While São Paulo, Brazil’s largest city, debates whether it should ban plastic straws in commercial properties, the effects of the measure in other cities are already being felt, rekindling the debate on whether imposing a ban is actually effective.

There’s no doubt plastic pollution is a serious issue in coastal cities around the world. The World Economic Forum estimates that global plastic production has risen from 1.5 million tons in 1950 to 322 million tons in 2015—and it is expected to almost quadruple by 2050.

The problem is that not only do we produce too much plastic, we also fail to dispose of it properly. The report shows that 32 percent of plastic packaging produced annually ends up in the sea. In practical terms, it is the equivalent of pouring one garbage truck of plastic into the ocean every minute.

In an attempt to fight this issue, people, companies and even governments are campaigning to reduce their use of plastic, especially disposable products. One of the most important measures was adopted by European Union in 2018, when Parliament approved a law that banishes single-use plastic items from the European market from 2021 on.

Plastic straws are seen as an emblematic symbol of this kind of pollution; they take 200 years to decompose in the environment, but are normally used for only a few minutes. However, as reported by Bloomberg news agency, citing research, even if the highest estimate of plastic straws disposed on global coastlines ended up in the sea at once, it would amount to only 0.03 of the plastic waste dumped in the sea every year. Fishing equipment, on the other hand, would account for 46 percent.

Reactions to the ban on plastic straws

The effort may be environmentally friendly, but that doesn’t mean its implementation has been smooth. The somewhat disorganized response to public outcry—considerably louder on social media—has attracted criticism.

As noted by lawyers Amanda de Oliveira and Alexandre Nogueira de Souza in a column for Jota, “straws represent nowadays the symbol of the paradox between goals of state measures and its actual effects. But they are not alone. In the wide sea of legal norms in Brazil, there are plenty of examples of ‘straw bans’ without any concrete effect acceptable for its supposed purpose, but which are able to create a lot of social costs.”

The first effects of the law are being felt in Rio de Janeiro, the first Brazilian capital to adopt the measure. The ban came into effect on July 2018 and establishes fines of up to BRL 1,600. In case of recurrence, it may reach BRL 6,000.

Rio’s sanitary authorities told The Brazilian Report that they carried out an educative campaign from July to September and, after that, only two fines were applied. They also said that the law was amended and, as a result, fines can only be applied again in May.

Among the effects noted in Rio by several reports, there have been shortages of paper straws, higher prices and an increase in the use of plastic cups. Companies also argue that they were given little time to adapt. Now, the city is studying replacing plastic cups as well.

Despite the effects, the idea is becoming stronger amid Brazilians. In São Paulo, a similar bill was approved by the City Council. The initial fine starts at BRL 1,000, but goes up in case of recurrence. If the commercial property is fined six times, it may be closed. The proposal still needs to be sanctioned by the mayor, Bruno Covas. Other coastal cities, such as Ubatuba, Santos and even the entire state of Espírito Santo have already banished the products.

Looking back, this is not the first time laws to curb plastic usage have created turmoil in Brazil. In São Paulo, plastic shopping bags were banned in 2011, spurring controversy. The measure did not work and was revoked. Then, the city hall established that only biodegradable green and grey bags could be used; now supermarkets charge up to BRL 0.10 for them in the city. Recently, in another chapter of this legal battle, markets were forbidden from selling biodegradable plastic bags with logos.     

Markets adapt to the new reality

Bars, restaurants, and other companies are finding ways to cope. The cafeteria franchise Megamatte got rid of straws at its units in Rio de Janeiro after the ban, but faced a high financial impact as a result.

“Today, replacing plastic straws for paper ones generates a cost which is 120 percent higher. It was worse when the law came into effect, due to the high demand. Since we decided to not use straws currently, we were able to slash costs but, after May, when paper straws will return, there will be an impact on the final product price,” says Emerson Chimenes, Megamatte’s supplies director.

Considering the high public acceptance, the brand has decided to embrace the trend. Now it is selling stainless steel straws at its stores in Rio de Janeiro, but it does not see this as a way to make up for the costs. “We do not intend to increase revenues. The idea is to foster a cultural change towards sustainable straws,” says Mr. Chimenes.

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SocietyApr 06, 2019

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BY Natália Tomé Scalzaretto

Natália Tomé Scalzaretto has worked for companies such as Santander Brasil and Reuters, where she covered news ranging from commodities to technology. Most recently, worked as an Editor for Trading News, the information division from TradersClub investor community.