By Dr Himmat Singh
Every human being aspires for a better standard of living. In
the modern lifestyle, items made out of plastics play an overwhelming role – not only in cities and towns, but also in the villages. Disposable plastic syringes, food packaging boxes and automobile parts are typical examples of the significance of the material in the day-to-day lives of every human being from a long list of plastic products which make our lives easier, safe and comfortable.
Single-use plastics are in the spotlight, as more and more people opt to reduce them. Places around the world like the UK, Taiwan, Seattle, San Francisco, Montreal and Vancouver, are joining the plastic-free movement. That means reducing straws, cotton swabs, microbeads and plastic bags. And for places like Ireland and Hong Kong, the movement is working. Plastic bag levies have led to high reductions in plastic bags use. Some cities and counties in the US also have their own plastic bag bans and levies in place. India has also recently joined this movement. Single-use plastics may represent the epitome of today’s throwaway culture.
Single Use Plastics- what are they?’
A 2018 UN Environment report on single-use plastics defines them as plastic “items intended to be used only once before they are thrown away or recycled.”
Examples of single-use plastic include plastic forks and knives, plastic shopping bags, plastic coffee cup lids, plastic water bottles, Styrofoam and plastic take out containers and, of course, plastic straws.
According to the U.N. Environment, the most common single-use plastics found in the environment (in order of magnitude) are cigarette butts, plastic drinking bottles, plastic bottle caps, food wrappers, plastic grocery bags, plastic lids, straws and stirrers, other types of plastic bags and foam take-away containers.
The data for this disastrous single-use plastics problem paints a shocking picture. According to Global Citizen, plastic production has more than tripled since the ’90s. It also shows half the world’s plastic was made after 2003. About 150 million tons of plastic -much of it non-degradable – is floating in our oceans, reports the World Economic Forum.
The Government of Canada reports that, each year, about eight million tons of plastic waste enter our oceans. If this continues, plastics could outweigh fish in our oceans by 2050. Unless we take drastic action now, it’s expected that the amount of plastic littering the world’s oceans will triple within a decade.
Why Are Single-Use Plastics Bad?
The UN Environment reports just nine per cent of the world’s nine billion tonnes of plastic has been recycled. Most of our plastic ends up in landfills, our oceans and waterways, and the environment. Plastics do not biodegrade. Instead they slowly break down into smaller pieces of plastic called microplastics.
It is worth mentioning here that, recently, the World Health Organisation (WHO) called for a further assessment of microplastics in the environment and their potential impacts on human health, following the release of an analysis of current research related to microplastics in drinking water. The organisation also called for a reduction in plastic pollution to benefit the environment and reduce human exposure.
The alarming nature of plastic pollution is clearly reflected in the statement issued by Dr Maria Neira, Director, Department of Public Health, Environment and Social Determinants of Health, at WHO, while releasing the analysis: “We urgently need to know more about the health impact of microplastics because they are everywhere – including in our drinking water. Based on the limited information we have, microplastics in drinking water do not appear to pose a health risk at current levels. But we need to find out more. We also need to stop the rise in plastic pollution worldwide.”
Research shows the effects plastic has on the Earth as well as on humans. It can take up to thousands of years for plastic bags and Styrofoam containers to decompose. In the meantime, it contaminates our soil and water. The toxic chemicals used to manufacture plastic get transferred to animal tissue, eventually entering the human food chain. Styrofoam products are toxic if ingested and can damage nervous systems, lungs and reproductive organs.
For many animal species, plastic waste is simply a nightmare. Plastic items like bags and straws choke wildlife and block animals’ stomachs. Turtles and dolphins, for example, often mistake plastic bags for food.
What can we do about it?
The world’s global plastic disaster sounds downright scary, but we can still change our fate. Here are some ideas:
• Use cloth or reusable shopping bags instead of plastic bags.
• Bring your own coffee mugs, and avoid establishments that don’t offer non-plastic options. Or opt for “for here” options or regular mugs, dishes and cutlery.
• Avoid non-recycled plastic bottles and plastic straws.
• Support efforts to reduce our dependence on single-use plastics. Examples are plastic bans and levies on shopping bags.
• Recycle as much as possible – and support establishments that do the same.
• Buy items in bulk to reduce plastic packaging.
• Bring your own take-out containers, or support establishments that use recyclable takeout options.
• Be informed—get to know what is and isn’t recyclable in your town.
Some other remarkable initiatives to curb plastic pollution worldwide are Alliance to End Plastic Waste (including 39 major companies around the world that make, use, sell, process, collect, and recycle plastics), the Ocean Cleanup (a non-profit organisation, developing advanced technologies to rid the world’s oceans of plastic), the UK Plastics Pact (a unique collaboration bringing together businesses from across the entire plastics value chain with UK government and NGOs to tackle the issue of plastic waste), One Earth – One Ocean (developing and implementing a concept to free water bodies worldwide from plastic waste, oil and pollutants), GPCA’s Waste Free Environment (aiming to promote recycling and to raise awareness on responsible litter disposal .
We can all do our part to prevent further damage to our environment and our waterways from plastics. ‘Zero waste’ or ‘zero plastic waste’ movements are springing up around the world to tackle this issue. If we each do our part now, we can help stop the world’s preventable plastic problem from getting worse.
While it is important to ban single-use plastic items, there are benefits from recycling plastic products. Plastics are essential elements in modern human life and if disposed of properly, can give another chance at providing for society.
(The above write up is based on articles by Martin Menachery, editor of Refining & Petrochemicals Middle East, 5 September 2019, and by Mary Wales on 18 July, 2018, posted under Everything Else, Organic News & Environment.)