China’s ban on single-use plastics may signal shift from single-use to reuse

Last week was a huge week for the plastic pollution movement. China passed a landmark economy-wide ban on single-use plastic. Starbucks pledged to pilot reusable cups over the next year and set a stronger goal for more reusable packaging. Following from their successful lawsuit, activists in Texas began enforcing a precedent-setting standard requiring Formosa Plastics - one of the biggest polluters in the Gulf South - to have zero discharge into surrounding waterways. And UCLA became one of the largest universities in the world to begin phasing out single-use plastics.

These victories and others show a continuing worldwide trend of action responding to public concern. In the United States, a recent nationwide survey showed that ⅔ of Americans are either “very concerned or extremely concerned” about plastic in the ocean. And what’s really interesting is that 80 percent said - if they were given the option to buy goods that don’t use single-use plastic - that they would.

And we’re seeing governments around the world, and companies large and small, reacting to this information by scrambling to find solutions. But the big challenge is that there is a tremendous amount of confusion as to what is actually going to solve the problem:

  • Is it more recycling?
  • Bioplastics?
  • What about compostable packaging?

And if you’re a purchaser of a lot of single-use plastic - like a concert hall, a college campus or a sports stadium - how do you know what strategies are actually going to move the needle? And if you’re a politician, how do you know what policies are actually going to make a difference?

Meanwhile, there are big commercial interests pushing for band-aid solutions like better recycling, or to harness the public’s outrage over single-use plastics and push it to single-use something else. Mostly compostable packaging or bioplastics – both of which require more energy, water and toxic chemicals to produce than single-use plastics. So out of the frying pan into the fire.

Yuan Chang, a Beijing-based plastics campaigner for Greenpeace East Asia captures this concern around the new China plastics ban. “The only thing is we’re not sure how they’re going to make this whole huge plan happen—and we’re worried maybe they’ll simply switch from one type of single-use plastic to another.”

But the good news is that for the first time in the last 40 years of reduce, reuse, recycle, we now have a movement to focus on the first two Rs instead of just recycling. And while many people saw China’s ban on accepting our low-value plastic recyclables as a threat, at UPSTREAM, we saw it as an opportunity to refocus the public’s attention and the attention of business and policy makers on getting people what they want without all the waste – in designing and building an economy built on real and reusable rather than single-use throw-away stuff.

And it’s happening right now.  All across the United States, city governments are beginning to focus on policies that can meaningfully reduce waste on the front end - instead of just trying to manage it at the end of the pipe. We developed a model ordinance that makes sit-down dining throw-away-free (no more single-use when dining-in), paving the way for reuse businesses to tackle to-go. And today - versions of the ordinance have passed in Berkeley, San Anselmo, Watsonville, and Santa Cruz, California. It’s been introduced in San Francisco (and in communities all over the Bay Area), Los Angeles and New York City, and many other cities across the United States are considering it.

Given the public’s attention on this issue - if we only move from single-use plastic to other single-use products, we will not have accomplished very much. But if we can seize this moment and shift from single-use to reuse, we will have rolled back the throw-away society and created something better in its place.

"As Chang said in regards to China’s single-use plastics ban, “The ultimate solution is to move from a throw-away culture to a reusable one.”