Urgent action needed to stem tide of plastic pollution

This article first appeared in The Edge Financial Daily, on July 4, 2018.
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THE European Commission’s proposal to ban plastic straws, plates, cutlery and drink stirrers, and slash the consumption of many other single-use products, is more than just a nice, novel idea.

It is a step urgently needed from every country — as plastic trash pours into the oceans at the rate of almost 9 million tonnes a year.

The flood of trash is killing fish, turtles, seals, coral and birds, and getting into the seafood people eat. If no action is taken, over the coming decade it stands to increase tenfold.

The problem stems from the sheer volume of plastic in existence — more than 9 billion tonnes, most of it produced since 2000 — and from humanity’s haphazard efforts to dispose of it.

Three-fourths of plastic produced goes to waste, and less than a tenth of that gets recycled, though Europe does a better job than the global average, recycling nearly 30% (see chart — Lifecycle).

Countries with competent waste-management systems bury a lot of the plastic refuse in landfills. But many low- and middle-income countries cannot cope with the rising volume, and much ends up getting tossed to the four winds.

Abandoned to nature, plastic lasts for centuries, breaking apart into ever smaller pieces but never assimilating into earth or water.

The challenge, first, is to stop any more of this plastic from reaching the ocean. Bigger landfills are not a lasting solution.

Nor would it be wise to expand incineration, presently the fate of about 12% of the world’s plastic trash. Burning emits toxic residue from softeners and dyes, as well as copious amounts of carbon dioxide. (Plastics, after all, are made of hydrocarbons.)

This is why the European Union (EU), like many conservation groups, has adopted a three-R approach: Reduce plastic use, reuse the stuff that is needed, and recycle everything that cannot be reused.

The EU’s proposed ban is aimed at reducing the most easily substituted plastics — the single-use implements that are often used away from home and littered.

They account for 50% of trash on EU beaches. And their use is now expanding rapidly in developing countries.

The ban is just one of a set of measures proposed. Eventually, countries would also have to reduce the use of plastic food containers and drink cups, perhaps by encouraging alternatives.

Manufacturers of plastic food containers, cigarette filters, fishing gear and other products not banned would be required to help pay for litter prevention and clean-up.

The EU aims to increase the amount of plastic that gets recycled to more than 50% by 2025, including 90% of disposable plastic bottles — by pushing manufacturers to create materials that are easily reusable or recyclable.

The recycling challenge has become more urgent now that China has stopped doing the job for other countries. Until recently China had been the world’s biggest importer of plastic for recycling, and Europe, the biggest exporter.

It will take many months for the EU’s plastics proposal to work its way through the European Parliament and the European Council and, if it is approved, years more to phase in.

Europe needs to move with all possible speed, and other countries must be quick to follow suit — not just with isolated bans on plastic bags, bottles or straws, but with similarly comprehensive efforts to stem the entire plastic tide. — Bloomberg