Social Policy on Single-Use Plastics and Microbeads
Social policy relates to the social arrangements that affect people’s everyday life. Policymaking aims at establishing collective solutions to problems affecting people in their everyday lives. Policymaking is a concerted action, which entails the collaboration of various bodies or authorities. It may involve the local communities and authorities or even the national government. The development of social policies is influenced by various factors such as influence of politics, lobbying by various interest groups such as private organizations, public interests, and among others. In Australia, there has been efforts by various groups to ban single-use plastic bags and the application of microbeads in the production of beauty products. The main contention is that non-biodegradable plastic materials contributes towards environmental pollution, reaching worrying levels. Policymakers have proposed plans to ban the single-use plastic bags in shopping, recommending the adoption of thicker plastic bags and total elimination of microbeads in manufacturing.
Social need identified by evidence based research
There is need for the Australian government to develop legislation relating to single-use plastic bags and microbeads. Numerous studies indicate that the use of plastic bags is harmful not only to the marine environment but also to the terrestrial ecosystem. The current accumulation of plastics in both the marine and terrestrial ecosystems has become an issue of global concern (Xanthos & Walker, 2017; Green, Boots, Blockley, Rocha, & Thompson, 2015). According to Xanthos and Walker (2017), an approximately 5.25 trillion plastic particles are currently floating in the sea. The duo further estimates that in 2010, over 4.8 megatons of plastics ended up in the oceans globally. Further, plastic debris make up about 60 to 80 percent of ocean litter. Plastics and microbeads have lifespans extending to hundreds and even thousands of years. Plastics affect the marine species in several ways. First, plastic debris entangles marine species leading to suffocation, infection, starvation, and other harms. The second way it affects marine life is through ingestion. Turtles often ingest plastics, which affects their health and reproduction (Xanthos & Walker, 2017). Microbeads pose a serious threat to the entire food chain. Since microbeads are small in size, marine organisms ingest them whereby they accumulate in their bodies. The microbeads find their way up the food chain to humans who feed on fish that have ingested the microbeads. Another concern is that plastic bags are an eyesore in the environment. Some end up blocking the drainage system.
Political and Ideological view points
In the recent past, there has been a rise in calls for development of a robust policy framework to control the manufacture and use plastic bags and microbeads. Besides the enactment of appropriate legislation, some manufacturers as well as major supermarket chains in the country have shown their effort to support their ban or regulation of plastics and microbeads. In 2016, major beauty product manufacturers, Woolworths and Coles, announced their plans to phase out the manufacture of products having microbeads (Browne, 2016). The commitment to eliminate the use of microbeads in beauty products comes after the United States passed legislation banning the use of microbeads in beauty products. The phase out plan by the two companies comes after understanding of the danger posed by microbeads. The tiny plastic particles enter the sewerage system after they are washed off the body. From there, they end up in oceans where they undergo ingestion by marine organisms. A number of multinational companies have also banned the use of microbeads. These include Unilever, Johnson & Johnson, and Beiersdorf. This shows a commitment by product manufacturers to reduce environmental pollution.
The political climate in Australia is increasingly leaning towards the ban on use of plastic bags and microbeads. Some states have already made elaborate plans to ban the use of plastics. Queensland, for instance, has made a commitment to ban plastics by 2018. A key concern by the state government in its plans to ban the use of plastics is achieving public support. Public support is critical to ensure that the proposed bill will pass into law. Surprisingly, the state government has received immense support from Queenslanders to ban the manufacture of single-use plastic bans in the region. According to Caldwell 2017, the state government received over 26,000 submissions from locals to go ahead with plans to ban the use of plastic bags. In all states, more consumers are increasingly in favour of banning the single-use plastic bags. This overwhelming support is a clear indication that majority of the citizens understand the overarching concerns posed by continued use of plastic bags.
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In the state of Victoria, various environmental groups have presented petitions to parliament in a bid to have a ban on plastics in place. Environmental groups such as Plastic Bag Free Victoria and Greenpeace have been vocal in calling for a ban on single-use plastic bags. Plastic Bag Free Victoria group has received overwhelming support from locals in signing the petition presented to parliament in late 2016 (“Australian Broadcasting Corporation (ABC)”, 2016). This group collected 11,000 signatures from the locals. The Greenpeace environmental group has collected over 10,000 signatures. These environmental groups maintain that plastic bags remained the greatest threat to marine life. They are also an eyesore in the environment since they take long to decompose. According to the Plastic Bag Free Victoria website, an average plastic bag has only about 12 minutes lifespan, yet can remain in the environment for about 1000 years. As such, the disadvantages of plastic bags far outweigh the advantage due to their long lifespan.
The Plastic Bag Free Victoria organization argues that placing a ban on limited-use plastic bags could be the ultimate solution to the plastic problem in the country. The groups calls for introduction of reusable bags, which can last for a relatively longer period and carry more goods. Reusable bags are made from environmentally friendly materials such as cotton, hemp, jute, and among others which have a lesser negative impact on the environment. While Victoria and Queensland are in the early stages of enacting legislation on plastics, some states have already enacted legislation limiting the use of plastic bags. Tasmania and South Australia have successfully enacted laws regulating the use of plastic bags, along with the introduction of reusable bags. In Tasmania, there was a ban on lightweight plastic bags, with a focus on introducing thick reusable plastic bags. However, consumers and retailers still prefer the thicker plastic bags since they are cheaper than the biodegradable shopping bags (Walker, 2014). This means that pollution resulting from the thicker plastic bags is likely to continue. In Southern Australia, single-use plastic bags are still in use due to lack of political will to implement the ban.
Various territories have shown efforts to curb the manufacture and use of plastic bags. The Australian Capital Territory (ACT) and Northern Territory have already proposed laws to ban plastic bags and use of microbeads in manufacture of beauty products. In 2011, ACT enacted a legislation banning single-use plastic bags. The legislation also encouraged shoppers to carry their own shopping bags. In the period following the ban, there was a significant reduction in the volume of single-use plastics bags ending up in landfills. In ACT, there has been lack of political will to enforce the ban on single-use plastics. This has led to an increase in the use of all types of plastic bags. An attempt by the federal government to ban single-use plastic bags was rejected after states refused to embrace the idea. Peter Garret, a formal environment minister, had proposed a legislation seeking to ban single-use plastic bags in Australia (Herffernan, 2017).
Some factions feel that placing a ban on single-use plastic bans is not a viable solution to the environmental pollution problem. In particular, a switch to biodegradable bags may not solve the landfill problem that the country faces. This is because at landfill sites, biodegradable materials may take long to decay due to lack of oxygen (“ABC”, 2016. Piling of materials in landfills prevents the free circulation of oxygen, slowing the rate of decay. Thus, banning single-use plastic bags might not be the solution to the pollution problem. Although most consumers support the ban on single-use plastic bags, they are yet to embrace the culture of using reusable or biodegradable bags. It is worth noting that in most states with single-use plastic bag ban, consumers still have access to heavy plastic bags since the states allow them. The heavy plastic bags have a relatively shorter durability, which means they still end up in landfills or environment within a shorter period of use.
How politics has informed social policy on the issue
Politics has played a major role in shaping the issue concerning single-use plastic bags and microbeads. In the recent past, the Federal Government has increased efforts encouraging states and territory governments to voluntary commit towards phasing out the single-use plastic bags. In addition, the Federal Governments is encouraging product manufacturers to eliminate the use of microbeads. The Australian Government has shown its commitment to eradicate the single-use plastic bag menace. The government has increasingly called on the state, territorial and Commonwealth to push for bans on single-use plastic bags and microbeads (Hunt, 2016). The environment ministry has issued warnings that failure to voluntarily phase out plastics by 1st July of the current year will lead to action by the Federal Government. The Federal Government has also set aside $60,000 to promote research and development into the key sources of plastic waste.
Indeed, the stance by the Federal Government on banning of single-use plastic bags and microbeads has caught the attention of state governments, with majority enacting legislation to cover the same. The New South Wales Government (NSW) was the first state to enact a law banning the use of microbeads in manufacturing (Hunt, 2016). The NSW government is also sponsoring research into effective methods of dealing with the plastic menace. The state of Queensland is currently developing laws that will see a ban effected on single-use plastic bags and microbeads. According to the Department of Environment and Heritage Protection (EHP) (2017), the government is taking action to ensure that there is reduction in pollution from plastic bags. The proposed solutions include banning single-use plastic bags and implementing a refund scheme targeting beverage containers.
Majority of states and territory governments have enacted laws banning the manufacture and sale of lightweight single-use plastic bags (“EHP,” 2017). This means that heavy plastic bags are still in production. The move is set to increase the reusability of the heavy plastic bags since consumers can use them for more than a single occasion. However, the heavy plastic bags still pose a significant challenge on the environment. The Australian Government is still looking for ways of engaging states and territory governments to eliminate heavier plastic bags. Some states such as Northern Territory and Southern Australia have developed schemes for reducing plastic waste by encouraging recycling. A popular scheme involves establishment of container collection points. These are locations consumers can drop-off used plastic containers for a small refund (“EHP”, 2017). The state of Queensland have made plans to establish a container collection point by 2018.
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In Southern Australia, parliament has upheld the use of single-use plastic bags on numerous occasions. In 2015, for instance, the Legislative Council passed a motion allowing the use of single-use plastic bags in the state. In 2013, Fremantle town council had passed a motion banning the use of plastic bags. However, the Upper House of Parliament overturned the motion. There were also divisions among various political parties, which made it difficult to pass the law. In 2017, the call for a ban on single-use plastic bags seems to be headed in the right course. This is after the ban on plastic bags received overwhelming support from all state councils. The councils voted unanimously in a survey by Western Australia’s Local Government Association. Nonetheless, the state’s environment department maintains that the state government does not have any intention to regulate the sale or manufacture of plastic bags.
Western Australian Labour asserts that a state-wide approach in banning the use of plastic bags might not be a good solution. Instead, it recommends that councils should implement individual bans in various places. Western Australia has 32 councils responding to the survey on banning of single-use plastic bags. Currently, five councils are against a plastic ban by the state. These councils either prefer an alternative route to the problem or do not consider single-use plastic bags as a major environmental issue. The political climate in Western Australia seems to be in favour of the continued use of single-use plastic bags and microbeads. The political antagonism between various councils and other bodies such as parliament have prevented the establishment of a unanimous solution to the problem. The lack of support from key political players such as the State Government through the Department of Environment Regulation clearly indicates the lack of the government’s will to eliminate the use of plastic bags.
Some states have introduced fines to deter retailers from packing products using lightweight plastic bags. In Tasmania, parliament introduced a ban on lightweight plastic bags in 2013. This ban covers plastic bags with a thickness of less than 35 microns (“Environment Protection Agency (EPA),” 2013). The major goal of this ban is to reduce waste and the litter stream emanating from plastics. However, this ban does not cover the use of plastic bags used in the packaging of products such as bread, meat, fruits, and other foodstuffs. Tasmania aims at reducing single-use plastic bags that are often used in carrying goods from the point of sale to homes. These plastic bags have the shortest lifespan and end up as litter stream. Under Tasmania laws, retailers hold the responsibility to ensure that they package goods bought by customers in required plastic bags, failure to which they face fines. The Environment Protection Authority in Australia is producing commercials to inform consumers and retailers about the plastic ban in order to improve cooperation. The commercials also encourage consumers to carry reusable bags for shopping.
The Australian Standard 4736 of 2006 represents an effort by the Federal government to regulate the use of plastic bags in the region. The aim of the standard is to help various authorities in regulating plastic materials produced or imported into the country. However, this standard does not ban the use of single-use plastic bags, meaning that Australia has largely retained the practice of single-use plastic bags. There is need for a more comprehensive standard that can help in regulating single-use plastic bags and microbeads across all states and various territory. The government has made plans to ban single-use plastics and microbeads in the region by June. It will be interesting to see how the government effects this policy across the entire states and territories.
The continued use of single-use plastic bags and microbeads has become an issue of global concern owing to environmental pollution. Single-use plastic bags accumulate on land whereby they block drainage system or become litter on streets. Some of this waste ends up in oceans, where it forms over 60% of ocean litter. Microbeads used in beauty products are washed into drainage systems where they end up in oceans. Fishes and other marine life ingest microbeads resulting into bioaccumulation. Human beings also ingest microbeads when they consume fish. Various states and territories have enacted laws regulating single-use plastic bags and microbeads. However, there is lack of concerted action to enforce these laws. In addition, majority of these states still allow the production of thick plastic bags. Although consumers can use the bags on more than one occasion, they still end up in landfills and oceans. There is need for the Federal Government to enact a uniform law that applies across the entire region.
Australian Broadcasting Corporation (ABC). (2016, Aug. 17). Plastic bag ban petition delivered to Victorian Parliament. Retrieved from http://www.abc.net.au/news/2016-08-17/plastic- bag-ban-petition-delivered-to-parliament-of-victoria/7751006
Australian Standard. (2006). Biodegradable plastics—Biodegradable plastics suitable for composting and other microbial treatment. Retrieved from https://www.saiglobal.com/pdftemp/previews/osh/as/as4000/4700/4736-2006.pdf
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Xanthos, D., & Walker, T. R. (2017). International policies to reduce plastic marine pollution from single-use plastics (plastic bags and microbeads): A review. Marine Pollution Bulletin, doi:10.1016/j.marpolbul.2017.02.048