The Final Straw

One of the dirtiest words in the first world right now is ‘plastic’. Or, if you really want to offend people, ‘single-use plastic’. As we become increasingly concerned for the state of the environment, discussion has turned towards how we can prevent causing further damage. Plastics are comprised of non-renewable natural resources including crude oil, gas and coal. Just 8.7 plastic checkout bags contain enough embodied petroleum to drive a car one whole kilometre. Australian consumers currently use 3.92 billion plastic bags each year. I’ll let you do the maths.

We now know that plastic lasts forever. It just keeps lasting. And lasting. And lasting. Forever.

Every single piece of plastic we have produced is still out there. Thousands of years can pass before it can degrades into smaller pieces. While some plastic is recycled, such an overwhelming amount exists that only a small quantity is ever used. Given that much single-use plastic (such as bags and straws) are so lightweight, they are often easily carried into our waterways. This is bad news for our beaches and marine life, with 8 million metric tonnes of plastic ending up in the ocean each year. A NSW study conducted in 2017 concluded that many species of fish that are commonly consumed by humans contained nanoparticles of plastics in their flesh. This means that we are involuntarily ingesting plastic through a major food source.

There have been studies conducted into into the use of plastic- eating worms (sounds kind of sci-fi, I know) and plant material plastics, however many of these concepts are still in their infancy. We need to start implementing sustainability measures before conclusions are likely to be reached on the success and feasibility of many scientific solutions.

Has anything been done so far?

Progress has been slow. Taxes and bans on single-use plastic products have been implemented in European countries such as France, Ireland, Belgium, Germany and Denmark (who, in fact, were the first to take action back in 1993). The UK has also commenced efforts by banning microbeads (those tiny little balls of plastic commonly found in exfoliating face scrubs) and cutting down on plastic bag use. Since then, UK Prime Minister Theresa May has made a pledge to eradicate plastic waste by 2042. This ban will include the sale of plastic drinking straws, drink stirrers and cotton buds.

This plan of action has been supported by environmental activists, but it has also raised questions about what Australia is doing to get behind the notion. International discussion has taken place recently at the Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting where May called on Australia to match Britain’s pledge to ban the sale of plastic straws and other single use products. However, according to Prime Minister, Malcolm Turnbull, Australia does not have a national plan of action to tackle the plastic problem. It has even been suggested that the environment is really only a hot topic for Australian politicians in the three to four months leading up to the election. Change is no doubt necessary, and despite the so called ‘failing’ efforts of the government, some have taken it upon themselves to lead a more sustainable lifestyle.

Many Australian supermarkets giants (namely Woolworths and Coles, who else?!) are taking their own initiatives. From June 20 2018, single use plastic bags will no longer be available. Customers will instead be offered reusable bags at a cost ranging from 15 cents to $2.00.

An additional effort has been made by the Cairns Regional Council to phase out plastic straws. While this move has been supported by some, the ban appears to have neglected to consider those who rely heavily on the drinking apparatus. Plastic straws are important meal-time tools for some disabled and elderly individuals. They serve an essential role as they are cheap, flexible and easily accessible. Or so they were. Despite the fact that there are more environmentally friendly biodegradable or reusable straws, the majority of these products are not suitable for the consumption of liquids served above 40 degrees Celsius. And FYI, the average cup of coffee is served at around 70 degrees Celsius. Sadly, the ban seems to be going ahead regardless. Chief executive of ConnectAbility Australia, David Carey, expressed his concern,

‘I hope science will come to the rescue on this issue, but it would be good if it could come to the rescue before we make any decision to ban plastic straws’.

Suggestions have been made that aim to achieve compromise. A simple solution (for now) may be to introduce a ‘straws on demand’ policy. Instead of treating these items as a luxury, perhaps businesses should only offer them where a genuine need is apparent.

While it cannot be denied that we need to tackle the issue of single-use plastic products, there must be consideration for those who rely on these products for day to day use. Instead of completely banning these plastic products, perhaps we need to change the way we make them available.

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