EXPERT REACTION: EU to ban single use plastics

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It has just been reported that the EU is planning to ban single use plastics, targeting straws and cotton buds in particular. Below, Australian experts react to the news.

Organisation/s: Australian Science Media Centre

Expert Reaction

These comments have been collated by the Science Media Centre to provide a variety of expert perspectives on this issue. Feel free to use these quotes in your stories. Views expressed are the personal opinions of the experts named. They do not represent the views of the SMC or any other organisation unless specifically stated.

Dr Vivienne Waller is a Senior Lecturer in the Centre for Urban Transitions within the Faculty of Health, Arts and Design at Swinburne University of Technology

The EU’s decision to ban single-use plastic is great news and an example Australia should follow. One of the reasons we find plastic so useful is that it doesn’t degrade.  However, this is also the biggest problem with plastic.  Researchers who have investigated the fate of all the plastics ever made estimate that less than one tenth of this plastic has been recycled.  They describe the continual accumulation of plastic as an “uncontrolled experiment on a global scale”.  In the sixty years that humans have been using plastic in their daily lives, six billion tonnes of plastic waste has gone to landfill or accumulated in the soil, lakes, rivers and seas.  Estimates are that within thirty years there will be more plastic in the oceans than fish.  Already many fish and shellfish that we eat contain plastic, which steadily accumulates inside our body.

Every type of single-use plastic can very easy be replaced with an environmentally-friendly alternative.  For example, disposable cutlery can be made from the residues of agricultural crops, reusable bags can replace plastic bags, straws can be made from paper, and so on.  So called ‘oxo-biodegradable’ plastic is not a solution and should be next on the list of plastic to be banned because it does not actually degrade. It just breaks into smaller and smaller pieces that stick around for ever just like regular plastic.

Last updated: 04 Jun 2018 5:23pm
Declared conflicts of interest:
None declared.
Dr Tien Huynh is a Lecturer in the School of Sciences at RMIT

The banning of plastics is a great initiative and is the start of ensuring a cleaner, greener and healthier future. Although straws and cotton buds are not a significant plastic pollutant, it is a start in the right direction to encourage everyone to rethink about the every day items we use and waste we throw out. We have already implemented plastic recycling and bans on single use shopping bags, and that has been embraced which is very encouraging.

It highlights our concerns for the environment and also presents great opportunities for innovations that are more suitable for the future we want, particularly for biodegradable and natural sustainable alternatives. With everyone working together to reduce our plastic consumption and disposal, maybe our future generations can enjoy a walk along a plastic-free beach and enjoy the natural wonders around us without pollutants obscuring or distracting our view.

Last updated: 30 May 2018 10:44am
Declared conflicts of interest:
None declared.
Katherine Gaschk is a Research Masters candidate from Murdoch University

I applaud the European Union's proposed ban on plastic straws, cutlery, plates, cotton buds and balloon sticks. It is an important first step in reducing the amount of single-use plastics that can end up as environmental pollution both on land and in our oceans. However, the devil is in the detail in terms of the time taken for it to become law and the eventual roll out of the ban.

In Australia, all but one State have committed to banning light-weight shopping bags. It would be fantastic to see this extended to other single-use plastics such as straws and eating utensils.

Ultimately it is human behaviour that is responsible for plastic pollution. Removing the plastics will certainly help to reduce pollution, but there is also a need to educate retailers, consumers and manufacturers about the impacts of plastic pollution and how we can reduce our dependence on plastics. Education provides an opportunity for conversations in the public arena about our reliance on plastics and often requires us to challenge our own behaviours and think about how we can do things differently in order to achieve change.

Last updated: 29 May 2018 4:25pm
Declared conflicts of interest:
None declared.
Professor Michael Cortie is Leader of the Physics Discipline Team, in the School of Mathematical and Physical Sciences, at University of Technology Sydney

Interestingly, the discussion of plastic litter on EU beaches (see for example Deutsche Welle-27 May 2018, , gives greatest prominence to items such as plastic straws, plates, picnic utensils, balloon holders, etc. Certainly, those of us who do ‘litter parades’ on our local beaches can attest to the prevalence of those, and plastic bags, but plastic bottles are usually number one. The latter remain difficult to target because the availability of cheap plastic bottles is critical to a modern consumer economy.

The EU are on relatively safe ground with drinking straws, ice cream sticks, picnic cutlery and the like because paper or wood- based alternatives exist for those. The problem just is that ordinary plastic is cheaper and/or provides better in-service performance.

What I do not understand though is why the media articles do not mention the possibility of using biodegradable polymers. There are several modern polymers that are formulated to break down and compost in the natural environment.

Presumably, their cost is higher than that of traditional polymers but their use should be investigated as an alternative to the somewhat heavy-handed step of banning polymers altogether from the applications mentioned above. Also, a more tangible impact on the problem might be had by saturating the media with anti-litter educational campaigns, and by encouraging use of biodegradable alternatives (including polymers) with tax incentives.

In a way, the proposed EU legislation may be just a virtue signal anyway since the biggest problems (bottles and bags) remain largely unaddressed.

Last updated: 29 May 2018 4:19pm
Declared conflicts of interest:
None declared.
Professor Anas Ghadouani is from the Department of Civil, Environmental and Mining Engineering, The CRC for Water Sensitive Cities, and the UWA Oceans Institute at The University of Western Australia

This is great news and long overdue. Australia needs to respond in the same way and ban all single use plastics.

There is no doubt that the ban of a certain items like straws and forks will have notable impact on how we live our lives. However, plastics are in so many products and we need to look at those hidden plastics as well. 

The ban of single use plastics will open up an important societal debate and one that will be far reaching to include a range of products including personal care and cosmetics. Maybe the next thing to look at is microfibers from clothing and not to forget glitter.


Last updated: 29 May 2018 3:22pm
Declared conflicts of interest:
None declared.
Dr Paul Harvey is an Environmental Public Health Scientist. He was formerly an adjunct Professor at Macquarie University, and is now owner of Environmental Science Solutions and Director of COVID-19 Check Pty Ltd.

The proposed ban in the European Union of single use plastics, notably plastic straws and cotton buds, is welcome and very promising news. Single use plastic pollution is one of the biggest environmental catastrophes of this generation.

We see single use plastics distributed ubiquitously throughout the global environments, even to the darkest depths of our oceans. These single use plastics do not readily degrade so we will have these plastics in our environment for thousands of years to come.

By placing a ban on these single use products, products that can be substituted with reusable or degradable materials, we are helping to curb the global plastic pollution burden.

Australia, given its precious natural assets such as the Great Barrier Reef, would benefit greatly from following the lead set by the EU on single use plastics.

Last updated: 29 May 2018 3:18pm
Declared conflicts of interest:
None declared.
Dr Sunil Herat is a Senior Lecturer in Environmental Engineering (Waste Management) in the School of Engineering and Built Environment at Griffith University

United Nations reports that around 300 million tonnes of plastics are produced per year and between 5 and 12.5 million tonnes of plastic enter the ocean as marine debris from mismanaged waste at coasts alone. The UN also reports that 80 per cent of plastic waste in the ocean comes from land-based sources and the items most commonly found on beaches are single-use plastics such as grocery bags, food packaging, bottles, and utensils. 
We need immediate and urgent action to divert all these plastics entering our oceans. In the immediate term, we can consider banning the use of some of the plastics. Right now this is happening in many countries and regions around the world. However, in the longer term, we need a circular economy approach where used plastics become feed-stock and not waste. Extended Producer Responsibility (EPR), research into product design to facilitate reuse, repair, re-manufacture and recycling would assist in this regard.

Last updated: 29 May 2018 3:14pm
Declared conflicts of interest:
None declared.
Professor Martina Doblin is from the University of Technology Sydney's Climate Change Cluster

I applaud the EU’s ban to ban single use plastics!
Single use plastics (SUPs) are designed to be used once and then thrown away. Some SUPs have the potential to be recycled or reused, but are often discarded. Much of this plastic waste finds its way into the environment where it breaks down into smaller and smaller pieces (microplastics) but never breaks down completely.
Apart from questions about recyclability and biodegradability, concerns about CO2-polluting fossil fuel resources have led to efforts to develop new technologies to replace conventional oil and gas-based plastics with biodegradable alternatives based on raw materials derived from renewable resources. The biodegradable plastics from plant resources (such as corn, wheat, sugar beets and sugar cane) represent a sustainable alternative to petro-plastics, however, these plastics compete with human food and energy production, which in turn effects food prices and environmental degradation.
This is why the Climate Change Cluster is researching algae as a natural and renewable resource for bioplastic production. Algae (both macroscopic seaweeds and microsopic plankton) have immense commercial importance for nutraceuticals, pharmaceuticals, human food, animal feed, soil conditioner, and potential bioplastics and this decision by the EU has enormous potential to help society move away from plastics based on petrochemicals.

Last updated: 29 May 2018 3:12pm
Declared conflicts of interest:
None declared.
Dr Belinda Christie is a Postdoctoral Research Fellow at the Centre for Urban Transitions within the Faculty of Health, Arts and Design at Swinburne University of Technology

While the EU plans to ban single-use plastic, we need to be careful that we don’t just replace one problem with another.

Greener ‘biodegradable’ plastics are often marketed as the solution to our plastic problems on land and in our oceans, but we need to look deeper. These biodegradable plastics still require energy to create (even if made from natural materials such as corn starch), and therefore still contribute to climate change.

A lot of plastics labelled as biodegradable will only break down at higher temperatures, around 50C, and if exposed to UV directly; so if they end up in the ocean, or even in landfill, they still can’t break down. While under artificial conditions they do break down eventually, they end up as micro-plastics in the meantime.

Studies show that there is no significant difference between how biodegradable bags and plastic bags break down when eaten by marine life – meaning our biodegradable plastics ending up in the ocean can do just as much damage as a regular plastic bag.

So while it is a huge win for the EU to ban plastic, we need to carefully consider our habits around single use plastics, rather than just swapping one plastic for another. In a world full of unnecessary single-use plastic, there is only so much that carrying around reusable shopping bags and cutlery can do. Ensuring manufacturers and the food and beverage industry move away from single-use plastics, even biodegradable ones, is long overdue.

Last updated: 29 May 2018 3:10pm
Declared conflicts of interest:
None declared.
Jenni Downes is Senior Research Consultant in the Institute for Sustainable Futures at the University of Technology Sydney

This is a great announcement by the EU. While the waste hierarchy prioritises waste prevention over waste recovery, for decades the main focus for Australia has been on recycling, with little attention to reuse. For example, the introduction of the container deposit scheme aims to reduce beverage container litter through collection and recycling, and in the wake of the China recycling ban, responses have focused on how to strengthen Australia’s recycling system, rather than looking beyond recycling to prevention and reuse.
Sadly, even in Europe where reuse systems for items such as glass beverage containers were spearheaded by some western European countries, the share of reuse vs recycling (and incineration) has been dropping. Should such regulation pass, it will provoke a large shift in the culture of product design and consumer use of disposable items, which is likely to engender further change beyond the initial scope of the regulation and see broader geographical change in other westernised countries around the world. Even should the top-down regulation fail to pass at the EU level, the attempt still sends a message to manufacturers of single-use products that the impact of their products will not be much longer tolerated providing an incentive for bottom-up innovation.
The key to any such transition away from single-use items will be in helping people shift their deeply ingrained perceptions and purchasing/consumption habits to the more sustainable options.

Last updated: 29 May 2018 3:08pm
Declared conflicts of interest:
None declared.
Professor Ian Rae is an expert on chemicals in the environment at the School of Chemistry at the University of Melbourne. He was also an advisor to the United Nations Environment Programme on chemicals in the environment and isĀ former President of the Royal Australian Chemical Institute

There are three reasons for cutting back on the use of plastic materials: resource, amenity, and environmental impact.

The first is a resource argument. All of these materials are made from petroleum products. It's a weak argument, since the proportion of the resource used in this way is totally dwarfed by the proportion used as fuels and lubricants. Bio-based plastics are still rarities.

The second is amenity. We don't like plastic litter, especially when it's blowing down our street or caught up in trees and bushes. Eliminating the nuisance is difficult because we can't control the behaviour of the consumers who discarded material thoughtlessly. Stopping the problem at source is easier: just don't sell it. Replacement isn't always easy but society is making some progress on this with restrictions on the use of lightweight plastic bags now spreading around Australia. The European actions might also cover a public-health sub-set of amenity: who knows where those cotton buds and straws have been?

The third argument comes in two parts. It draws (3.1) on the dangers to wildlife that can be posed by plastic waste. Plastics do break down in the environment, but not very far, and the small pieces (microplastics) may cause more harm than the big, unsightly bits. Researchers have found birds with plastic bits in their guts. The evidence that the birds are seriously affected by this is not yet strong, but it's growing and so the anti-plastic pressure increases. Physical entanglement can be a problem, too, with the most graphic pictures showing turtles entangled in orphan fishing nets, but solving that problem is a lot more difficult than changing what's on offer at the supermarket.

The other half (3.2) of the environment argument concerns the ability of microplastics to suck up industrial chemicals and pesticides as they make their way through the environment, and deliver them to organisms like birds, fish and shellfish that consume the plastic. Just how efficient the plastics are in sequestering the chemicals, how efficiently they can be transferred from the plastic to the organism, and how much harm the chemicals cause are still matters for research findings on which it's difficult to make a legal case for banning the plastic. Nonetheless ....

All three categories show how pressure from advocates can bring about action when the full story is not known but there is suggestive evidence. Manufacturers and retailers are sensitive to to these pressures, as we have seen, and producers of competitive but more benign products will sense an opportunity.

Last updated: 29 May 2018 3:04pm
Declared conflicts of interest:
None declared.
Professor Manfred Lenzen is from the Faculty of Science at the University of Sydney

The single-use plastic problem is potentially easy to solve since for most single-use plastic items there exists an alternative already.

That wouldn't require new technologies, just behaviour change.

Last updated: 29 May 2018 3:03pm
Declared conflicts of interest:
None declared.
Dr. Arunima Malik is a Lecturer from the School of Physics within the Faculty of Science at The University of Sydney

Plastics are becoming a health-issue; we need to ensure that society is made aware of the impacts, and appropriate steps taken to reduce plastic use.

Last updated: 29 May 2018 3:02pm
Declared conflicts of interest:
None declared.

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