In this guide, we discuss whether plastic bottles, bags and straws should be banned or not.
We look at some of the reasons for, and against, along with other relevant considerations.
This guide compliments a separate guide we put together on whether humans can realistically live without plastic.
Summary – Should We Ban Plastic Bottles, Bags & Straws?
In the guide below, we discuss 5 different points that may help in determining whether plastic bottles, bags and straws should be banned.
Those points are:
1. The different types of plastic bottles, bags and straws to consider
2. What the goal is in banning plastic bottles, bags, and straws
3. What the tradeoffs might be in banning plastic bottles, bags and straws
4. Alternatives and other solutions other than banning plastic bottles, bags and straws
5. Considering sustainability based lifestyle choices outside of the plastic bottles, bags and straws we use
From the guide below, it might be apparent that although plastic bottles, bags and straws have some drawbacks, they also offer some benefits and utility in various ways
We run through those points, as well as context to the question and potential answers below.
There may not be one single straightforward answer.
1. There’s Different Types Of Plastic Bottles, Bags & Straws
Firstly, we have to outline the different types of plastic bottles, bags, and straws we are talking about, and identify some of their main differences:
– Single Use vs Reusable & Long Lifecycle Plastics
Two of the main types of plastic bottles, bags and straws might involve:
1. Single use and short lifecycle plastics
These plastics might have high waste rates, and might only be used once, or a few times, before being discarded
These plastic might be part of a group of plastics that might be more problematic and harmful than others
2. Reusable and longer lifecycle plastics
These plastic might have lower waste rates, and can last years before needing to be thrown away
– Sustainability Impact Of The Different Plastics
Single use/high waste rate plastics and reusable/lower waste rate plastics may have different sustainability impacts.
We discussed the potential impact of these different plastics in our guides about the different types of plastic bags, and the different types of plastic bottles.
Single use plastic bottles and light plastic bags may rate better across some sustainability indicators, whilst reusable bottles and heavy plastic bags may rate better across other sustainability indicators, and reach a certain sustainability level when they are used a certain amount of times.
It’s also worth mentioning that we discuss the potential sustainability impact of regular plastic straws and bioplastic plastic straws in our straw comparison guide
Overall, different plastics types and different plastic products (with different designs, features, etc) will have different sustainability footprints to consider.
Not all plastic bottles, bags and straws are the same, and therefore, can’t be compared ‘apples to apples’.
2. What Is The Goal Of Banning Plastic Bottles, Bags & Straws?
There would have to be a goal, or a set of goals/targets to banning plastic bottles, bags, and straws.
From a sustainability perspective, there’s many different sustainability indicators.
For example, common sustainability targets might include but aren’t limited to reducing greenhouse gas emissions, using more renewable resources in place of non-renewable resources, or reducing pollution such as water or air pollution.
Common major goals of banning plastic bottles, bags and straws might be to reduce general plastic pollution, or to reduce the range of potentially harmful effects that plastic might have on various aspects of society.
But, the goals/targets of banning plastic bottles, bags and straws would have to be clearly outlined from a sustainability perspective, and from any other relevant perspective.
Some of the reasons that people may have various goals or targets related to banning plastic bottles, bags and straws might include (these reasons are essentially a list of plastic related problems):
– The General Drawbacks Of Plastic As A Material
Plastic as a material may have general drawbacks to consider
As just one example, traditional plastic typically comes from petroleum, which is a fossil fuel.
Some may argue that we should be using more sustainable source materials
– Recycling Plastic Bottles
Plastic bottles made of Plastic #1 (PET) or Plastic #2 (HDPE) are some of the most recyclable plastics compared to other types of plastic.
Their recycling rate might be around 20-35% mark in some major countries, and this is above the current global average recycling rate for plastic of around 14-20%.
However, it’s still below the average recycling rate of some other materials worldwide.
Reusable plastic bottles may or may not be able to be recycled depending on the plastic they are made from.
One of the inherent problems with recycling some plastics though is that they can only be recycled a certain amount of times before they lose their integrity/quality, and have to be downcycled or sent to land fill or incinerated.
Some types of metal on the other hand can be recycled over and over.
It may also be cheaper for businesses to make some plastic bottles new rather than recycle them in some instances.
– Recycling Plastic Straws & Bags
In some cities, some soft plastics can’t be recycled because of issues with contaminating other plastics.
Some plastic items may also be small enough, or thin or flimsy enough, that they either can’t be processed, or get stuck in recycling conveyor belts and other recycling machinery
Plastic straws and bags may fit into both these categories
However, there are some private services in some cities that offer soft plastic recycling, and turn it into recycled material that can be used for park benches, decking, bollards and more (ecobin.com.au).
You will have to do an internet search though for [soft plastic recycling ‘insert city name’].
– Waste Pollution
Of all waste materials and items, plastic bottles, bags and straws & stirrers are amongst some of the most common waste items found on land, beaches and in the ocean
Plastic waste pollution specifically includes both mismanaged plastic, and littered plastic
What should be considered about plastic waste in the environment is that there is an economic cost to clean it up.
Plastic bottles, bags and straws & stirrers are amongst some of the most commonly littered items in society
– Rate Of Decomposition
Of all materials, plastic sits only behind glass as the materials that take the longest to break down in the environment.
– Potential Health Impact
BPA in plastic bottles has been raised as a potential health issue in the past (along with BPS as well in some instances)
Bottles, bags and straws also break down into micro plastics and nano plastics that may get into the soil, fresh water sources, drinking water, food supplies, and other places. Whether or not micro plastics and nano plastics are a health issue at current exposure levels is debated by some
3. What Are The Tradeoffs Of Banning Plastic Bottles, Bags & Straws?
Banning plastic bottles, bags and straws will inevitably come with a set of tradeoffs i.e. a loss of utility or benefits of the items that are being banned.
In the section above, we discussed mainly environmental and resource management based targets and goals.
However, if plastic bottles, bags and straws are banned, there may be not only environmental and resource management based tradeoffs that are made, but also economic, practical, social and other types of tradeoffs made too.
Some of the tradeoffs to be considered may include but aren’t limited to:
– Environmental Tradeoffs
Something we’ve already mentioned above in this guide is that single use plastic bottles and single use plastic bags are actually more environmentally friendly across some sustainability indicators, and when used in certain ways compared to bags and bottles made from other materials.
The same can be true for plastic straws.
Plastic in general as a material has environmental/sustainability benefits itself to consider.
Plastic as a material may also have some environmental benefits compared to other materials such as aluminum, stainless steel, metals in general, glass, silicone, paper, cardboard, wood, and bamboo.
As just a few examples, plastics may take less energy to produce than some metals, and, plastics may be lighter and therefore have a lower sustainability footprint than glass during transportation and freight.
If plastic bottles, bags and straws are banned, these environmental benefits won’t be able to be utilised.
– Economic Tradeoffs
The bottled water industry alone is estimated to be valued in the hundreds of billions a year globally
Banning plastic bottles, bags and straws would impact this contributed value, in addition to the associated employment in several industries
– Practical Tradeoffs
Plastic bottles, bags and straws may provide some practical benefits and traits that we may not be able to get as easily, as affordably, or at all from bottles, bags and straws made from other materials.
Some of those benefits and traits are item/product specific, but some of them we outline in this guide about the pros and cons of plastic as a material
– Social Tradeoffs
If plastic bottles, bags and straws are banned, the question has to be asked as to which groups of people will be negatively affected by that.
For example, those employed by companies that produce these times will be affected.
Additionally, plastic bottles are commonly used to deliver water quickly to those who live in cities that experience a water shortage, or natural disasters.
Plastic bags are also frequently used by street vendors in developing regions to sell food and other products.
If plastic bottles and bags are banned, are these groups of people negatively affected?
– Other Tradeoffs
We’ve written a number of other guides where we’ve outlined the benefits or utilities of plastic, and plastic items like bags, bottles and straws.
A few of those guides include these guides on what plastic is used for in society, the ways plastic benefits society, and the pros of plastic.
4. Are There Alternatives, Or Other Solutions Other Than Bans?
Other than completely banning plastic bottles, bags and straws, we might consider what other alternatives, solutions and options are available.
These alternatives, solutions and options (other than complete bans) might include but aren’t limited to:
– Partial or conditional bans and restrictions
Bans might only be on certain types of plastic bags, bottles and straws, or might only be enforced in certain places, or for certain sectors and companies.
One example of this might be that partial bans focus more on single use and high waste plastic bottles, bags and straws for specific uses, over reusable and lower waste plastics.
Another example is that partial bans or restriction might take place in countries or regions that are shown to contribute the most to plastic pollution, or, they may be enforced for industries/sectors that use the most plastic and contribute most to plastic waste.
Countries like the US, China and Mexico are leaders in global bottled water consumption per year (in gallons).
Additionally, the US has one of the highest per capita usage rates of plastic bottle use in the world, and China, the US, Brazil, Indonesia, and Japan are some of the biggest polluters (shopkablo.com).
Another variation beyond partial bans are partial restrictions, which might limit these items instead of banning their use. The number of these items that can be sold or bought, and how and where they can be used, might two two examples of conditional restrictions.
Essentially, the production, use, waste and pollution involved with these items would be reduced, and these are all factors that contribute to certain plastic problems.
– Consider penalties, fines, taxes or other financial tools for disincentivizing use
Financial penalties and fines, as well as additional taxes could disincentivize the use of plastic bottles, bags, and straws without having to ban them.
This may decrease their use, and therefore help decrease waste and other associated problems.
– Consider ways to incentivise the use of certain options
The opposite to penalties, fines and taxes.
There may be ways companies, individuals and other parties can receive credits or incentives to use for example re-usuable items over single use items.
Reusable bags might be encouraged in some instances over single use bags … especially if they can be re-used a certain number of times.
– Alternatives to plastic as a material
We’ve already linked to guides elsewhere in this guide about plastic bottle, bag and straw alternatives.
We’ve also linked to guides that compare plastic as a material in general to other material alternatives.
Further to those guides, this guide outlines some further alternative materials and products to plastic ones.
– Producer behaivor
Producers of may choose to produce less plastic bottles, bags and straws that are problematic from a sustainability perspective.
This could include a range of things such as new plastic chemistry, or, a new design or features that make bottles, bags and straws more sustainable to use and recycle or dispose of
Producers may also consider how they sell their products – could they cut down on the total amount of separate plastic packaging in their product, such as combining packs of several separate bottles into one larger bottle or a cask, just as one example?
– Consumer behavior
The behavior of the consumer can be changed instead of banning plastic bottles, bags and straws
Choosing not to use these plastic products where possible, consuming less of them, re-using and repurposing them where possible, and disposing of them to a sustainable waste management option can all help without banning them
– Waste management systems available in a city
Every city in the world will have different waste management systems and waste management effectiveness and capabilities.
Waste management systems need to be at a basic and adequate level no matter what types of bags, bottles or straws are used, and this is not the case in every city in the world at the moment
Additionally, when bags and other plastic items can’t be recycled or re-used anymore, we have to figure out the best option for waste management. For different bags for example, landfill may be better, and for other bags, incineration may be better
– For plastic straws in particular, reducing plastic straw use may not be as important as more effective waste management systems in some regions of the world
Some sources like ourworldindata.org suggest we may move our focus from reducing straw use to improving waste management in some regions of the world:
… It’s estimated that if all straws around the world’s coastlines were lost to the ocean, this would account for approximately 0.03 percent of ocean plastics.
A global ban on their use could therefore achieve a maximum of a 0.03 percent reduction
[So, we can see that addressing straw pollution in particular doesn’t have a big impact in terms of quantity of plastic waste.]
[Expanding on the above numbers of plastic straws, Ourworldindata.org writes:]
… other sources of plastic pollution — such as discards of fishing nets and lines (which contributed to more than half of plastics in the Great Pacific Garbage Patch) receive significantly less attention.
With effective waste management systems across the world, mismanaged plastics at risk of entering the ocean could decline by more than 80 percent.
If we focus all of our energy on contributions of negligible size [like plastic straws], we risk diverting our focus away from the large-scale contributions we need.
So, what we might summarise from ourworldindata.org’s information is that upgrading waste management systems to process and better contain plastics and other waste might be more important than using less plastic straws (and other select plastic items)
– Other potential options
Some other potential solutions and options to plastic problems might be found in this guide
5. Considering Other Lifestyle Choices Other Than The Plastic Bottles, Bags & Straws We Use
Something we’ve mentioned in various other guides where we discuss managing plastic problems is that there are other lifestyle choices than can impact sustainability other than the plastic items we use.
For example, changes to the following lifestyle areas may have an equal or greater impact on an individual’s sustainability footprint:
– What you eat, and how much food you waste
– The type of energy you use
– The type of transport you use
– The footprint of the buildings you live and work in
– Your consumption rate
– Plus more
Variables With Plastic Bottles, Bags & Straws
What should also be noted again is that different plastic bottles and bags in particular have different designs, depending on the product and brand that makes them, and what use they are made for.
For example, a simple single use drink bottle may be made of just the bottle, the label, and the lid.
Some reusable plastic water bottles though can contain different designs multiple different materials, such as multiple different types of plastic, or plastic and another material.
There’s also lightweight single use plastic bags, and more heavier duty plastic bags.
These variables can impact production footprint, how the product or item can be recycled, and the overall sustainability footprint.
This point about the variables of different products and items is well illustrated in the lifecycle assessment reports used for the comparison guide we put together of the sustainability of plastic bags vs other bag types.
Not only are there variables with the plastic products to consider, but also factors like consumer behavior, waste management systems in a city, and more
17. Hannah Ritchie and Max Roser (2019) – “Plastic Pollution”. Published online at OurWorldInData.org. Retrieved from: ‘https://ourworldindata.org/plastic-pollution’ [Online Resource]