The Solution to Single-Use Plastics Is Simple: Ban Them

CC BY 2.0. Tom Page

The UN Environment Assembly is putting together a "political declaration on pollution," but we need action more than words at this point.

A high-level meeting is taking place this week in Nairobi among heads of state and environment ministers at the UN Environment Assembly. The topic of discussion is plastic waste, a problem that is plaguing every nation on Earth, especially those with coastlines where plastic tends to accumulate, thanks to winds and tides.

The problem has become so big that it's impossible to ignore any longer. With the equivalent of one truckload of plastic trash being dumped in the world's oceans every minute, and consumption expected to rise significantly over the next few years, plastic waste management is an urgent issue.

The Financial Times reports:

"Environmental officials hope ministers will agree to start developing measures to police marine litter management. They also want nations and regions to set individual plastic waste reduction targets for the first time."

From a description of the meeting:

"Outcomes are expected to include: a political declaration on pollution, linked to the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs); resolutions and decisions adopted by Member States to address specific dimensions of pollution; voluntary commitments by governments, private sector entities and civil society organizations to clean up the planet; and the Clean Planet Pledge, a collection of individual commitments to take personal action to end pollution in all its forms."

When I read this, I couldn't help rolling my eyes. A political declaration, paired with "voluntary commitments by governments" and "individual commitments to take personal action"? Give me a break. As if that is going to stem the flow of plastic into the world's oceans!

Enough with the toothless jargon. We need decisive, aggressive action. We know that disposable plastics have few redeeming qualities, if any (outside of healthcare professions, which I consider a separate category). I'm talking about convenience packaging -- food containers, to-go cups, cutlery, water bottles, soda bottles, cotton swabs, straws, cosmetics tubes, grocery bags, etc. -- things we could do perfectly well without, if only we cared enough to put in the effort.

These add little lasting value to our lives, and there is only one way to address the problem of their existence: Ban them.

A broad, sweeping international ban on all of the above would be a major jolt to everyone, but it would force companies, governments, and consumers to seek alternatives -- many of which already exist. It would be an incentive for scientists and inventors to come up with new, creative packaging ideas (like edible packaging).

Here are a few examples of what's already being done and could be replicated on a greater scale. Look at the ingenious idea that Freiburg, Germany, came up with -- a reusable coffee cup that can be dropped off at any participating location. Look at the province of Ontario's deposit system for wine and beer bottles and the paper bags in which all their goods are packed; it's impossible to get a plastic bag at any of their stores. Look at Bulk Barn's new policy throughout Canada and how it now allows shoppers to bring their own containers.

If this is the change that governments would like to see, then why not take the most direct, effective route? We are running out of time, as studies have shown. Plastic microfibres have saturated the seas. Marine wildlife is choking on plastic garbage. Everyone's favorite beach is littered with waste. Americans alone use enough straws on a daily basis to wrap around the Earth 2.5 times. This is insanity.

I would love nothing more than to hear the environment ministers come away from the UN meeting, announcing that plastic bags, bottles, and straws are no longer allowed anywhere, that every grocery and culinary establishment and homeowner will have to figure out alternatives. This process of adaptation could easily be aided by municipal governments, whose garbage collection and recycling costs would decrease. But sadly, I know that's not going to happen. Instead they'll leave it open-ended, encouraging people to care, but that's already been proven not to work.

All we can do is continue to chip away at it on an individual and community level, realizing that every time we shop with reusable jars and bags, there's a chance it will inspire a witness to do so as well. And we can fight for policy changes, working with schools to ban straws and disposable drink bottles, with town councils to get rid of Styrofoam, or local coffee shops to adopt reusable cups.