Single-use plastic ban may have unintended consequences
We reached an unacceptable level of discarded ocean plastic long ago. At this point, any plastic that ends up in the ocean is one piece too many.
Bermuda’s government and environmental activists are rightly looking for Bermudians to do their part in reducing any contribution to a global problem. However, the problem is so vast that even if Bermuda eliminated all plastic on the island, we are unlikely to even fractionally impact the amount of plastic on our shores and in our surrounding ocean.
Does this mean we should do nothing? Absolutely not. We should be actively seeking to change and adjust our behaviour in ways that will reduce our reliance on single-use plastic. Decisions need to be made about how much change should we implement and when it should occur.
When discussion first began concerning the ban on single-use plastics, I was concerned, given the sheer number of grocery items that are packaged in them. Ideally, we should get rid of all single-use plastic; however, we do not live in an ideal world.
Bermuda should not move faster in this area of environmental protection than the supporting industries, no matter how noble the cause. And the world is starting this process. Initial discussions in Bermuda indicated that the initiative to reduce single-use plastics would focus on items such as single-use plastic shopping bags, takeout food packaging, straws and utensils. Many of these items are already shifting away from plastic worldwide, as there are beneficial alternatives in the market already. However, the ban is expanding to include other plastic items that do not have acceptable substitutes. If we prohibit these items, we may see a positive effect in the reduction of single-use plastic but negative effects in other areas.
Moving faster than the technology allows will result in the unintended and undesirable consequences of higher prices and reduced selection of goods. By eliminating certain uses of plastic, we will essentially eradicate those products in Bermuda. Alternatives will be more costly or non-existent. In certain circumstances, we need to wait until industry leaders change as well, and that may take a long time if we are the only country implementing these restrictions. We are far too small to dictate to the market.
Ultimately, we need to know: does the positive outweigh the negative? In some cases, yes! In others, probably not. Here are some examples to highlight the complex nature of these decisions.
Under the new policy, polystyrene trays will become a thing of the past. While there are alternative products such as bamboo and other environmentally friendly trays, they are not even close to being an equal or better replacement. They cost much more than the polystyrene tray, and this cost will be passed along to the consumer. Nor do they perform as well as the polystyrene tray. The environmental trays last only a day when used as a meat container. As a result, there are extra labour and tray costs involved when it has to be repackaged the next day. Once at home, consumers will most likely use ziplock bags in a single-use way to prevent the blood and germs of fresh meat from contaminating their refrigerator.
We also use polystyrene trays in the produce department. While many produce items do not seem to need packaging, there certainly are reasons for the practice and benefits that result from it. Packaging produce protects it from the elements and excessive handling. Warm, humid air enters the store and causes produce deterioration. Additionally, customers consistently touch produce, causing it to break down faster. Packaging helps in both these instances and reduces the shrink of the product.
“Shrink” is a grocery industry term used to describe the process of deterioration of produce or meat that necessitates the disposal of the product. As shrink rises, we need to order more produce to meet customer demand. We already order full containers of produce, so, to account for a greater amount of shrink, we may need to order two containers instead. This will require more labour and fossil fuels in bringing the container to Bermuda. While we may save labour money by not packaging the produce, we certainly spend more to cover the shrink waste; once again, customers will pay more for their produce. Clearly, the decision to ban an item such as a polystyrene tray is more complex than it may appear to be at first glance.
There are several factors to consider when switching from plastic bags to paper bags. Perhaps surprisingly, paper bags have the larger carbon footprint of the two. A small and compact case of plastic bags contains 1,000 bags and comes on a pallet of 40 cases. One pallet of plastic bags supplies 40,000 bags, a quantity that lasts about six weeks. Paper bags take up a great deal more shipping space. In fact, 20,000 paper bags fill a 20-foot container by themselves. More shipping and more trucking is required for paper bags. The carbon footprint of manufacturing and shipping paper bags exceeds the carbon footprint of single-use plastic bags.
While the carbon footprint for plastic bags is smaller, there still is the problem of disposal of the less biodegradable option. People use the plastic bags for recycling. If they do not have these as options, they may purchase more recycling bags, and plastic bags still end up in the environment. Also, if the bags are disposed of properly, they should end up in the incinerator where they will contribute to the generation of electricity. However, they are still plastic and not perfect.
Do the benefits of a lower carbon footprint and extra function as recycling bags outweigh the potential for these bags to cause harm to the environment? A trade-off exists that needs to be examined carefully. The best solution is for everyone to bring their own bags. There is some good news here! The majority of consumers do bring their own bags to grocery shop.
Plastic water and beverage bottles
Banning plastic water and beverage bottles will decimate the Bermudian beverage industry. At least 90 per cent of the beverage industry products are packaged in plastic bottles. Clearly, eliminating these products would result in a serious realignment for the beverage supply companies. They will need to find glass-bottle replacements for the market.
Do these even exist for the various sizes and varieties? They will be certainly more expensive to ship to Bermuda owing to their weight. And what will we do with the glass bottles afterwards? Can our recycling facility handle a sudden increase in glass recycling? While other ways to deal with this exist, such as reopening the soft-drink bottling industries of the past, which stopped, ironically, because of increased expenses, this is probably a situation that Bermuda needs to wait for the worldwide industry to solve first.
Similarly, water, in large plastic bottles, is essential during and after a hurricane, an event that occurs with relative frequency in Bermuda. While I know that the discussion paper makes a provision for the importation of plastic water bottles in a case of emergency and for disaster recovery, it will be days before they are actually on the island. Can you imagine having no running water and no plastic bottles of water readily available for drinking and cooking? Dipping buckets into tanks can be done, but the quality of the water may be unsafe after a storm and people may not feel confident drinking it. Additionally, in the aftermath of recent hurricanes in our sister islands, plastic water bottles were critical in the recovery effort.
Decisions about these issues are complicated, impacting both the environment and the economy in many different ways. All initiatives have an opportunity cost associated with them. The issue needs to be looked at carefully. We need to answer several questions before moving forward.
Most importantly, what falls under the single-use plastic umbrella? Surprisingly, coffee K-cups would become a thing of the past. Additionally, plastic trash bags are technically single-use. Are they included? Separating one category of plastic bag from another would require modifications to the tariff tables and each store’s customs clearance documents. This takes time. Consideration when making this law needs to include information and time given to the wholesalers and retailers of the island. We cannot have a repeat of the implementation of the sugar tax where they were given one day to change all of the paperwork.
While I firmly believe in protecting the environment — and my company has often led the way in terms of reusable shopping bags and solar power — we should not try to move faster than the manufacturing industries. As a small country, both in size and in purchasing power, companies will not change just to keep our business. However, when new technologies and environmentally friendly products are introduced, Bermuda will benefit by default.
In the meantime, we certainly should seek to minimise our single-use plastics by using appropriate alternatives when available and also by ensuring that we dispose of our plastic trash correctly.
• Zach Moniz is a manager at Lindo’s Group of Companies