What Do Single-Use Plastics Say About Your Business?

Doug Woodring of the Ocean Recovery Alliance argues that by using single-use plastics as part of your business model, your company may be perceived as ignorant to global issues or apathetic to the communities you serve

Styrofoam and plastic litter create an eyesore in Haiti. China sent a shockwave through the global recycling industry last year when it announced a ban on contaminated plastic waste imports. Image: Nels Israelson, CC BY-NC 2.0
Switching to alternatives might not save the world, but the use of single-use plastics sends a distinct message to customers that the brand and its management is not on top of an issue of growing global importance.

By Doug Woodring, founder and director, Ocean Recovery Alliance

The scourge of plastic products has reached the popular press and communities around the world — and in a big way, over the last six months.

In response to the growing awareness of the plastic problem, more companies have taken action to reduce their plastic footprints. This month, Hong Kong and Shanghai Hotels, owners of the Peninsula Hotels, announced a ban on single-use plastic. Even fast food chain KFC moved to reduce plastic caps and straws for drinks this week in Singapore.

So what does it say about a company that continues to use single-use plastic?

Running out of excuses

On a daily basis, more people are impacted by trash and dirty water than by climate change. This is not to say that one problem is bigger than the other, but plastic pollution is one of the more complicated issues to solve as it is so widely dispersed.

Dirty water from trash impacts drinking water, hygiene, disease, tourism, and air pollution from open-pit burning of trash. It also impacts fishing, agriculture, maritime transport, and ecosystems on land and water, and the carrying of toxicity in microplastics, which has entered the human food chain.

There are some easy solutions to reducing some of the blatant wastages caused by single-use plastic, with the ability to minimize the environmental damage it causes. This can be done by simply not using the plastic products that have clear alternatives, or are not even necessary as in the case of straws, stirrers, utensils, food service items and plastic bags for single drinks, as McDonald’s continues to serve against the trend of governments in the region to tax or ban disposable plastics.

The excuses companies give for using these items include cost, convenience, customer service, and hygiene protection. These rationales should no longer be used to justify transferring the cost of trash and ecosystem impacts to society, as there are many alternatives.

A man collects plastic and other recyclable materials from debris in the waters of Manila Bay after tropical storm Saola hit the Philippine capital July 30, 2012. Heavy rains brought by tropical storm Saola pounded the Philippine capital and triggered flooding on Monday, forcing residents of riverside communities to evacuate and seek shelter on higher ground. Credit: Reuters/Erik De Castro

Most who live in Asia reside in busy cities. People are on the move, but the use of single-use plastic by businesses reflects their lack of awareness of key issues, leadership, or care for the communities they serve. We know these products are now avoidable. But in the case of where I am based in Hong Kong, a “free market”, it is not likely that legislation will be strong, effective or broad enough in scope to limit or abolish the use of these materials. Instead, we still see high-end restaurants and five-star hotels using plastic straws and swizzle sticks.

Switching to alternatives might not save the world, but the use of single-use plastics sends a distinct message to customers that the brand and its management is not on top of an issue of growing global importance.

It shows that their procurement is not thoughtful, and that they do not care enough for the communities they serve to make simple changes that will protect the environment. The quest for a tiny percentage of extra margin, when using the excuse that the cost of alternatives is a factor, defines the reputation of that leadership and operation, and is not likely worth the negative image they are creating for themselves by continuing to sidestep a growing trend of reducing flagrant and unnecessary waste creation.

In Hong Kong and other Asian cities, the reflex response from staff, whether at a local coffee shop or a five-star hotel, seems to be one of supplying plastic as part of the customer service. This is witnessed by how hard it is to try to receive a drink, including even ice water, without a straw in it, or without a plastic bag for a single drink in a cup.

Photo by Sagar Chaudhray on Unsplash

Without legislation to ban this unnecessary waste burden, we have to hope for a renewed sense of pride by restaurateurs and consumers, or somehow to convey a sense of guilt or shame towards those who still use disposable plastic.

Awareness, thoughtful procurement, and care for the cities we live in might lead us to build cities of pride where communities react to the sight and touch of single-use plastic and unnecessary packaging as if they could catch a contagious disease. In many ways, single-use plastic and packaging is that disease, and it has slowly been absorbed into our daily lives without us realizing it over the past twenty years.

Legislation alone will not solve this global problem, and it will be up to each company and each consumer to take pride in their actions through mindful consumerism.

It’s no longer “cool” to just throw things away because one is lazy or trying to save money, because much of that single-use material will be around long after our own lives, potentially impacting the environment on land and sea along the way.


Doug Woodring is founder and managing director of Ocean Recovery Alliance