The last straw: breaking up with single-use plastics
Emily Anderson explores why single-use plastic bans may not be a silver bullet solution to our plastic waste crisis.
When Swedish engineer Sten Gustaf Thulin invented the humble plastic bag in 1959, he thought he was doing the planet a favour.
Cheap, lightweight, and durable – plastic bags were a marvel of engineering.
Unlike their paper counterparts, they were designed to be used more than once, and their production didn’t involve cutting down trees.
“To my dad, the idea that people would simply throw these away would be bizarre,” Sten’s son, Raoul Thulin, told the BBC.
Since the 1950s, our desire for convenience has had unintended consequences, with humans producing an estimated 8.3 million tonnes of plastic, the vast majority of which has ended up in landfills or the natural environment.
In recent years, lightweight plastic shopping bags have been universally banned across Australia, and now many states are taking it a step further, committing to ban other problematic single-use items.
However, it may take a more comprehensive approach to kerb our decades-long plastic addiction.
Some states falling behind
As of 1 February 2023, Victoria became the latest state to impose a ban on the sale and supply of several single-use plastic items.
According to the state government, single-use items account for a third of Victoria’s litter.
Items included in the ban are cutlery, plates, drink stirrers, cotton bud sticks, expanded polystyrene food and drink containers, and drinking straws.
Boomerang Alliance director Jeff Angel welcomes the ban but would like to see the state make further commitments.
“It does put Victoria behind other states like Queensland and Western Australia, which are going into second and third tranches and have timetables for it,” he says.
"Frankly, the way governments are moving on single-use plastic bans...they're not harmonising."
The Boomerang Alliance represents more than 50 community-based environmental organisations across Australia and runs the “Plastic Free Places Program” assisting businesses to reduce their single-use plastic consumption.
Mr Angel says coffee cups, heavyweight plastic bags and other plastic foodware and packaging, such as “soy sauce fish” should be next on the list.
“Boomerang has been pushing more recently that when you dine in at a food place, food should not be served in single-use foodware…it should be served in reusable foodware which can be washed, etc.”
Green alternatives or greenwashing?
With bans coming into effect, businesses have been switching out their single-use plastic items for so-called green alternatives made from bamboo, paper and other biodegradable or compostable materials.
Kirsty Bishop-Fox, president of Zero-Waste Victoria and a sustainability educator, says that many businesses don’t have the capacity to dispose of compostable items at the right facilities.
“What we've done is we've swapped one single use for another type of single use,” she says.
"These compostable items aren't being composted, and they end up in landfill – therefore, the end result is the same."
Mr Angel warns that there is a degree of greenwashing when it comes to the labelling of these items.
“In Victoria and New South Wales, items described as compostable, or biodegradable or fragmentible, can still contain plastic.”
“For busy cafe or food service managers, they don't have time to check whether what they're being told is true.”
A report released by the ACCC found that the “takeaway packaging” and “food and beverages” sectors were among those making the highest proportion of concerning environmental claims.
The “Greenwashing by businesses in Australia” report, released in March, indicated that 57% of the 247 businesses surveyed raised greenwashing concerns.
Mr Angel says we need further action in the compliance area and clear standards about what makes a product “reusable” or “compostable.”
“The ACCC should continues its work on taking greenwashing to the court and getting penalties,” he says.
A problem too big for recycling
The Australian Packaging Covenant has fallen short on its target to recycle or compost 70 per cent of plastic packaging by 2025.
A review of the 2025 National Packaging Targets, released in April, found that only 18% of packaging waste is currently being recycled.
Australia’s domestic recycling industry has been under scrutiny since the collapse of soft plastic recycling scheme REDcycle, which revealed tonnes of soft plastics handed into Cole’s and Woolworths for recycling were instead being stockpiled in warehouses.
“If you trust industry to reach targets, they really don't take it seriously or invest enough,” Mr Angel says.
“The whole REDcycle thing has embarrassed industry and governments so much that there is now serious talk about regulation.”
Ms Bishop-Fox says that plastic is difficult and costly to recycle into a useful product, meaning new plastic is always in production.
"If someone puts an aluminium can into the recycling, it's got the potential to become an aluminium can again, but when you put a plastic bag into the recycling, it's not going to become a plastic bag again."
"The solution is to look at reusable options and to encourage reusable options."
Zero-waste shopping made easy
While many food businesses and cafés have been busy finding plastic-free swaps, some businesses are ahead of the curve, adopting fully zero-waste business models.
Sage and Joyce are the new owners of Precycle Pantry, a mobile, zero-waste grocery store.
With the help of “Pablo the Van,’ they bring refillable pantry essentials, cleaning products, and personal care items directly to Melburnian’s doorsteps.
Joyce says the couple acquired the business after returning from a two-year stint in Canada where they learned to live more sustainably.
“They have a very different thought process on their waste, and it's a bit more mature compared to Australia,” she says.
"We basically wanted to replicate how we were living overseas."
Sage and Joyce are carrying on founder Carolina Felton’s mission to reduce plastic waste by making it easy for people to shop more sustainably.
Sage says Australia is playing “catch-up” in a lot of ways, but what helps is making plastic-free alternatives more convenient for people.
“If you go to the supermarket, even the fruit is wrapped in plastic,” he says.
“We’re just giving another option, so you don’t have to contribute to plastic waste”
Changing consumer behaviour
According to data from the Mineroo Foundation, Australians generate more single-use plastic per capita than any other country in the world, followed closely by the United States.
There’s no doubt that we live in a “throwaway society, and with so much plastic being produced, it can be difficult to avoid".
Dr Kim Borg is a researcher in behavioural science at BehaviourWorks Australia, a research enterprise within the Monash Sustainable Development Institute.
She says that bans are not necessarily enough to encourage individuals to choose the right behaviour.
“When we banned single use plastic bags…there was an expectation that that was going to solve the problem, all the lightweight plastic bags are going to be taken out of circulation.”
“But they were also selling thicker plastic bags that some people turned into single-use items.”
In the midst of a cost-of-living crisis, consumers are making less sustainable choices. However, experts say a green lifestyle doesn't always have to be more expensive.
To encourage reusable options, Dr Borg says we need to implement better communication strategies.
“We know that one of the biggest barriers for reusables is forgetfulness, and so we need to have things like prompts in the carpark that say, ‘Hey, have you got your reusable bags?’”
Much of Dr Borg’s research is focused on the concept of social norms.
She says people are much more willing to change their behaviour if they think those around them have changed their behaviour as well.
“If you get the message out there, that change is happening, other people are changing industry is changing…you can actually empower an individual to change as well."
“Because then they don't feel like they're fighting an uphill battle.”