This week, the EU banned single-use plastic, effective 2021. This is a wonderful development about which I am thrilled, and not just because plastic accumulates and stays. The manufacture, shipping, disposal, and cleanup of single-use plastic is an environmental catastrophe on its own. The plastic-banning movement started out as individual-based collective action that demonstrated the will of the people, after which the government listened to their constituents and implemented the reform broadly. It’s the environmentalist policy dream come true. However, banning plastic straws isn’t enough. Not by a long shot.
Plastic is a relatively easy problem to tackle, actually. We got by without it just 100 years ago. For the most part, it’s a convenience product that companies favor even if there are alternatives. Consumers would adjust to a different routine given incentives. These don’t have to be shady cash payoffs, either. Reducing the amount of waste that a city creates would cut down on the amount of taxpayer money that city needs to pay out for municipal waste management and removal. this is especially true now that China has started banning recyclable imports, meaning that bottles and wrappers end up in the trash.
Now that plastic is a headache, it’s low-hanging fruit. Of course we should ditch single-use, it’s a pain to manage if China’s not helping. The fact that banning this category of stuff is a no-brainer makes it inherently less valuable as a breakthrough. Would this be such an easy get if it were addressing the root cause of our environmental problems? No – those problems underpin modern society. The shift we need to make is tectonic, so when they happen, we should feel the earth shake. If anyone expects saving the Earth to be easy based on the E.U.’s plastic ban, then they’re in for a disappointment. The true danger is that otherwise enthusiastic plastic ban supporters will decide that they’ve done enough when faced with the trickier prospects of funding EV charging infrastructure, incentivizing solar panels, and taxing corporate carbon emitters.
That’s not to say that all change requires trauma. In fact, even with new economic incentives for zero-waste and low-packaging products, forcing a shift away from single-use plastics in the U.S. will probably take more time. It could indeed become a traumatic process – if it even gets off the ground within the next six years. There’s even a chance that it will become a useful political fracas, a drawn-out distraction from more pressing, more challenging issues. Even so, the problem there won’t be that banning plastic is hard. Banning coal will be far more difficult. The problem will remain that plastic is a flashy, visible problem that can be resolved rather quickly. Thereafter, it is a poster child for the success of a half-measure. Look, people will say, We got rid of plastic. Isn’t that enough?
In general, I’ve found that if change isn’t tough, it’s not rewarding. Banning plastic is the first step up a mountain that we have to summit. It’s important, but we need to be ready for many more miles.