What do cigarettes and Kevin De Bruyne have in common? Absolutely nothing! But somehow we are using them to look at a vexing issue:
Bans and levies on plastic straws, bags, and bottles seems to be in vogue, but are they effective?
Last week while I was watching Belgium utterly destroy Brazil in the World Cup quarter-finals, a guy pulled up pulled up a chair next to me. We got to talking and naturally I confessed that I am, indeed, an anti-plastic vigilante.
He had several questions and some interesting points; basically, he wanted to know: how do we know that bans are effective? Where should we really be putting our energy? Is this all just a huge waste of time, and shouldn’t we be focusing on bigger fish?
So cheers to that dude at the bar, he’s the inspiration for this post. Well, him and Kevin De Bruyne…but we’ll get to that.
Bans and levies. Seems like every week another city or country announces their intention to ban some single-use plastic item. How effective are these bans in reducing plastic waste though? Are we talking cold, calm, Kevin-De-Bruyne-two-touch-finishing-into-the-bottom-corner levels of efficiency?
(press play to see the glory)
I mean…what a ‘beaut!
Or is it more like a Neymar-85-touches-then-fall-to-the-ground-and-roll-for-ages level of flailing?
(press play to see the embarrassment)
oh dear oh dear…
Obviously, we want our plastic reduction strategies to be Belgium and not Brazil at this point. Unfortunately, it turns out the answers is not as straight forward as we would like, and it changes depending on your objective.
Bars are very effective at lowering the use of the items they target. Here’s one telling example: After implementing a levy, Ireland saw plastic bag waste reduced by 97%. That’s huge! The Emerald Island is too legit! But here’s the kicker; although Ireland’s plastic bag waste dropped severely after they enforced a levy, they remain Europe’s largest overall producer of plastic waste per capita (61kg per person annually). So, wait, what?
I think the lesson here is that bans are fantastic, and have lots of benefits (one less bag that a turtle will mistake for a jelly fish, awareness, fewer clogged sewers, etc etc), but that we need to fundamentally change the way business is done if we want to completely kick plastic. If we want to be really effective, we need to supplement bans and levies with policies that target manufacturers and hit them right in their money-grubbing wallets!
To take the sports analogy further, let’s go back and break down Belgiums goal (the first video).
Us, the consumers, refusing plastics through bans or through our own actions are like Toby Alderweireld clearing the ball at the beginning of the play. He sets everything in motion by saying “Not today Neymar, not TODAY!”
We can act in the same way with single-use plastics: Just. Get. It. Out.
But we want to win the game, put this thing to bed. And that’s where the hard work or holding businesses accountable for the plastic waste they produce. This is Lukaku, taking the ball and carrying towards the goal, juking players with guile and grit. Imagine lobbyists, policy makers, NGOs, and people fighting with business and being tough and full of guile to get us where we need to be at a policy level, cementing policies that require responsibility and fund innovation. The hard work of voting, rallying, lobbying, researching, and crafting policy.
And lastly, to really kill the game off, we need Kevin De Bruyne to come in with the finish; an elegant, simple solution that gets us the win. We need technology to produce alternatives to plastic that make their death inevitable. Alternatives to plastic packaging will be key, and we are on the verge of technologies that will disrupt the market and kill plastics once and for all.
And where will this put us? We will inevitably lose to France in the semi-finals.
Time for a detour.
I was reading this article about the fight against the tobacco industry, and the lessons learned as a result, and I think they can be directly applied to the plastic pollution crisis. In many ways, the current situation is reminiscent of the tobacco-industry’s fight against regulations in the face of mountains of evidence on its’ harmful effects. Reading through these 3 “lessons learned” provides some helpful guidance in how we might more effectively conquer the plastic pollution crisis.
- “Efforts to reduce tobacco use succeeded when Americans came to believe that the right to breathe clean air trumped the tobacco’s industry’s right to promote its products without public oversight.”
- Using the same logic, plastic pollution will be stopped when we can convince people that their right to an environment not contaminated by plastics trumps manufacturers right to make a profit by selling products that harm our health and the health of our oceans. At a certain point, we have to say that we don’t care how much more expensive it is for manufacturers to use alternatives to plastics, they just have to do it. Enough is enough. We are done suffering so that a very small group of people can continue to make ridiculous profits.
- “Part of the success in reducing smoking came from forcing Big Tobacco to reimburse state governments for the costs of caring for people with tobacco-related illnesses.”
- Big Tobacco had to pay for the medical bills of the people it harmed; plastic manufacturers should have to foot the bill for the clean up of their products.
- “Fund independent hard-hitting prevention campaigns designed to undo the deceptive advertising Big Tobacco had sponsored.”
- Marketing campaigns showing the negative effects of plastic waste and promoting plastic-free lifestyles can be very effective.
The similarities are striking, no?
I hope ya’ll enjoyed this post, unasked for sports analogies and all. I will be adding to it this week with updates on the Lion Fish Derby and I will be sure to include lots of gory pictures of lion fish dissection for ya creeps.