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Choosing Alternatives to Single-Use Plastics Wisely

Around the world, there is growing momentum to tackle the mounting problem of plastic pollution. Every year, about 8 million tons of plastic pollutes the ocean. And single-use plastic — such as plastic bags, straws, food packaging, disposable cutlery, and water and soda bottles — makes up 40 percent of the plastic produced annually.

One strategy to limit plastic pollution is gaining traction in many countries and cities: banning single-use plastic products. Many countries are mandating or promoting alternative products that serve the same function as single-use plastic.

But to make a dent in the overwhelming amount of plastic pollution, policymakers must ensure that alternatives are accessible for consumers and won’t increase environmental impacts.

Plastic alternatives exist

Plastic alternatives are an effective solution to our plastic pollution problem. Products that are reusable and recyclable can reduce the amount of single-use plastic litter in the environment, which often ends up in the ocean, waterways, and food, and negatively affects human health. Examples of plastic alternatives include paper or cloth shopping bags, recyclable glass bottles, and reusable metal straws.

When governments make laws requiring alternatives to single-use plastic, policymakers must assess whether alternatives have additional or unexpected environmental costs. For example, although paper bags degrade quicker than plastic bags, they require more energy to be produced, are more expensive, and once they are discarded, take up more space in collection trucks and landfills. Similarly, glass bottles deplete natural resources such as sand and produce more emissions during transport due to their heavier weight.

A lifecycle assessment (LCA) of potential alternatives should be conducted before laws are passed that mandate a particular alternative. An LCA is a comprehensive method that assesses the range of environmental impacts across the full lifecycle of a product, from material acquisition to manufacturing or production to use and to final disposal or treatment. These assessments will help policymakers evaluate whether a proposed alternative is worth the environmental costs and will mitigate the negative impacts of plastic pollution.

Plastic alternatives must be accessible

Policymakers must ensure that plastic alternatives are readily available and affordable. If adequate, cheap alternatives to single-use plastics aren’t readily available, then plastic bans may negatively impact the poorest, most marginalized segments of the population, such as in developing countries.

When the availability and affordability of alternatives is not considered, then plastic bans could spawn black markets for the banned product. For example, when plastic bags were banned in Rwanda in 2008, there were no sufficient alternatives. Plastic bag smugglers in the country are often detained indefinitely, fined an exorbitant fee, or attacked. By failing to consider gender and equity in the ban, it ended up impacting women who rely on plastic bags for their livelihoods.

Plastic alternatives must work

Plastic alternatives should also serve their intended function. For example, the materials used to package food are often scientifically tested and chosen for the high-quality barrier they create that keeps food fresh. If a plastic replacement or alternative does not provide the same benefits, then a policy to reduce food packaging waste could lead to unintended impacts like increased food loss and waste.

To avoid these unintended impacts, policymakers should consider a grace period or phased approach to a policy’s implementation. This will provide sufficient time for businesses to produce alternatives and consumers to transition and identify alternatives.

A circular economy can reduce plastic waste

Using alternative materials should be part of a broader strategy of sustainable production, use, and disposal. To address and reduce plastic pollution, countries and consumers need to move away from the traditional economy of “take, make, and throw away” to a circular economy.

A circular economy aims to extract maximum value from resources, recover materials, and prioritize the extension of product lifecycles. This new approach is regenerative, can mitigate the climate impacts of continuous manufacturing, and greatly reduce plastic pollution.

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