The year 2018 was a memorable one for many reasons.
A junior soccer team in Thailand were rescued from flooded caves in a story that gripped the world’s population for weeks, Scott Morrison was appointed prime minister and a widespread needle contamination saga decimated the strawberry industry.
But most importantly for environment activists, it was also the year Australia took its first major step to reducing plastic waste in an era where environmental sustainability has become an urgent and pressing matter right across the globe.
In July, following sustained public pressure, leading supermarkets pulled single-use plastic bags in favour of reusable alternatives.
And while the jury is still out over whether the removal of single-use bags has been a success, it was a decisive step in the fight against plastic waste.
Over a year on from the bag ban, Australians appear as committed as ever to saving the planet. Look no further than the 80,000 people who crammed into the Domain in Sydney for last month’s climate change rally as evidence.
So as the dust settles on Coles and Woolworths and other leading brands such as Kmart ditching single-use bags from their stores, what plastic products are set to get the cold shoulder next?
According to Dr Geoffrey Binder, the University of Melbourne’s behaviour change and environmental sustainability expert believes the disposable coffee cup could be next on the agenda.
“The coffee cup is a product that I think is sort of ripe for a more concerted effort,” he told Yahoo News Australia.
He believes there is a behavioural shift in coffee consumption that will only aid the process of removing coffee cups from cafes.
“Why do we have [disposable] coffee cups? Well, we have them because we’ve been encouraged to run from home to work to wherever and get our coffee on the way rather than saying: ‘I actually deserve 20 minutes to half an hour to sit and smell the roses’,” Dr Binder explained.
“For example there are already the odd cafe around the place that has stopped serving disposable coffee cups and they’re saying to their customers: ‘sit down, take half an hour and enjoy your coffee, read the paper, have a chat’ and addressing the problem in that way which I think is kind of interesting.”
No excuse for reusable coffee cups anymore
Innovation manager at reusable cup manufacturer Keep Cup Louise Dyer told Yahoo News Australia that alternatives for single-use cups are now widely accepted across society meaning “there’s no excuse for using disposable cups”.
The company’s social media manager Joe Walton said it was hard for many to comprehend one million disposable cups are thrown out every minute across the world.
“Its a bigger enough problem to want to do something about it,” Ms Dyer said.
Both Dr Binder and Mr Walton noted the wave of compostable cups was pulling the wool over the eyes of the Australian public as they were rarely ending up in the right hands to be broken down.
“We’re being told this product is more environmentally sustainable than another product but is it?” Dr Binder said.
“Biodegradable cups sound great but the sort of biodegradable systems that they need to be put through are industrial. So if you put one of those cups in your compost bin in your backyard it will not break down.
“We then have to find a way of getting them out of all of the bins they end up in and into an industrial compostable stream... it’s a problem that isn’t being addressed.”
As the focus shifts to single-use coffee cups, Dr Binder noted their removal from use will be a far greater challenge than supermarket single-use bags.
“We’ve got effectively a duopoly as far as supermarkets are concerned in this country that meant there were only two organisations to deal with in doing something about those particular products,” he explained.
With thousands of independent coffee shops across the country, Dr Binder believes there will be a concerted effort to focus on individual cafes while popular chains such as Gloria Jean’s and Starbucks will be the “easy targets”.
“It might not be bans that are sort but more one on ones with individual businesses and try and get them to find an alternative,” he said.
Are plastic toys now under scrutiny?
Just last month, Burger King in the UK announced it would no longer be handing out plastic toys with children’s meals in a groundbreaking move to reduce plastic waste.
While the move is yet to be rolled out across the company’s Australian chain Hungry Jacks, Dr Binder pointed towards Woolworths’ decision to ditch plastic giveaways in favour of compostable seedling pots in their Discovery Garden promotion, as a huge move in changing perceptions on plastic toys.
“Woolworths recently giving away free little seedlings as an alternative to giving away the free plastic toys certainly means there is some interesting stuff going on in this space,” Dr Binder told Yahoo News Australia.
“All of these things eventually coalesce into a greater consciousness about the problems of plastic, but of course at the moment we’re dealing with that larger question in what amounts to a piecemeal way.”
While Dr Binder said single use plastics were often singled out as the culprit for polluted waterways and oceans, he believes there is more to the story and says its most likely there are a range of plastics that ultimately affect our waterways and fill up landfills.
Woolworths’ decision to move away from plastic toy collectables, like their Lion King Ooshies and Coles’ Little Shop promotion, may have been a result of the backlash from the public over the lasting effects of such promotions.
There were several incidences of people finding the toys washed up on beaches across Australia, which led to people questioning why the toys were needed.
Elimination of single use straws and cutlery to follow
While Dr Binder noted there has been a conscious effort to reduce single use plastics such as straws and cutlery, Australians will likely push for their eventual removal.
“Plastic straws and single use plastic cutlery are probably next on the agenda,” he said.
“That’s the trajectory, we were talking about the problem of single use plastic bags for quite a while before there was significant action. It’s a slow burn and these things don’t happen overnight.”
Dr Binder said as the nation focuses on products one after the other, it enables society to “eventually see the larger picture regarding these large environment sustainability questions that we’ve got.”
“We’re slowly waking up to the fact that, while they were fabulous when we first started using them because they increased the availability of all sorts of cheap mass-produced products we could use, plastics have a sting in the tail and the sting is that these things don’t degrade and they’re in the environment forever.”
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