood in more depth, the economic impacts which it can have must also be considered in the context of sustainable development. The annual economic damage of plastics on the world marine ecosystem is estimated to be over $13 billion14. This economic cost affects various industries: for example, tourism decreases due to the damage plastic does environmentally on areas which are considered beautiful and rich with marine life, while restaurant industries suffer due to the poor quality and toxicity of fish which have been contaminated by plastic waste. 

However, the economic cost of plastic pollution has the potential to be minimised through the banning of single-use plastics, which would undoubtedly decrease the amount of plastic waste in our oceans. Evidence supporting this has been found on numerous occasions, such as in a recent paper by the Centre for Environment, Fisheries and Aquaculture Science, which found that the number of plastic bags on the seabed around the UK decreased from 2010 to 201715 as a result of the introduction of a 5p plastic bag levy. A comparison can be drawn between this measure and the more severe measure of a complete ban on single-use plastics – if a levy is so effective at reducing plastic waste, a ban would have the potential to revitalise the industries damaged by single-use plastic waste. By banning single-use plastics it is easier to ensure that beautiful areas which have developed thriving tourist industries (such as the Great Barrier Reef) can go on to meet the needs of future generations as well as succeeding in the present. Furthermore, stopping the manufacture and use of single-use plastics will make a clear impact on the fishing and seafood industry, ensuring it too can develop sustainably and benefit future generations. 

The banning of single-use plastics would undoubtedly lead to a decrease in the amount of plastic waste produced on our planet. The support of reusable and recyclable products and the introduction of alternatives to single-use plastics can play a key role in overcoming the current barriers to sustainable development which the world is facing. The issue of plastic waste in the world’s oceans is so severe that by 2050 we may have a higher mass of plastic in our oceans than fish16. Introducing a ban on single-use plastics can ensure sustainable development both economically, through the development of the tourism and fishing industries particularly, and environmentally, by ensuring that we do not run out of natural resources and that the world’s oceans do not become even more polluted. 

However, the introduction of such a ban is highly unpopular with those of particular political viewpoints. Neoliberalists broadly believe in free markets and the right of individuals to self-determine their actions, and thus do not support the banning of single-use plastic as it doesn’t adhere to their values17.  With the rise of neoliberalism (particularly in the USA and Latin America), the banning of single-use plastic might be considered unrealistic as politicians there are either reluctant or unable to enact such a change on a widespread level. Therefore, governments around the world may have to consider alternative solutions that could please (or at the very least appease) neoliberalists. One option is to offer alternatives to single-use plastics without banning them, such as restaurants providing both plastic and paper straws, thus allowing consumers to choose between them. This introduction, alongside an increased education on the negative impacts of using single-use plastics, could result in nearly the same effect as a ban, with only a small minority choosing to continue using single-use plastics. 

With a ban on single-use plastics clearly extremely difficult to implement fully and unpopular with some groups, alternative measures to reduce the impact of plastics on the environment must be considered. Another such initiative is a Deposit Return Scheme for plastic bottles. This works by the introduction of a small tax (of the equivalent of 5p-25p in most countries) for the purchase of each plastic bottle, which can then be reclaimed when the bottle is returned. This has been highly effective in countries where it has been introduced, such as in Germany where the introduction of a ‘22p’ deposit per bottle has led to a recycling rate of 97.2%18, compared to just 57% in the UK where such a scheme currently does not operate (although an environmental audit in late 2017 recommended to the Government that they introduce a Deposit Return Scheme for all plastic drinks bottles19). These schemes, however, are not without issues – many people argue that its estimated £1 billion implementation cost in the UK, alongside a further expenditure of £800 million per year to continue running it, cannot be justified20. Furthermore, the scheme is detrimental for those who already recycle at home, as it forces them to return their plastic to a deposit centre as they would not receive the money back from home recycling. In order to deposit their plastic bottles and reclaim their deposit, they would have to travel to a collection point, increasing their carbon footprint if they are to travel by car solely to return bottles, thereby minimising the positive environmental impact of the scheme. Despite these potential pitfalls, the opportunity to increase a country like Britain’s recycling by an estimated 30-40% is extremely valuable as an alternative to the contentious issue of banning single-use plastics, and is an opportunity to support sustainable development with the backing of more of the general public. 

Ultimately, the banning of single-use plastics is key to sustainable development, as at the current rate of production and consumption they will compromise the ability of future generations to meet their own needs by polluting oceans and playing a part in killing vast numbers of fish due to the toxic chemicals used in their manufacture. The multitude of alternative products which are available such as reusable fabric bags or disposable bamboo cutlery (providing the issues around the sustainability of these alternatives can be resolved) mean that introducing a ban on single-use plastics will not prevent the needs of the present from being met. Banning them will not be easy due to our current dependency on single-use plastic and the opposition of some people such as neoliberalists, but will ultimately be vital in keeping our oceans clean and protecting marine wildlife. A ban on single-use plastics would ensure that future generations could be supported by the sustainable development of both the environment and the industries which are impacted by them, leaving an environment for the future controlled by us and not by the single-use plastic which we have produced. 

Header Image: Photo by Dustan Woodhouse on Unsplash

Bibliography 

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