Tackling the scourge of plastic waste won’t be easy

13 September 2019

Several countries from Malawi to Morocco have been making plans to phase out plastic shopping bags and other disposable items in a bid to reduce the vast amounts of plastic waste generated daily. Several European nations have also been enacting new measures aimed at weaning customers off disposable plastic products that are chucked out after a single use, only to wind up in landfills and the oceans.

Among other measures, customers at numerous stores are facing surcharges on single-use plastic bags while many retailers are setting up plastic-free aisles in their stores. The aim is to eradicate all plastic waste at some point in the future, although at the current rate it will take decades. Even in Thailand, one of the planet’s worst plastic polluters, several retailers have just announced that they will stop handing out disposable plastic bags, starting next year.

So far so good. But here is the problem: many of these initiatives, however welcome, are mere half-measures. There is way too much plastic waste in the world as it is, and these initiatives remain palliatives. In the United Kingdom, for instance, large retailers sold or handed out 2.1 billion plastic bags in 2017 alone, according to government figures. Even if many of them stop doing so, hundreds of millions of plastic bags will still be handed out each year.

“What we need is serious action immediately,” notes Leone Cooper, a British environmentalist in London. “Whether it’s ocean plastics, air pollution or climate change, there’s a huge price to pay for every day that goes by without progress.” At current rates, Cooper adds, British people will have produced another 192.5 billion plastic bottles in 25 years’ time. Worse: two-thirds of all plastic packaging in the country ends up in landfills, there to decompose as permanent environmental hazards, or burned, thereby befouling the air.

Plastic waste is an existential threat to marine ecosystems.

“There must be better recycling systems, which avoid confusion for citizens and have better economies of scale,” says Rob Opsomer of the Ellen MacArthur Foundation.

And Britain is far from being the largest producer of plastic waste in the world. That dishonor goes to China with several other Asian countries being among the planet’s worst plastic polluters. All  told, at least 8 million tons of plastic is dumped into the oceans each year, causing further havoc to fragile marine ecosystems already facing an existential crisis because of the vast amounts of plastic in the oceans.

At the current rate, the consumption of plastic in Asia will have increased by a shocking 80% by 2025, ballooning to a stunning 200 million tons each year. Soon, experts have warned, there could be one ton of plastic for every three tons of fish. Sadly, most consumers too continue to produce way too much plastic waste, although various government measures, some of them rather half-hearted, across Asia have sought to stop them doing so.

So what to do? The problem of plastic waste, an American expert observes, “requires attention at every level and every step, from the development of a comprehensive waste collection infrastructure, to the advanced reengineering and innovation that will constitute a sustainable circular economy model, to choices we all make in our daily lives.”

Businesses and consumers everywhere should be mindful of that. So, too, should politicians. The scourge of plastic waste is a global problem and can be solved only with comprehensive and well-thought-out global measures.

Europeans can start doing their bit by using far fewer disposable plastic products, including Styrofoam cups and plastic utensils. They can also wean themselves off disposable plastic bags and other plastic products, for instance, by taking their own durable bags with them when they are out shopping. Simple changes in our lifestyles can make a huge difference if many of us embark on such changes.

Yet at the end of the day, so long as countries like China continue dumping vast amounts of plastic waste into the seas, there is little we can do to change things in a truly meaningful way.

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