Are we doomed to repeat old mistakes?

If at First You Don’t Succeed, Try, Try Again

The definition of insanity is said to be trying the same thing over and over again and expecting different results. Now we’re not calling anyone insane, but we certainly think that it’s more valuable to make adjustments to previous attempts before moving forward rather than simply repeating mistakes of the past. So what have we learned? A 2021 study reported that plastic bag bans have had limited success, with the primary cited reason being the lack of a suitable alternative being endorsed by governments. Some of the unintended consequences of single-use plastic bans cited in this study included “the proliferation of reusable shopping bags with unsubstantiated environmental claims”, the death of 12 people in San Francisco from E-coli reportedly related to unwashed reusable bags, and 1.45 million jobs lost. These results point to the fact that transitioning directly to reusable or paper alternatives may not be the best option for a successful ban. Certified compostable bags are proven to be environmentally beneficial by nature of the very certifications that govern them, they maintain the hygiene standards of plastic, and they prevent the necessity for plastics manufacturers to shut down since the manufacturers can simply switch over to the certified compostable resin without having to change much of their processes or lay off workers.

Since 1999, India has been attempting to successfully institute bans on single-use plastics at the state and municipal levels. Unfortunately, in just about every case, the bans are considered failures. According to an article in The Times of India, the primary reason for this failure is, again, the fact that a suitable alternative was not endorsed by the government. In addition, a lack of investment in waste management, proper certification and labeling, and extended producer responsibility are all cited as key instruments of the bans’ failures. According to an article by Yale Environment 360 regarding the attempted bans in India, Keith Weller, a spokesperson for the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP), has stated that “there is a need for innovation and entrepreneurship,” adding that alternative materials — including biodegradable items and biopolymers such as cellulose — need to be seen “as part of a broader strategy toward more sustainable production.”

We don’t have to look beyond our borders to see a failed attempt to ban single-use plastic bags. Toronto passed a ban on single-use plastics back in June 2012 and in short order, the ban was reversed in November of the same year, all thanks to the lack of suitable alternatives. At the time, what was expected to replace single-use plastics was paper. Retailers were immediately outraged at how expensive the alternative was compared to their regular bags and how their customers were not happy with the unreliability of the paper bags. The cost increase of using paper was more than retailers could bear and was enough to influence a reversal of the ban. Now as we move forward, it’s concerning to see the same alternative being presented as suitable when it failed in the past. The reasons for this failure are even more prevalent now as the cost of paper has increased dramatically from 2013 and the reliability of the paper bags is no better now than it was at the time of Toronto’s ban. In addition, supply of paper has become a new issue as most companies are having difficulty even sourcing a suitable paper bag for their stores.

All of these results taken together support the claim that successful implementation of a single-use plastics ban should rely largely on the existence and support of proper sustainable alternatives, an increased investment in waste management, and a focus on consistent certification and labeling standards.

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