Five Reasons Banning Plastics May Harm the Environment and Consumers

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Consumers beware: In response to plastic waste collecting in the oceans, states, businesses, and even the European Union have proposed absurd bans on the use of everyday plastic straws, cups, and other items in an attempt to solve ocean pollution.

This week, Starbucks pledged to remove plastic straws from its nearly 30,000 stores worldwide by 2020. Starbucks joins a going list of companies supporting this effort to decrease or ban the use of plastics: IKEA, Royal Caribbean, McDonald’s, Hyatt, American and Alaska Airlines, and more.

Recently, the city of Seattle became the first U.S. city to ban plastic straws and utensils, and in May the European Union joined Great Britain and announced a proposal to ban single-use plastic items, including straws.

Banning plastics has been a growing trend over the last several years. But do such laws and policies actually help solve the problem of plastic waste filling up our oceans? Not exactly.

Here are five reasons from CEI’s Angela Logomasini why banning consumer plastics actually diverts attention away from real solutions, and instead harms both consumers and the environment.

  1. Most of the waste is not from consumers. The primary culprit of ocean pollution is not straws, cups, and plastic bags. According to the nonprofit The Ocean Cleanup, 46 percent of the Pacific patch is made up of fish nets. When combined with ropes and lines, it accounts for 52 percent of the trash. The rest ranges from large plastic crates and bottle caps to small fragments called microplastics. Obviously, this is not simply a consumer waste issue, and the solutions need to address that.
  1. Studies show the vast majority of plastic waste is due to poor disposal practices outside of the United States. Data in a 2015 Science magazine report reveals that China and 11 other Asian nations are responsible for 77 to 83 percent of plastic waste entering the oceans because of poor disposal practices. These practices include littering, disposed waste that isn’t managed, and uncontrolled or poorly supervised landfills. This is in contrast to U.S. waste management practices, like controlled landfills and recycling programs, that decreases water and ocean pollution. A 2017 Environmental Sciences and Technology study reported that up to 95 percent of plastic waste enters oceans from one of 10 rivers—eight in Asia and two in Africa.
  1. Plastic is more sanitary and safer to use than other alternatives. Plastic items are more sanitary than other alternatives. For example, reusable bags often harbor bacteria and could pose a health risk for consumers. Plastic packaging reduces food waste and makes possible transporting and serving food in a way that reduces disease transmission. Recent claims to the contrary do not hold water.
  1. Plastics have important environmental benefits. In many ways, plastics are better for the environment than other alternatives because they are more efficient and use less energy during production and transport. Plastic consumer goods like straws, foam cups, and utensils are less energy intensive to produce than alternatives like paper or aluminum. Production of these items takes more resources, creates more waste, and results in more pollution than the production of disposable plastic items. Reusable items like foam cups, straws, and bags require more than 100 uses—and in more than 1,000 in the case of foam cups—justify the energy required to produce them.
  1. Plastics are economical. In addition to being more efficient and sanitary, plastic consumer products are also less expensive to produce than paper or aluminum alternatives. Because these items are cheaper to make, they are also less expensive for consumers both in the United States and around the globe. Bans of such economical items simply increase costs for businesses and ultimately consumers.

Bottom line. While bans on plastic consumer items like bags, cups, straws, and whatever else may be great material for grandstanding by politicians, they only divert attention from developing real solutions that actually tackle the problem of plastic waste in our oceans. This includes improving the quality of waste management practices around the globe, but particularly in Asia and Africa.

Read more from CEI Senior Fellow Angela Logomasini on why banning consumer plastics won’t solve ocean pollution here.