The latest initiative in the war on waste focuses on single-use plastic. From the Big Two supermarkets journey to rid themselves of plastic bags, to people refusing straws to ‘save the turtles’, single-use plastic has been a hot topic the past few months.
One look at the Great Pacific Garbage Patch (GPGP), the largest conglomeration of plastic waste in the oceans today, shows how timely it is to address this issue. There are more than 1.8 trillion pieces of plastic in the GPGP, weighing in at about 80,000 tonnes, or 500 jumbo jets worth of plastic, and reaching to a depth of 2.75 meters.
Society does not make it easy to limit our consumption of single-use plastics. From take away food, straws, and food packaging to shampoo bottles, toothbrushes, and razors, it is a challenge to avoid plastic. Just take notice of the amount of single use plastic you use in any 24 hours. Multiply this by the 7.2 billion people on the Earth, remembering plastics can take up to 1,000 years to decompose.
Yet local government has an important role to play in protecting our land, oceans, wildlife, and future generations from the adverse effects of plastic pollution.
There are proven ways to make society less prone to producing plastic waste. For example, Washington DC implemented a 5 cent per bag tax on plastic bags in 2009. All monies raised go to a river clean up and protection initiative along with distributing reusable bags to low-income communities and the elderly. Before 2009 a staggering 22.5 million single use plastic bags were consumed every month. Today that figure is 3.3 million bags per month and falling.
Californian cities, such as San Francisco and San Luis Obispo, have taken this one step further. Their policies completely ban plastic bags and place an additional 10 cent fee on single-use compostable or recycled bags if customers need them.
Developing countries, traditionally more vulnerable to the impacts of plastic pollution, have gone as far as extending the ban on plastic bags to both distributors and producers. Manufacturers are banned from producing single-use plastics beyond bags with jail time or hefty fines for those caught disobeying the law.
While that may be extreme for local governments in Australia, these sorts of responses show the magnitude and seriousness of the problem.
Local governments taking action against single-use plastics will see benefits beyond the obvious reduction of litter and harm on wildlife. Councils will spend less tax money on picking up litter, enhance the economy through increased business and employment opportunities with reusable bag manufacturers, and improve the efficiency of drainage infrastructure that is no longer clogged by plastic litter, among other benefits.
Local government has a clear choice to make for their communities - either play a pivotal role in this plastic revolution or fall behind. The time to act is now, before irreparable damage to our shared environment is done and before cities are forced to develop and build for growing populations on top of mounds of plastic.
Leigh Osterhus, Program Coordinator
Cities Leadership Institute