Behind the headlines: is there any substance to Capri’s ban on single-use plastic?

OPINION: David McLagan, Founder Ecoffee Cup

Each summer, Capri’s sparkling blue waters and white-sand beaches framed by stunning clifftops charm thousands of holidaymakers in Italy.

In an effort to keep the beauty unspoiled, Isola di Capri recently announced it is banning the use of single-use plastic ­bags, and other selected items, with a threat to fine tourists up to €500.

While such an initiative certainly grabbed the headlines, my hopes for the effectiveness of such a scheme are far less optimistic. Allow me to explain way…

Single-use plastic is prolific in Italy. The main culprit, by a very long stretch, is plastic water bottles – which are not included in the ban.

Let’s make no mistake; Italy is a nation addicted to bottled water. With sales having grown by 40% in less than a decade (currently $7.6bn, three times that of the UK), the main brands – San Pellegrino, San Benedetto and Sant’anna – fight it out to produce billions and billions of bottles per year, 90% of which are consumed locally.

No coincidence then, that Italy is also the world’s largest consumer of water sold in plastic bottles – a staggering 177 litres per person, per year.

And I’m not just relying on third party statistics here. I had the good fortune to live in Italy for four years until mid-2017, in a region with some of the finest, purest tap water in the world. Yet, shopping trollies and alimentari shelves bristled with the unmistakable squeak of bulk-pack bottled water. It’s cheap too; as little as 20c for a 1.5 litre bottle. Like the junk food aisles in Tesco and ASDA, local supermarket chains such as Conad and Co-Op dedicate huge amounts of space to the promotion and procurement of this pointless, single-use plastic vessel.

Which brings me back to the initiative on Capri. While it is no doubt an honourable attempt to do something, the realities of such a scheme being successful run at stark counter point to day-to-day Italian life because plastic bottles are not included in the ban! 

Capri is getting a year-and-a-half head start on the European-wide ban of single-use plastics, which is expected to come into force in 2021. The ban includes the likes of single-use plastic cutlery and expanded polystyrene cups – but not water bottles.

Strangely, Capri is not jumping ahead of the EU directive here, despite it being one of the greatest causes of regional marine litter. Their only mention? A commitment to “look into it further… at a later date”. Presumably inline with the directive for other member states who have to achieve a 90% collection target for plastic bottles by 2029.

Moreover, the initiative seems squarely aimed at tourists. While tourists are no doubt responsible for more than their fair share of beach litter, to target them exclusively suggests a complete and utter snow-blindness towards the epicentro of the problem – the Italian fixation with bottled water. Until you somehow convince the nation as a whole to change their behaviour, fining tourists will achieve precisely zero.

Finally, such a scheme needs to be administered and enforced. For a nation with a reported €190 billion in uncollected tax revenue, it has to be said that enforcement of hefty fines, particularly on foreign tourists, stand as much chance of success as me being fluent in Italian – non buono.

My point on all of this is that so many of these “breakthrough” articles get shared on social media without much in the way of critical thinking. Is the Capri story fake news? Well, not quite. But it’s certainly massively inaccurate and a somewhat distracting portrayal of the real issue.

So, the next time we see one of these fabulous social media stories, I suggest we all dig a bit deeper to see whether there is much in the way of substance behind them. At a minimum please don’t simply repost, if you feel confident enough, question their effectiveness!

That way, we can filter out the fluff and celebrate the many truly great initiatives that are making a real difference in our fight against single-use waste.

David McLagan
Founder – Ecoffee Cup

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