Sin­gle-use plas­tic is ev­ery­where. We must ban it from homes and in­dus­tries

The Irish Times - Weekend Review - - ENVIRONMENT - Sylvia Thomp­son

En­vi­ron­men­tal­ist Dun­can Ste­wart re­mem­bers when he en­coun­tered plas­tic for the first time. “My fa­ther brought it home to us when I was about seven, telling us how plas­tic would be­come a very im­por­tant ma­te­rial.”

Now, more than 50 years later, Ste­wart won’t use sin­gle-use plas­tic con­tain­ers. “Plas­tic is still an im­por­tant ma­te­rial but we are pro­duc­ing and con­sum­ing it in an in­cred­i­ble un­sus­tain­able way, and plas­tic pack­ag­ing of­ten costs more than the item it con­tains.”

Ste­wart says that, for ex­am­ple, he re­fuses bot­tled water. “If some­one gives me a bot­tle of water, I will give it back to him. I never buy sin­gle-use plas­tic bot­tles and cups, and we have a pol­icy of not al­low­ing sin­gle-use plas­tic items into our home.”

The use of plas­tic has in­creased twen­ty­fold in the past half-cen­tury, and now nearly ev­ery­one, ev­ery­where, every day comes into con­tact with plas­tic. If cur­rent pro­duc­tion and con­sump­tion pat­terns con­tinue, it is ex­pected to dou­ble again in the next 20 years.


Once-off plas­tic pack­ag­ing – which ac­counts for about 25 per cent of all plas­tic pro­duced – is used prin­ci­pally be­cause it ex­tends the shelf life of food (ar­guably re­duc­ing food waste) and re­duces the fuel con­sump­tion of trans­porta­tion be­cause it’s lighter than other ma­te­ri­als.

But, with an es­ti­mated 32 per cent of plas­tic pack­ag­ing es­cap­ing col­lec­tion sys­tems en­tirely, the high lev­els of wastage and lit­ter from sin­gle-use plas­tic pack­ag­ing has be­come a cam­paign­ing is­sue around the world.

For ex­am­ple, many na­tional parks in the United States now ban the sale of plas­tic water bot­tles. In 2016, the San Fran­cisco city board banned the ex­panded poly­styrene used for cof­fee cups and food pack­ag­ing. Also in 2016, the French gov­ern­ment passed a law ban­ning all plas­tic cups, cut­lery and plates from 2020.

In Septem­ber 2016, 90 non-gov­ern­ment or­gan­i­sa­tions joined forces for the Break Free From Plas­tics cam­paign. The group claims that plas­tic is a hu­man-rights is­sue be­cause when sold into mar­kets with in­ad­e­quate waste man­age­ment sys­tems, it can dam­age lo­cal com­mu­ni­ties.

In Ire­land, cam­paigns such as the Tró­caire-led “Have you #got­the­bot­tle” en­cour­ages young peo­ple to switch from dis­pos­able plas­tic bot­tles to re­us­able bot­tles. “Over 152 mil­lion litres of bot­tled water are sold every year in Ire­land – most of which is in plas­tic pack­ag­ing,” says Ellen Don­nelly of Tró­caire.

Pro­duc­ing plas­tic bot­tles cre­ates 100 times more green­house gas pol­lu­tion than turn­ing on the tap for fresh water, ac­cord­ing to the “Hav e you #got­the­bot­tle” cam­paign. And, although this form of plas­tic is re­cy­clable, th­ese sin­gle- use plas­tic bot­tles form large parts of lit­ter, as re­ported by the Dod­der Ac­tion Group fol­low­ing its clean-up along the river in April.

The dam­age to marine life caused by plas­tic mi­crobeads in cos­metic prod­ucts and mi­crofi­bres from fleeces and polyester cloth­ing has also driven cam­paigns such as the UN #Clean Seas to end marine lit­ter. Ac­cord­ing to re­cent es­ti­mates, more than eight mil­lion tonnes of plas­tic leak into the oceans each year. This is equiv­a­lent to dump­ing a truck of plas­tic into the sea every minute. It is now pre­dicted that by 2050, there will be more plas­tic in the oceans than fish and that 99 per cent of seabirds will have in­gested plas­tic.

Zero-waste home move­ment

So, what can we do to com­bat our high us­age of plas­tics – some of which isn’t re­cy­clable and more of which when re­cy­cled once is here for for­ever and a day?

The founder of the zero-waste home move­ment, Bea John­son, says she re­fuses any­thing made from plas­tic and avoids its use at home com­pletely. Here, in Ire­land, we proudly ini­ti­ated the first plas­tic bag tax in the world in 2002. Since then, many Euro­pean and African coun­tries now also ban or charge for sin­gle-use car­rier bags, re­sult­ing in an over 90 per cent drop in their us­age.

En­vi­ron­men­tal cam­paigner Caitri­ona Roger­son car­ried out a sur­vey into the amount of non- re­cy­clable plas­tic pack­ag­ing on fruit and veg­eta­bles in Ir­ish su­per­mar­kets re­cently. “I found that be­tween 80 and 87 per cent of fruit and veg­eta­bles were wrapped in plas­tics, the ma­jor­ity of which are non-re­cy­clable. Only 2 per cent of 90 prod­ucts sur­veyed were wrapped in plas­tics that were fully re­cy­clable,” she ex­plains. Roger­son set up a Face­book page, End Plas­tic Plague Ire­land, and got 5,000 sig­na­tures on a pe­ti­tion to ban the sin­gle use of non-re­cy­clable plas­tic pack­ag­ing. “We are plan­ning a na­tional plas­tic protest to en­cour­age peo­ple to leave their plas­tic pack­ag­ing at the check-out coun­ters in su­per­mar­kets.”

While avoid­ing sin­gle-use plas­tic con­tain­ers and leav­ing your plas­tic pack­ag­ing at su­per­mar­ket check-out coun­ters will raise aware­ness of the is­sue, to re­ally tackle the un­sus­tain­able pro­duc­tion and con­sump­tion of plas­tics will re­quire an in­dus­try-wide and/or Gov­ern­ment-led ini­tia­tive.

The United Na­tions En­vi­ron­ment #CleanSeas cam­paign is urg­ing gov­ern­ments to pass plas­tic-re­duc­tion poli­cies while also tar­get­ing in­dus­try to min­imise plas­tic pack­ag­ing and re­design prod­ucts.

But the ground­break­ing New Plas­tics Econ­omy re­port from the Ellen McArthur Foun­da­tion is per­haps the best source of hope. Pub­lished in 2016, it is a com­pre­hen­sive anal­y­sis of what the in­dus­try must do to trans­form the pro­duc­tion and con­sump­tion of plas­tic.

It starkly points out that if the cur­rent strong growth of plas­tics us­age con­tin­ues, the plas­tics sec­tor will ac­count for 20 per cent of the to­tal oil con­sump­tion and 15 per cent of the global an­nual car­bon bud­get by 2050.

Cir­cu­lar econ­omy model

In line with the cir­cu­lar econ­omy model (where ma­te­ri­als are brought back into use as sec­ondary re­sources), the Ellen McArthur Foun­da­tion wants plas­tics to be reused, re­cy­cled and re­designed in an eco­nom­i­cally and en­vi­ron­men­tally sound way.

Sug­ges­tions in­clude com­postable plas­tic pack­ag­ing for or­ganic waste from fast food out­lets and can­teens so that or­ganic con­tents can re­turn nu­tri­ents to the soil, and re­us­able dis­pensers for house­hold and per­sonal clean­ing prod­ucts. The foun­da­tion also pro­poses that re­cy­cled plas­tic is used to make new plas­tics in­stead of petro­chem­i­cals.

The re­port calls for a global pro­to­col on plas­tics to re­duce the use of harm­ful and non-re­cy­clable plas­tics, to stan­dard­ise la­belling and im­prove col­lec­tion, sort­ing and re­pro­cess­ing sys­tems. And it clearly states that the topic of plas­tics is com­ing to a head.

The key ques­tion is this: will peo­ple grad­u­ally re­ject plas­tic be­cause of its neg­a­tive ef­fects (and forgo its ben­e­fits) or will plas­tic sur­vive in re­us­able ways that have yet to be imag­ined?

We are plan­ning a na­tional plas­tic protest to en­cour­age peo­ple to leave their plas­tic pack­ag­ing at the check-out coun­ters in su­per­mar­kets

Plas­tic de­tri­tus is to be found in our parks and nat­u­ral spa­ces. By 2050, there will be more plas­tic in the oceans than fish.

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