Single-Use Plastic Bans Bring Unintended Consequences for People Experiencing Homelessness and Developing Countries

Wednesday, August 28, 2019
Cynthia R. Harris

Former Staff Attorney; Director of Tribal Programs; Deputy Director of the Center for State, Tribal, and Local Environmental Programs

First plastic bags, then straws, and now . . . miniature toiletries.

In a world where half the plastic produced globally is packaging we use just once, and only nine percent of all plastic is recycled, a consumer tide against single-use plastics is sweeping up grocery retailers, restaurants, and now the hospitality industry.

A growing number of hotel chains are riding the sustainability wave, eliminating single-use plastic bottles of personal care products in favor of larger-sized amenities and bulk dispensers. Marriott International last spring announced that it would swap out mini bath bottles in 450 of its hotels, eliminating 10.3 million bottles annually, or 113,000 pounds of plastic waste. InterContinental Hotels will convert its 843,000 rooms by 2021, eliminating the 200 million miniature bathroom products it averages across its properties every year. One-third of IHG’s properties have already made the switch.

State government is getting into the game, too. California Assembly Bill 1162 would prohibit hotels from stocking guest accommodations with miniature toiletries, meaning single-use plastic bottles or containers under six ounces. The law takes effect in January 2023 for establishments with 50 or more rooms, and January 2024 for the rest; it even authorizes civil penalties up to $500 per day.

This marks another victory in the war against single-use plastics! But what of the collateral damage? The trend could adversely affect our nation’s homeless population when it comes to accessing hygiene products. Unsheltered homeless, who rely on public facilities, benefit from these easily transportable miniature toiletries.

Consider first the numbers involved—according to the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development’s Annual Homeless Assessment Report, as of 2018, there were around 553,000 homeless people in the United States on a given night. In California, where AB 1162 is pending, close to 130,000 people experience homelessness. These Point-in-Time counts also dramatically undercount the number of people experiencing homelessness by a significant margin.

Access to adequate sanitation is an ongoing challenge homeless individuals face each and every day. A lack of shelter often translates into lack of access to water and sanitation. One recent study found that individuals who sleep on the street reported fewer hygiene-related self-care practices. Berkeley Law’s 2018 Basic & Urgent report, examining access to water and toilets for California’s unsheltered residents, inventoried publicly available potable water, toilets, and showers in Berkeley, Oakland, and Sacramento. Access, unsurprisingly, was very limited, and public shower facilities are even rarer than toilets and drinking fountains in terms of number of facilities availabile and hours of operation. Ironically, California, which codified in 2012 a human right to “safe, clean, affordable, and accessible water adequate for human consumption, cooking, and sanitary purposes,” did not recognize access to adequate sanitation and hygiene supplies as a right on its own. Nor has the state enacted a homeless person’s bill of rights.

Indeed, unsheltered homeless residents face worse access to water and toilets than is required by international standards for refugee camps. Lack of access to sanitation for people experiencing homelessness can have consequences for public health. For example, an outbreak of hepatitis A among homeless people in San Diego in 2017 was blamed on lack of access to public restrooms, sanitation, and hygiene facilities.

Nonprofits often step up to provide access: Berkeley’s Willard Pool offers a free drop-in, five-minute shower program that includes towels and soap, and Seattle’s Urban Rest Stop program provides a safe, friendly place to use restrooms, laundry facilities, and showers at no cost.

Charities and nonprofits that work with our nation’s homeless solicit donations of hygiene products, such as soap, shampoo, conditioners, and lotion, which they distribute at homeless and domestic violence shelters and soup kitchens. For example, ThriveDC holds toiletry donation drives to assist the homeless in the District of Columbia, and San Diego’s Third Avenue Charitable Organization hands out over 3,000 hygiene kits every year.

And these considerations intersect with the global issue of the availability of hygiene products to people in developing countries.

United Nations Sustainable Development Goal Target 6.2 calls for adequate and equitable sanitation and hygiene for all, noting that 2.4 billion people lack access to basic sanitation services, such as toilets or latrines. The U.N. also recognizes a human right to safe and clean drinking water and sanitation. Yet, the World Health Organization estimates unsafe water and poor sanitation and hygiene kill 1.7 million people annually.

Just like homelessness and miniature toiletries, this international travesty has a nexus to yet another generator of plastic waste: single-use plastic sachets in the developing world.

Over 50% of the plastic waste in the oceans comes from just five countries—China, Indonesia, the Philippines, Sri Lanka, and Vietnam. One culprit is sachets—plastic packets containing a single portion of items such as shampoo, soap, or coffee. Ubiquitous since the 1980s, a large proportion of sachets can be traced to U.S. and European multinationals like Nestlé, Procter & Gamble, and Unilever. These giants argue that single-use plastic sachets make their products available to low-income consumers in the developing world, because they can purchase them in small amounts.

The cost to the environment, however, is high. The multi-layer sachets are not recycled because they have little or no economic value, and waste collection and recycling infrastructure in these countries is often inadequate. International organization GAIA recently issued a report compiling data from waste assessments conducted across the Philippines. The study found almost 164 million pieces of sachets are used daily, equating to around 59.8 billion pieces of sachets annually.

But innovative solutions are under development. In countries where single-use plastics constitute a major waste problem, enterprising parties are converting low-density polyethylene (LDPE) sheets, bags, and water sachets into bricks and pavers used in constructing buildings and roads. Sustainable packaging alternatives are on the horizon, including bioplastics.

Industry itself is stepping up. Unilever’s CreaSolv pilot facility, for example, is piloting technology in Indonesia to recover polyethylene in multi-layer sachets. The project attaches a monetary value to the sachets, and partners with government and industry to develop a viable collection infrastructure. Unilever aims to capture 1,500 tons in 2019 and around 5,000 tons in 2020.

In the meantime, in the United States, legislation like AB 1162 means charities will have to identify their own solutions to continue providing the homeless population with access to hygiene products. These organizations may find themselves relying more and more on financial than on in-kind contributions.

To borrow a proverb, the moral test of a government—of any civilization—is how it treats its most vulnerable populations. Miniature toiletries and sachets represent an environmental problem and a long-standing workaround for both low-income people in developing countries and people experiencing homelessness here in the United States. But the underlying issue—that of access to adequate sanitation and hygiene products—is, at base, a matter of human dignity. It is a problem government has yet to effectively address.

But perhaps this is not truly a problem, and rather an “opportunity in work clothes.” We can address critical matters of public health and the environmental scourge of plastic waste when we finally guarantee universal access to adequate sanitation for our most vulnerable populations—here at home in the United States and in developing countries around the world.