Wake up daily to our latest coverage of business done better, directly in your inbox.


Get your weekly dose of analysis on rising corporate activism.


The best of solutions journalism in the sustainability space, published monthly.

Select Newsletter

By signing up you agree to our privacy policy. You can opt out anytime.

Leon Kaye headshot

As Plastic Bag Bans Catch On, Plastic Bottles Are Now the Biggest Threat to Oceans

By Leon Kaye
As plastic bag bans continue to roll out worldwide and more countries consider banning all single-use plastics, be prepared to witness another wave of bans as evidence suggests plastic bottles are now more of a threat to oceans and waterways than plastic bags. 

As plastic bag bans continue to roll out worldwide and more countries consider banning all single-use plastics, be prepared to witness another wave of bans as evidence suggests plastic bottles are now more of a threat to oceans and waterways than plastic bags. 

Plastic bag bans continue to roll out worldwide, with some penalties rather fierce, and data suggests that they're working—at least with respect to curbing litter. Meanwhile, some countries are considering legislation to ban all single-use plastics. As evidence mounts of the ecosystem damages associated with plastic pollution, this trend is likely to continue. 

Case in point: In Europe, where many countries have bag bans on the books, plastic bottles are now more of a threat to oceans and waterways than plastic bags, according to a joint report from Earthwatch Europe and Plastic Oceans U.K. The organizations reviewed nine studies undertaken across Europe to arrive at their conclusions.

This particular report zoomed in on the types of plastic trash found in European rivers and other freshwater ecosystems. And such a focus is important, because while many of us have long known about the ocean plastics pollution crisis, the fact is that most of this garbage has flowed in via rivers and waterways worldwide—which is one reason why that trash you see on the beach on one continent may very well have originated on another.

Furthermore, while this study concentrated on Europe, the lessons for consumers and businesses can be applied globally: waste less, offer new ideas.

If there is any good news coming out of this report, it is that plastic bag bans appear to be working. Of the 10 types of microplastics found in European bodies of freshwater and waterways, only 1 percent has their origins in plastic bags. But plastic bottles were the biggest offender, according to the report, with 14 percent of microplastics traced to this source. Coming in second was food wrappers (12 percent) and cigarette butts (9 percent). Other types of plastic mentioned included food takeaway containers, cotton bud sticks and cups.

For consumers, the takeaways are fairly obvious—bring your reusable water bottle along with you for that hike, and don’t forget that hot beverage container when visiting your favorite coffee shop. And for heaven’s sake, trash bins are located on street corners for a reason.

But for other behaviors long ingrained in consumers, other bits of advice will take some getting used to—for example, as in taking your own containers to your favorite take-out place instead of using a restaurant’s disposable options. In big cities especially, residents are accustomed to ordering take-out or having their favorite grub delivered. Local regulations could very well frown on such a change, even if a restaurant chain was bold enough to roll out the most innovative reusable container program imaginable for their entrees.

The report acknowledges the moves made by companies and consumers alike that have helped curb the behaviors that have led to the massive inflow of plastics reaching our oceans. But the authors also pin much of the responsibility on companies:

“Members of the public also appear motivated to make a change, yet are faced with a bewildering array of ‘environmentally-friendly’ products and suggestions to improve the sustainability of their day to day actions,” Earthwatch and Plastic Oceans U.K. concluded. 

Point taken: Even if those favorite food or personal care products help to alleviate poverty abroad or are made with sustainable or more responsible ingredients, if companies are tucking them into a single-use plastic container or consumers are sipping them with a plastic straw, they are still contributing to a long-term problem.

The reality of plastic pollution is daunting; but the good news is that we are seeing more ideas that together can tackle this problem. A startup introducing zero-waste, reusable packaging for popular consumer products is one idea; 100 percent zero-waste supermarkets may never become reality, but they can offer retailers some novel suggestions for the near future. What’s clear is that companies have to push the envelope on sustainability even further, going beyond the phaseout of plastic bags. The good news is that consumers increasingly are comfortable with these new ways of doing business.

Image credit: Mali Maeder/Pexels

Leon Kaye headshot

Leon Kaye has written for 3p since 2010 and become executive editor in 2018. His previous work includes writing for the Guardian as well as other online and print publications. In addition, he's worked in sales executive roles within technology and financial research companies, as well as for a public relations firm, for which he consulted with one of the globe’s leading sustainability initiatives. Currently living in Central California, he’s traveled to 70-plus countries and has lived and worked in South Korea, the United Arab Emirates and Uruguay.

Leon’s an alum of Fresno State, the University of Maryland, Baltimore County and the University of Southern California's Marshall Business School. He enjoys traveling abroad as well as exploring California’s Central Coast and the Sierra Nevadas.

Read more stories by Leon Kaye