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23 October 2018

The last straw: Michael Gove banning plastics is a disingenuous distraction

The crisis facing marine life is far, far bigger than a focus on straws and cotton buds suggests.

By India Bourke

“The straw that broke the camel’s back” is a handy expression, and especially now when it can feel like there are whole straw-fields of problems to run-through (and not in a “naughty” way). But it is totally inappropriate when it comes to solving the world’s plastic problem.

Straws really are a mere drop in the ocean of what needs to be done. The total amount of plastic straws that end up in the ocean annually only account for 0.03 per cent of marine plastic pollution. Straws alone, sadly, are not going to definitively solve, nor break, anything.

Banning them (and plastic cotton buds) within a year, as Michael Gove proposed on Monday with the launch of new public consultation, is a nice gesture – a kind of polite “bring chocolates” when you first meet your partner’s mum.

The best case scenario is that it starts a useful trend of greater state intervention in the wider environmental crisis (carbon emissions need to reach zero by 2050, remember, if we’re to prevent catastrophic levels of global warming).

Far more likely, however, is that the proposal will act as a distraction from the bigger, harder and much more impactful bans that should be on the table – such as saving marine life by extending marine protected areas, or tackling the climate crisis by banning all sales of new petrol and diesel cars by 2032, instead of 2040, as a recent report by a parliamentary committee recommended.

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It is also a disingenuous distraction. By focusing on everyday household items (instead of industrial or workplace plastics, or even food-related packaging), the government is once again placing the pressure of change (and therefore also the insinuation of blame) on the individual consumer. 

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Meanwhile, government cuts are undermining individuals’ good efforts. The Environment Agency, for instance, is presently conducting a major investigation into claims of fraud in the UK’s recycling exports system. New revelations by Greenpeace’s Unearthed and The Daily Telegraph have revealed that three acres of UK waste, standing at almost 10 feet tall, has been illegally dumped outside the Malaysian capital of Kuala Lumpur.

The government must clean up its own act, before it earns the right to brag about cleaning up the seas.