Suck it up: Are single-use plastic bans pointless?

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Words || Lucy MacCulloch

On 1 July 2018, Coles and Woolworths joined the likes of Aldi and IGA and banned plastic bags from all NSW stores. Shit promptly hit the fan, resulting in Woolworths’ Facebook page being swarmed with angry comments, A CURRENT AFFAIR getting enough footage of white middle-aged customers abusing cashiers to last them until at least September, and various Facebook threads implying that bin liner companies are up there with Google and Amazon in their world domination conspiracy theory threads. Huh, who knew? The end result was that Woolworths appeared to soften their ban, agreeing to give away their reusable bags for free until July 8th.

Bans on single-use plastics such as straws, coffee cups, and water bottles have become increasingly mainstream over the past couple of months following various campaigns, such as the Lonely Whale Foundation’s “Strawless Ocean” campaign, which was started by the dude from ENTOURAGE, of all people. While these campaigns have seen a lot of success, not only in terms of hashtags but real, legislative change, such as the ban of plastic straws and utensils in Seattle, and the United Kingdom aiming to abolish all single use plastics as early as next year. Even Australia has started to jump on board: the City of Ryde similarly announced it would be banning single-use plastics, and a recent Senate inquiry recommended Australia do so nationwide by 2023. In light of China’s refusal to accept our country’s rubbish, and the fact that seabirds off the coast of Australia literally starve to death due to stomachs full of plastic, now seems like a good time to take control of our country’s plastic waste issue.

However, the Woolworths plastic bag spat wasn’t the first backlash the anti-plastic movement has had. For months now, articles about how ineffective plastic straw bans are have been popping up, usually citing claims that they’re ableist for people who need a straw to drink. While environmentalism certainly needs to increase its accessibility, especially in terms of race, class, disability, and illness, very few of these articles have been written by disabled people. Besides being somewhat paternalistic, if not actively patronising, the authors’ lack of knowledge usually means they completely disregard alternatives such as steel, glass, and silicone straws, and whether these are viable alternatives for the disabled community. Furthermore, these articles often ignore wider accessibility issues, such as how removing pre-cut vegetables wrapped in plastic will affect people with arthritis, food waste as a result of episodes of mental or physical illness, and even difficulties in accessing veganism for those with allergies. Are straws really the biggest issue?  Well, we’ll explore this.

The idea that straw bans are ineffective is also commonly perpetuated as they make up a relatively small amount of the total plastic in the ocean at 4%, meaning that banning them does nothing to solve the wider issue of ocean pollution. Of course, this begs the question – did anyone actually expect giving up straws to fix such a huge problem? When explaining the idea behind their Strawless Oceans campaign, the Lonely Whale states that they chose plastic straws because (despite potential ableism) it was accessible: it was easy to understand, easy to remove, and free, unlike other signs of “environmentalism” such as compost bins or $1 reusable bags (guys seriously, go to Kmart they have those pocketable ones so you don’t have to give Woolworths money and instead support a charity).  It was never supposed to remove all of the plastic in the ocean, but it was supposed to draw attention to it, while also making you – yes, you – feel like you actually had the power to do something despite not being able to feed and/or adopt every single polar bear or turtle with a straw stuck in its nose.

Another criticism against plastic bans is that it isn’t us – the consumers – who should have to take responsibility for plastic waste, but corporations, because they make the majority of it. Which is kind of fair! I’m out here carrying around a water bottle and a KeepCup while Woolworths keeps wrapping bananas in plastic. It sucks. Except that the same platforms that softened the plastic bag bans are the ones that convinced Woolworths to get rid of them in the first place. Similarly, bars and cafes are increasingly removing plastic straws of their own volition, and Australia has its own Responsible Cafes pledge which aims to encourage people to bring in their reusable coffee cup to receive a discount. Corporate lobbying, much like government lobbying, is slow and painful, but it can work, and when you’ve got people like Donald Trump and Tony Abbott in power, you can sometimes be more powerful as a consumer than as a citizen.

Are single use plastic bans going to solve ocean pollution? No. Are they inconvenient? Hell yeah. Is the environmental activism community #problematic? Yes, obviously. But if 7 billion people collectively refuse the straw, the sea turtles are going to notice. Ultimately, some responsibility for our individual consumption needs to be taken and changed, even if it’s in the smallest of ways. And, finally, if you really don’t want to buy bin liners you can just use newspaper. There are tutorials online and everything. 

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