In Kenya, selling plastic bags can get you four years in jail or a $38,000 fine. In Australia, Woolworths banned the plastic bag a week ago, introducing thicker bags costing five cents, and already a shopper has throttled an employee. People’s negative reactions to the Woolworths plastic bag ban is so pathetic, that the worldwide media are laughing at us. According to the Earth Policy Institute, nearly one trillion plastic bags are used worldwide every year and with the world in a plastic pollution crisis, the plastic bag ban is just the tip of the iceberg. Woolworths and Coles have already announced banning plastic straws from stores.
With eight million tonnes of plastic entering the ocean each year, actions like disposable bag bans are essential for multiple reasons. It primarily reduces single-use plastic consumption, but it also raises awareness of the disposable culture we have created. There are however important questions to be asked alongside plastic bans; what are the long-term solutions to disposable and consumerist behaviours and will plastic just be replaced with something else?
Plastic doesn’t grow on trees
As the realisation of plastic pollution has seeped in, it’s clear that businesses have tried to replace plastic with alternatives such as paper and ‘biodegradable’ alternatives. There are many issues to ‘biodegradable’ alternatives however and The Guardian covers them perfectly here. Paper seems to have predominately replaced plastic: bags, straws, packaging, cups, cutlery. It feels like the right thing to do, but is it?
What is paper? Well, as most of us know ‘paper starts out as a tree on a tree farm and is taken to a mill where the trees are made into a squishy pulp. The pulp is then rolled out into paper.’ (Thanks to Sesame Street for the great explanation). There are different types of paper and cardboard used, from FSC-certified, which means it’s been sourced in an environmentally-friendly, socially responsible and economically viable manner, to recycled paper.
There are many benefits to paper being used as plastic alternatives; it’s biodegradable and literally grows from trees rather than made from oil. It also reportedly requires less energy to recycle a paper bag than to recycle plastic, if it gets to that stage. The difference between the breakdown of paper to plastic is huge; plastic takes up to 450 years longer whereas it takes paper just 2-6 weeks. These positives, however, don’t necessarily mean that paper is the long-term solution to plastic, if considering the full life cycle. Professor David Tyler from the University of Oregon in America recently surveyed research on packaging materials from raw materials to recycling using “life cycle analysis”. He concluded that the carbon footprint of a plastic bag is less than a paper or cotton bag, due to water usage and pollution. He also found that increased paper usage causes deforestation, air pollution, water pollution and waste. Clearly, plastic cannot be ignorantly replaced with paper without further exploration.
I sea better options
There are current alternatives to paper that may be viable eco-friendly packaging alternatives, such as seaweed-based packaging Evoware. Seaweed grows quickly, it’s 100% biodegradable and a zero-waste product. It can also be customised with brand logos, sealable and food grade certified as it lasts for two years on the shelf. This is just one material that seems to be an environmentally better option for packaging. There are also other options available such as bioplastics made from corn, but there needs to be further investment, research, and demand for these products.
We are here to be the eco-solution for plastic waste problems. Our products are eco-friendly, biodegradable or even edible and healthy for the body.” Evoware website, 2018
Looking in the mirror
Besides plastic pollution, the real elephant in the room that needs addressing is the disposable and consumerist culture that we all live in. It’s clear that there’s too much packaging on products, we buy too much and have become lazy. Do we really need to use one billion plastic coffee cups in Australia each year? People are reacting negatively because they don’t like change, they don’t like being told they can’t do something, even if the something is polluting the planet. Perhaps alongside researching into plastic alternatives, businesses and governments should also invest in human behavioural change.
Want to reduce your impact? This comprehensive post on consuming less shows you how to do just that.
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