Last week, in one of her first announcements as Environment Secretary, Theresa Villiers was able to share the good news that the country is breaking its single use plastic bag habit. Use of such carrier bags from large supermarkets has dropped by 90 per cent, thanks to the 5p charge brought in by the government in 2015. The precipitous fall, Villiers said, is “a powerful demonstration that we are collectively calling time on being a throwaway society”. But are the reports of the death of the throwaway society premature?
We are still living in a throwaway society
While it is great news that this highly visible and entirely unnecessary waste stream is fast becoming a thing of the past, it is arguably premature to announce the end of the throwaway society altogether. Given the right incentives, people have shown they are often willing to carry their own reusable bags, but, too often, this still isn’t transferring to other areas of their lives.
Take single use water bottles. In a country like the UK, which has universal access to high quality tap water, people shouldn’t normally have to buy bottled water in any sort of single use container. This is especially the case now that free drinking water is readily available on the go thanks to growing numbers of public water fountains, supplemented by tens of thousands of business outlets offering free top ups through apps like Refill.
Despite this, our thirst for bottled water shows no signs of abating. We buy twice as much now as we did 15 years ago. The average UK adult gets through 150 plastic bottles of water every year, and the numbers are steadily increasing, year on year.
And the bottled water market isn’t just growing, it’s also changing, mainly in response to the public backlash against plastic pollution. If bottled water has been predominately packaged in plastic, it’s becoming increasingly easy to buy it in glass bottles, aluminium cans and fibreboard cartons.
It’s not just plastic – all materials have impacts
Although this shift could reduce the amount of plastic used, all the alternatives will also have environmental impacts. Our new research, published today as part of our work programme for the Circular Economy Task Force, demonstrates the environmental impact of simply switching from plastic to other single use materials.
If these containers became even half as common as their plastic counterparts, the impact on the planet could be considerable. These include:
- creating enough toxic waste in the form of highly alkaline ‘red mud’ to fill the Royal Albert Hall six times over each year (if the switch were to aluminium cans);
- resulting in as many emissions as are created by the population of Bath every year (in the case of glass bottles); or
- annually filling nearly 9,000 bin lorries with low quality waste that can’t be recycled back into containers (multilayer cartons).
The only low impact option across the board is reusable containers, which only have to be refilled around 15 times to have a lower carbon impact than single use plastic. And the best news? Tap water is hundreds of times cheaper – a single litre of bottled water costs 65p on average, but that would get you 650 litres of tap.
From a consumer’s economic perspective, then, the case for ditching bottled water is strong. But, despite the green shoots evidenced by the drop in bags, the throwaway society is so entrenched in other areas that it can be difficult to change behaviour for their benefit and the environment. With the right infrastructure in place for a refillable culture, getting rid of unnecessary single use containers for water – in all their guises – should be where people can deliver the next blow to throwaway culture.