Australia

Will Australia follow Britain's plastic straw ban?

Authorities hope the ban will help clean up Mumbai's beaches and streets. Source: Getty

British Prime Minister Theresa May wants Australia to ban the sale of plastic straws. But Malcolm Turnbull has said no - for now.

UK Prime Minister Theresa May has called on Australia to match Britain's pledge to ban the sale of plastic straws and other single-use products. 

Ahead of the Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting (CHOGM), Ms May called on the 53 Commonwealth countries to “join the fight against marine plastic”.

But Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull has stopped short of backing a ban in Australia.

What is Britain doing?

The European Union is requiring an 80 per cent reduction of plastic bags by 2019 forcing many countries to change their plastic habits.

British Prime Minister Theresa May makes the opening statement at 'Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting' (CHOGM).
British Prime Minister Theresa May makes the opening statement at 'Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting' (CHOGM).
Getty

The British government says there are 150 million tonnes of plastic in the world’s oceans that kills one million birds and 100,000 sea mammals each year. 

Britain will follow other European countries such as France, Ireland, Denmark, Belgium and Germany which have introduced bans or taxes on the sale of single-use plastics.

The UK has already made efforts to minimise single-use plastic use in recent years. It has also banned microbeads and cut plastic bag use.

Ms May has pledged to eradicate avoidable plastic waste by 2042 as part of a “national plan of action”.

The ban includes the sale of plastic straws, drink stirrers, and cotton buds and Britain will commit 61.4 million pounds (AU$87.21 million) at CHOGM to develop new ways of tackling plastic waste and help Commonwealth countries limit how much plastic ends up in the ocean.

Greenpeace Australia campaigner Alix Foster Vander Elst was involved in the UK campaign to ban microbeads and has played a big part in their campaign to tackle marine plastic pollution.

She said Ms May’s comments were a big win for the UK, but felt Australia had a bigger role to play in protecting its oceans and waterways.

“My main feeling on May’s comments is that I wish the Australian government could be half as strong on the things she says,” she told SBS News. 

Geese swim past some of the many thousands of one-use plastic bags left hanging on trees year-round in the Los Angeles River channel.
Geese swim past some of the many thousands of one-use plastic bags left hanging on trees year-round in the Los Angeles River channel in California, US.
Getty

“A key thing about Australia is that so much of the population is based around the coast. A lot of peoples’ lives are near the ocean or around waterways.

“You go to a day at the beach in the UK and it's pretty cold and miserable … but Australian life is based around our oceans.

“People want clean beaches and waterways to be able to spend time with their families there.

“I think in Australia it’s even more of a tangible issue (marine pollution) as it is on our beaches where we spend the most of our time. It’s crucial that we protect them.”

What will Australia do?

At the moment, the short answer is not much. 

Mr Turnbull, who is in London for CHOGM, said Australia will not commit to a ban on single-use plastics.

He said it was currently a state government issue. To date, every Australian state and territory except NSW has either pledged to or introduced a ban or tax on single-use plastic bags.

"The banning of plastic bags and other items of plastic has been debated in Australia over many years; it's largely a matter of state regulation, the Productivity Commission has had a look at it, it's something that will come up for review," he told reporters on Thursday.

"It's not a simple matter, because it can impose additional costs and can create additional pollution, so the important point is to ensure plastic waste does not find its way into our oceans."

Australian environmental group Boomerang Alliance said it was “not good enough to pass responsibility for this national problem to the states.”

“The disparate policy that we have seen emerge around container deposit schemes and plastic bag bans has meant that Australia is being left behind in the fight against this environmental scourge and it’s our oceans and marine life that are paying the price of the Turnbull Government’s procrastination,” the group's deputy director Jayne Paramor told SBS News.

“It is time that for the Federal Government to make use of the National Waste Policy framework and show leadership on the issue by driving the solutions from the top.”

Ms Foster Vander Elst said Mr Turnbull’s take on the issue was “disappointing”.

“It’s disappointing to have that kind of response when someone as powerful as Theresa May is speaking about this,” she said.

Earthmovers push mountains of garbage as seagulls fly over the country's largest landfill at Fyli on the outskirts of Athens in Greece.
Earthmovers push mountains of garbage as seagulls fly over the country's largest landfill at Fyli on the outskirts of Athens in Greece.
AAP

“I don’t see any reason why Malcolm Turnbull can’t have the same approach.”

The Last Straw campaign calls to eliminate the use of plastic straws in Australian venues. So far dozens have joined the cause.

Australia’s major supermarkets Coles and Woolworths have also committed to eliminating single-use plastic bags from their stores.

When it came to plastic bags, NSW Premier Gladys Berejiklian said there was no need for the state to introduce a ban as the supermarkets were taking care of the problem.

Ms Foster Vander Elst said having a state-by-state view on Australia’s plastics issue was slowing the process.

“When you see really big companies (Coles and Woolworths) taking action that impact is huge. The influence they have over the population … you’re going to see a really tangible impact.”

Why straws and cotton buds?

Deakin University's Dr Trevor Thornton highlighted to SBS News earlier this month that plastic bags made up only one per cent of Australia’s total litter count, but the number was much higher for takeaway food and beverages.

Australia’s Litter Index 2016-17 showed takeaway food and beverage litter accounted for 10828 items of litter counted that year. Beverage containers were 4329, plastic bags were 476 and other plastics 4753.

He said he felt while most of Australia was focused on banning the bag, it was only a small part of the country’s plastic problem.

Boomerang Alliance’s Jayne Paramor said straws were a common problem in Australia’s litter, both broken up and whole.

“Plastic straws, as with all plastics remain in the environment and do not break down – they just break apart into smaller and smaller pieces.  Once they enter the marine environment, they are difficult to discern for marine animals and are mistaken as food, entering and remaining in the digestive system, thus compromising the animal’s capacity to ingest the food it needs to survive. “

As for cotton buds, she said natural cotton isn’t the problem:

“Cotton is a natural material that is biodegradable.  Synthetic cotton, however, breaks up into tiny microfibres that can be ingested at the lowest level of the food chain.  Moreover, the sticks on which the cotton is attached are generally made from plastic and once in the marine environment, have a similar impact as straws. “

Delivering the ‘ban the plastic’ message

As a campaigner, Alix Foster Vander Elst said her dream was to see a ban on single-use plastics in Australia and worldwide.

But she felt the UK was getting it right in delivering their anti-plastic message product by product.

“It doesn’t matter whether it’s a cotton bud or a bottle cap, it’s all ocean pollution,” she said.

An ibis trapped in a plastic bag in Australia.
An ibis trapped in a plastic bag in Australia.
Boomerang Alliance

“A blanket ban goes back to a sense of urgency as we need to protect the ocean, ocean animals and our own health. But these products are used for different things so I can see how it’s sensible to approach them in different ways.”

She also felt banning particular products such as straws or cotton buds was helpful in educating consumers about the impact these products were having on the environment.

“These are products Australians use on a daily basis, it’s a great starting point to get us all thinking about it.”

What can be done in Australia?

Boomerang Alliance’s Jayne Paramor said there was plenty of environmentally sound alternatives that can replace single-use “problem plastics”.

“Durable paper, metal and bamboo straws; paper cotton bud sticks and wooden drink stirrers – these are all readily available in the market today,” she said.

Close up of plastic straws aimed to encourage people to take action against single use plastics.
Close up of plastic straws aimed to encourage people to take action against single use plastics.
Getty

“If we can eliminate these single-use items, including straws, cotton bud sticks, drink stirrers, plastic bags, bottles, plastic takeaway containers, plastic microbeads, etc. then we will make a significant dent in the problem.

“A ban on the plastic equivalents is the only way to drive the change we need, particularly when manufacturers are resistant to taking steps voluntarily.  The EU has some very progressive ideas in this area and they are not afraid to ban things that do damage – our government could learn from this kind of forward-thinking leadership.”

She also felt Australia should be looking to shift towards circular economy strategies to deal with plastics such as container deposit schemes.

Why does Britain need 24 years to eradicate plastic waste?

While both the Boomerang Alliance and Greenpeace commended the UK for taking a stand on plastic waste both felt a 2042 target to stamp it out was too far away.

"Twenty-four years is not an acceptable target – it will be too late as we have already had 50 years of plastic pollution accumulating year on year – we just can’t afford to wait nearly a quarter of a century longer,” Jayne Paramor said.

Ms Foster Vander Elst agreed. “Setting targets so far in advance it is hard to see that (the issue) is being taken as seriously as it should be,” she said.

“Imagine how much more pollution will be in our waters in that time.” 

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