In October of 2020, Canada joined the global effort to reduce plastic pollution by enacting a nation-wide ban on single-use plastics. Although this may seem like an appropriate response to the plastic crisis, this article argues that bans are just one of many experimental solutions which may have unintended consequences.
There is no one-size-fits-all answer.
From increased carbon emissions to giving us a false sense of hope, it is important to acknowledge negative consequences and adopt a holistic and systemic approach to this crisis.
The aim of Canada’s ban is to reduce items where there is evidence that they are found in the environment, are often not recycled, and have readily available alternatives.
This is not news.
Recently, there has been an international movement to reduce plastic waste and Canada is only one of the countries taking action by enforcing a ban. This global conversation sounds like a positive step in the direction of reducing waste. Plastics are polluting the natural environment and if there are alternatives, it is only logical that the use of the plastic version is prohibited and we opt for the more environmentally-friendly options.
However, product substitution is only one kind of solution available. Other waste management approaches like redesigning, reusing, repairing, recycling and composting are all complementary pieces of a broader puzzle.
The problem is that in our current stage of experimentation and problem-solving, we will be faced with new dilemmas.
There may be unintentional and negative consequences with each plastic “solution”. As Kate Daly stated in the recent Closed Loop Partners report,
“We must acknowledge that we're in a phase of contradiction, experimentation and trade-offs, alongside progress and advances, as we chart a new course.”
So, as we navigate this new territory, it is crucial to assess the materiality of products and packaging according to their specific contexts. This means evaluating the alternative against their social, environmental, and economic trade-offs to avoid unintended consequences.
Let us discuss some environmental trade-offs. Measuring and analyzing environmental impact of product replacements is not straightforward and simple as one might hope. As such, the plastic crisis a more complex issue than a ban can aim to resolve.
For example, let us consider the alternative options for one of Canada’s banned items: plastic drinking straws. Some of the most common replacements are paper straws and biodegradable or compostable straws.
Taking a life cycle approach to analyzing and comparing these alternatives, we find that the standard plastic straw uses less than half of the energy demand and nearly one-third of the global warming potential (kg of CO2 eq.) of that of a paper straw and a bioplastic straw. Thus, these alternative material straws are not empirically reducing the environmental impacts of straw use.
Here, we are faced with a dilemma;
should there be a focus on reducing plastic waste or on carbon reductions? This is the complexity of the plastic crisis.
Another unintended consequence is that without extensive research and standardization, substitution efforts may just be replacing one landfill-bound material for another. Consider the figure below from the Closed Loop Partners report published in December of 2020. This figure maps the end-of-life pathways for plastic alternatives, mostly bio-polymers. As shown, full marine and soil degradability evidence is not available for all of these substitutes. This overview aims to distill a complex landscape that is difficult to navigate for all product developers and packaging experts.
Similarly, compostable alternatives are not a silver-bullet either. As they begin to enter the market at higher volumes, there is not enough recovery infrastructure to recapture their full value efficiently. There are only about 185 full-scale commercial composting facilities in the United States accepting food waste and even fewer accept compostable-certified packaging. As new materials outpace the capacity of existing recovery infrastructure, there is a critical need to address the misalignment between production and end-of-life, to ensure even higher volumes of compostable packaging don't end up in our landfills.
Just like with the idea of recycling, we need to end our expectations and reliance on one solution to solve our environmental problems. Recycling, as it stands on the waste management hierarchy, is the third approach after reduce and reuse and even further down when we consider re-use, re-purpose, and repair. As we have experienced, recycling is not the answer for the plastic crisis and a holistic approach is needed. Similarly, if we focus only on product substitution, we may inadvertently adopt a wide-reaching message that will not hold sustainable for all plastic-related issue and will be difficult to reverse.
To summarize, bans on single-use plastics is just one of the many tools available in solving the plastic crisis. Without taking a holistic approach, we may unintentionally open pandora’s box and thus create new problems with the latest solutions. Now is the time to acknowledge our presence in the experimentations phase of rising innovations. Instead of adopting a myopic view on one solution alone, let us adopt a more farsighted goal of reducing environmental impact in the long-term.
 Navigating plastic alternatives in a circular economy. A closed loop partners report. https://www.closedlooppartners.com/closed-loop-partners-publishes-first-of-its-kind-report-to-navigate-plastic-alternatives-in-a-circular-economy/?utm_source=rss&utm_medium=rss&utm_campaign=closed-loop-partners-publishes-first-of-its-kind-report-to-navigate-plastic-alternatives-in-a-circular-economy  Rana, Karuna, "PLASTICLESS: A COMPARATIVE LIFE-CYCLE, SOCIO-ECONOMIC, AND POLICY ANALYSIS OF ALTERNATIVES TO PLASTIC STRAWS", Open Access Master's Thesis, Michigan Technological University, 2020.  5. Goldstein, N. (2019, January 4). Food Waste Composting Infrastructure In The U.S. BioCycle. Retrieved December 13, 2020, from https://www.biocycle.net/food-waste-composting-infrastructure-u-s/  Navigating plastic alternatives in a circular economy. A closed loop partners report. https://www.closedlooppartners.com/closed-loop-partners-publishes-first-of-its-kind-report-to-navigate-plastic-alternatives-in-a-circular-economy/?utm_source=rss&utm_medium=rss&utm_campaign=closed-loop-partners-publishes-first-of-its-kind-report-to-navigate-plastic-alternatives-in-a-circular-economy