According to the United Nations Environment Programme (2018), the impact of single-use plastic has had a devastating effect on our oceans, landfill, and our health, yet despite this, plastic use remains a significant problem. Single-use plastic refers to a plastic that is disposable, where its intention is to be used only once before it is thrown away (Giacovelli, 2018). Typically, it refers to cups, plastic bags, straws, cutlery, water bottles, and food packaging. Of the plastic discarded, 79% has either ended up in landfills or the natural environment (Rhodes, 2018). Consequently, there are numerous initiatives designed to phase out the use of plastic. Some include replacing its material with eco-friendly alternatives that are biodegradable, compostable or able to be recycled, however, these alternatives inevitably still end up in landfill (Schultz, 2017). A better option may be to remove the necessity for single-use plastic altogether by using reusable products.
Much of the available research on reducing plastic use suggests that banning plastic has been effective; however, a study at the University of Vermont evaluated the implications of removing bottled water on campus with the expectation that it would reduce the number of plastic bottles used (Berman & Johnson, 2015). The results revealed despite the university encouraging students to bring reusable bottles, and using educational campaigns to give notice of the policy changes; there was an increase of sugary, less healthy beverages sold. These findings significantly demonstrate that the total number of plastic bottles used did not change, students simply chose alternative drinks, also sold in plastic bottles and therefore, we should take precautions with bans because they can produce adverse outcomes. As this study was limited because data was only collected was over a short period, further research woulddone to determine if changing behaviour requires a longer timeframe, and whether changing habits (remembering to bring own reusable water bottles) make a difference. Interestingly, these results are in contrast to Mikhailovich & Fitzgerald’s (2014) study of banned plastic water bottles on another campus. These results saw a slight increase to students refilling their own washable bottles but also found that some students drank less water entirely while other students chose to purchase their plastic drink bottles off campus before arriving. The ban also raised concerns that while water bottles were banned, unhealthy drinks in plastic bottles were not and that some consumers opposed the ban due to the fact it forgoes their right to purchase bottled water. This research is significant as it was conducted on the first university in Australia to ban plastic water bottle usage and importantly demonstrates that, while a ban can result in positive outcomes, negative ones exist also. One of the weaknesses to this study is that it was done as a survey which looks at self-reported behaviour rather than observations of actual behaviour. Since self-reporting methods are prone to biases such as socially desirable responding, results need to be interpreted with caution when concluding. Additionally, the survey responses were voluntary and only resulted in 7.8% of the school population so is unlikely to represent the opinions of the majority of the university population.
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Another way that attempts are being made to reduce plastic use is by adding a cost or a tax to the consumption of it. (Jakovcevic, Steg, Mazzeo, Caballero, Franco, Putrino & Favara (2014) conducted a study in Argentina that determined that when the policy to ban single-use plastic bags was implemented and a charge imposed for the purchase of alternative plastic bags, there was an increase in consumers bringing reusable bags to shop with. This conclusion tells us that consumers are motivated by cost and complied with the policy purely due to opposing the financial costs to purchase alternative bags. (Rivers, Shenstone-Harris, & Young (2017) support this finding concluding there was a 95% reduction in plastic bag use upon the implementation of a plastic bag tax in Ireland and 53% in Toronto after a levy was imposed. Using charges as a tool to change behaviour, however, may see consumers align with the policy only to avoid paying a fee. It may also raise awareness of the plastic waste issue but ultimately people are motivated financially, not intrinsically to do what serves the environment (Poortinga & Whitaker, 2018). This research further illustrates that change may be possible if initially prompted by a change in policy but is also limited as it was only conducted on the use of plastic cups. Poortinga & Whitaker (2018) continue, that while education, provision of alternatives and implementing a tax were moderately effective to encourage the use of reusable cups, providing a discount for reusable cups did not increase the number of consumers choosing to use a reusable cup. It suggested that a charge might be more successful than a discount as a charge may imply that bringing a reusable mug is the norm and the default expectation. This supports the prospect theory that people are more sensitive to losses than gains when making decisions.
The United Nations produced a document titled, SINGLE-USE PLASTICS: A Roadmap for Sustainability that analysed case studies from countries around the world to determine environmental conclusions on the impact of bans, taxes or levies. The research concluded that in 50% of cases there is no available data on the impact, in 30% it reduced consumption or pollution but that there had been no to little impact on the remaining 20%. This conclusion illustrates that there is not yet sufficient information available to draw any firm conclusions as to the effectiveness of any of these initiatives. Importantly, however, the document suggests voluntary reduction strategies as an alternative as they provide consumers with time to get used to changing their consumption behaviour by building long-lasting change instead of implementing sudden forced changes in the market. Beitzen-Heineke, Balta-Ozkan & Reefke (2017) studied stores across Europe that have completely renounced single-use plastic. This early research suggests that this initiative may cause consumers and suppliers to behave in a more resourceful way, however, as the stores have not been trading long, there has been no long-term analysis of the outcomes. While this study looked at retail stores, further research should be conducted on similar reduction strategies to ascertain its effectiveness if implemented in a university setting.
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The Plastic Pollution Coalition’s document, Better Alternatives Now states that there are restaurants, grocers and food outlets who provide reusable containers, where deposits are made to enable them to come back to stores, and discounts given for bringing take-away containers. Whilst no research has been conducted on this recent initiative, it demonstrates a positive shift in business offerings. The down-side to using portable reusable products, however, is the inconvenience of having to cart them around (Chang, 2015). To take a reusable stainless-steel water bottle, a keep-cup, cutlery, and reusable container is annoying, even more so when they are empty. In Chang’s (2015) study concerning reusable water bottle use, over 80% reported that portability was the main factor as to why they didn’t take re-usable products with them. Poortinga & Whitaker’s (2018) research document, Promoting the Use of Reusable Coffee Cups through Environmental Messaging, the Provision of Alternatives and Financial Incentives used a variety of measures to examine the most effective way to promote and increase the use of reusable coffee cups. Results determined that free reusable alternatives in combination with financial incentives are particularly successful and that with the right interventions and institutional commitment, small changes in behaviour can change a culture and be more effective in the long-term.
While there are many new developments in place and being implemented, available research as to the effectiveness of the outcomes is limited as most of the literature relates specifically to plastic bags or coffee cups. This deduction is likely because both plastic bag and coffee cup usage has accounted for most of the single-use plastic waste (Beitzen-Heineke et al., 2017). Initiatives that are addressing other types of single-use plastic products are currently under-way, but it is too soon for research to have been conducted to determine the impact or provide any results. Further research is necessary to explore the possibility of implementing processes for campuses to make it easy for students to store utensils, without having to bring them each day and a deposit system where students are encouraged to return reusable containers. Further exploration into volunteer reduction strategies to shift behaviour away from the need to use plastic and make reusable ware available instead, is necessary for long-term permanent change.
- Beitzen-Heineke, E. F., Balta-Ozkan, N., & Reefke, H. (2017). The prospects of zero-packaging grocery stores to improve the social and environmental impacts of the food supply chain. Journal of Cleaner Production, 140, 1528-1541. doi:10.1016/j.jclepro.2016.09.227
- Berman, E. R., & Johnson, R. K. (2015). The Unintended Consequences of Changes in Beverage Options and the Removal of Bottled Water on a University Campus. American journal of public health, 105(7), 1404-1408. doi:10.2105/AJPH.2015.302593
- Chang, C. (2015). A Study on the Social and the Environmental Impacts of Bottled Water & A Design Solution to Improve the User Experience of Reusable Water Bottles Thesis. Rochester Institute of Technology. https://scholarworks.rit.edu/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?article=9869&context=theses Accessed on 27 October 2018.
- Jakovcevic, A., Steg, L., Mazzeo, N., Caballero, R., Franco, P., Putrino, N., & Favara, J. (2014). Charges for plastic bags: Motivational and behavioral effects. Journal of Environmental Psychology, 40, 372-380. doi:10.1016/j.jenvp.2014.09.004
- Giacovelli, C. (2018). Single-Use Plastics. A Roadmap for Sustainability. Retrieved from https://www.euractiv.com/wp-content/uploads/sites/2/2018/06/WED-REPORT-SINGLE-USE-PLASTICS.pdf?fbclid=IwAR0g5zEOuPIQx-08qgLFKVu0TmlLE4MOR2yIu8TkNv8URbAg4NO6o8gAShM. Accessed on 17 October 2018
- Mikhailovich, K., & Fitzgerald, R. (2014). Community responses to the removal of bottled water on a university campus. International Journal of Sustainability in Higher Education, 15(3), 330-342. doi:10.1108/IJSHE-08-2012-0076
- Plastic Pollution Coalition. Better Alternatives Now Retrieved from https://static1.squarespace.com/static/5522e85be4b0b65a7c78ac96/t/5acbd346562fa79982b268fc/1523307375028/5Gyres_BANlist2.pdf accessed 17 October 2018
- Poortinga, W., & Whitaker, L. (2018). Promoting the Use of Reusable Coffee Cups through Environmental Messaging, the Provision of Alternatives and Financial Incentives. SUSTAINABILITY, 10(3), 873. doi:10.3390/su10030873
- Rhodes, C. J. (2018). Plastic pollution and potential solutions. Science progress, 101(3), 207-260. doi:10.3184/003685018X15294876706211
- Rivers, N., Shenstone-Harris, S., & Young, N. (2017). Using nudges to reduce waste? The case of Toronto’s plastic bag levy. Journal of Environmental Management, 188, 153-162. doi:10.1016/j.jenvman.2016.12.009
- Schultz, S. (2017). Reducing plastic pollution. Alternatives Journal, 43(2), 68-69. Retrieved from http://libproxy.murdoch.edu.au/login?url=https://search-proquest-com.libproxy.murdoch.edu.au/docview/1986554293?accountid=12629
- United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) (2018). SINGLE-USE PLASTICS: A Roadmap for Sustainability
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