As The UK announced it is to consult over moves to ban the use of single use plastics, scientists have warned that any such move had to ensure it delivers the desired results.
Environment Secretary George Eustice announced single-use plastic plates, cutlery, expanded and extruded polystyrene cups and food and beverage containers could all be phased out, and launched a consultation over the potential to tackle other sources of plastic pollution.
According to estimates, England uses 1.1 billion single-use plates and 4.25 billion items of single-use cutlery, most of which are plastic, per year, but only 10% are recycled upon disposal.
Eustace said future policy measures that could be explored include banning plastic in these items, and mandatory labelling on packaging to help consumers dispose of these items correctly.
“There is growing recognition of the damage that plastics cause to our environment and marine life in particular,” he said. “We want to reduce the use of plastics in packaging and ban its use in items linked to littering.
“We have already banned plastic straws, stirrers and cotton buds and now plan to extend the ban to cutlery and balloon sticks where alternative materials, like wood can be used.”
However, experts say a simple ban on use does not solve the problem.
Sarah Greenwood, packaging technology expert/leader, at the Grantham Centre for Sustainable Futures, explained: “Although expanded polystyrene containers for foodservice packaging are low in terms of carbon impact, land usage and water usage, there is no viable recycling stream for them, so they inevitably end up in landfill, incineration, or discarded as litter.
“However, replacing plastic containers with non-plastic alternatives can result in an increase in carbon footprint and other environmental impacts such as land and water usage.
“Whilst we welcome the banning of single use plastic cutlery and plates, at the Grantham Centre for Sustainable Futures, University of Sheffield, we believe that the use of disposables of all materials should be discouraged in favour of reuse. Each time an item is used again for the same purpose, the amount of waste created per use, and the environmental burden of manufacture decreases e.g. if an item is used 20 times, the waste produced per use is just 5% than if it had been used once and thrown away.”
Prof Richard Thompson, professor of Marine Biology, University of Plymouth, said there were benefits to plastics use.
“Plastic litter is now recognised as a global environmental challenge, with impacts on wildlife, economies and human wellbeing,” he added. “Yet it is also clear that plastics bring many societal benefits and, if used appropriately, have the potential to reduce our environmental footprint.
“An underlying cause of the issue is that the majority of plastics are for single-use applications like those identified in this consultation. While these items can bring benefits, these are undeniably short compared to the potential persistence of the item as waste in managed systems or as litter. “For decades society has learned to engage with plastics as items of convenience. This is especially so for single-use items of packaging, and to some extent we have been trained to see it as acceptable to use these items for an instant and then consider it OK to discard them without a care. That behaviour has to stop.”
“The government needs to be careful that manufacturers don’t switch from single use plastics to single use biodegradable plastics, our analysis shows this rarely helps the environment,” said Professor Mark Miodownik, at the UCL Plastic Waste Innovation Hub and a Fellow of the Royal Academy of Engineering. “Biodegradable plastics take energy and resources to manufacture and will only biodegrade successful under very specific conditions. If they end up in the sea, or in forests, or in landfill, or down the drain, or being burnt, they harm the environment, yet these are the most likely outcomes.”