Let’s first define the meaning of the term “single-use plastics.” These are products like plastic bottles, the plastic rings for a six-pack of soda cans, or the packaging that your new USB thumb drive comes in.
Products like the common plastic bag can take up to 1,000 years to decompose. This means that every single piece of plastic ever produced still exists.
Almost half of all plastic made today is single-use. Furthermore, the rate of mass production of plastic has resulted in 9.1 billion tons of plastic pollution. Of that total, only 9 percent was recycled; 12 percent was incinerated and 79 percent accumulated in landfills or the natural environment.
The life of single use plastic
The problem is so serious that the United Nations has identified single-use plastics as one of the world’s biggest environmental challenges of modern times.
Manufacturers argue the case for supply and demand. They ask, why stop producing something that consumers continue to buy? But consumers say there is a lack of choice at the point of sale and the costs for sustainable options are inflated.
So to reduce the use of single-use plastic bags, cities, states, and countries around the world have introduced laws to ban the bags.
Looking to a circular economy
Government and private industry continue to make ambitious commitments in the transition towards a circular economy. This would entail recycling all the single-use plastic, to be used again and again.
But what the circular economy will also do is make manufacturers look to more simple packaging that is cheaper and possibly biodegradable. Other things like fiberglass, drywall, and shingles are becoming restricted items for landfills, so recycling them is also becoming more common.
Working together for transparency and accountability
Plastic bags that wind up in the ocean entangle and kill roughly 100,000 marine mammals each year. April of 2019, a pregnant sperm whale washed up dead on the shores of Sardinia with nearly 50 pounds of plastic in its stomach. Less than a month earlier, another dead whale was found to have ingested 88 pounds of plastic.
We are slowly poisoning ourselves
Since plastic does not biodegrade, these pieces simply get smaller, circulating indefinitely. Microplastics, small plastic pieces less than 5mm, are also particularly destructive. Microplastics are already widespread in our oceans, rivers, and in our food.
Also, a new environmental study found that 90 percent of the salts sold globally contain microplastics. Sea salt had the highest level of concentration, the study found.
In our food and in our bodies
And even more sad is that a study that took place in Italy in, spring of 2020, found microplastics in the placentas of 4 out of 6 women studied. It feels that we can’t get away from plastic.
The worst part is that the production of plastic is on its way to double over the next 20 years, despite the increasing awareness of its detrimental impact on the environment.
While there is a huge amunt of bad news, there is good news
The United Nations revealed in May 2019, that 180 countries have pledged to “significantly reduce” the use of plastic by 2030. And many have already started by proposing or imposing rules on certain single-use plastics before this.
Recycling is essential to reducing waste plastic. In addition to personal and industrial recycling, some brands are using waste plastic to construct useful recycled plastic products. Waste plastic has been used to create shoes, clothes, sunglasses, and even a stage at the Glastonbury music festival.
The first country to ban plastic bags was Bangladesh, which enacted the rule in 2002. The country imposed the ban after officials discovered that the bags had blocked drainage systems during devastating floods, the BBC reported.
Bangladesh has also created a lucrative and natural alternative to plastic. A scientist has found a way to turn jute, the plant fiber used to create burlap sacks, into a plastic-like material. The new bags are biodegradable and recyclable.
The Law of Environment Protection was revised and approved by the National Assembly on 4 December 2020. In this, the country has pledged to meet three major targets by 2030: reduce the flow of plastics into the ocean by 75%; completely eliminate single-use plastics and non-biodegradable plastic bags from coastal destinations, and ensure that marine protected areas are free of plastic waste.
The Government of Vietnam has joined forces with the World Economic Forum and WWF-Vietnam to launch the Viet Nam National Plastic Action Partnership to fight plastic pollution.
And it would show other countries how to put an ambitious agenda into practice with concrete results; just as Vietnam has demonstrated to the world its leadership on managing COVID-19.
Non-biodegradable bags will be banned in major cities by the end of 2020 and in all cities and towns by 2022. The restaurant industry will also be banned from using single-use straws by the end of 2020. In 2008, the country banned retailers from giving out free plastic bags and banned the production of ultra-thin plastic bags.
China, which has imported a cumulative 45% of western plastic waste since 1992, implemented a new policy in 2017 banning the importation of most plastic waste.
In February 2018, Taiwan announced one of the farthest-reaching bans on plastic in the world, restricting the use of single-use plastic bags, straws, utensils, and cups.
The ban, which builds on existing regulations like a recycling program, and extra charges for plastic bags, should be completed in force by 2030.
In 2017, they introduced a ban on polystyrene food containers, with fines of between $30 to $5,000 for anyone breaking the rules.
2020 started with a ban on single-use plastic bags at major stores and supermarkets. A national campaign orchestrated by the government and retailers aims for a total ban by 2021.
Several animals were found last year with plastic in their digestive systems, which increased the country’s determination to reduce waste.
The second-largest plastic polluter on the planet after China, Indonesia is releasing hundreds of thousands of tons of plastic every year into its rivers and marine environment. For the world’s largest archipelago that is highly dependent on tourism and fishing, this is an economic and aesthetic threat.
Earlier this year, the Indonesian government announced some radical goals. They plan to cut plastic waste by 70% within five years, and entirely by 2040. It’s the most ambitious national plan to tackle plastic pollution anywhere and will be a closely scrutinized test case for other countries around the world.
Instead of a proposed nationwide ban on plastic bags, cups, and straws, states in India are being asked to enforce existing rules on the storage, manufacture, and use of some single-use plastics.
Single-use plastic bags were banned in 2017 and in June 2020, they prohibited visitors from taking single-use plastics such as water bottles and disposable plates, into national parks, forests, beaches, and conservation areas.
Anyone in Kenya who is found using, producing, or selling a plastic bag faces up to four years in jail or a $38,000 fine. The African continent is where most countries have introduced a ban on both the production and use of plastic bags.
As part of Rwanda’s recovery from the genocide in the 1990s, the government emphasized environmental protection; including a ban on single-use plastic bags in 2008. Rwanda banned them completely.
Rwanda’s ban is particularly notable as it prohibits the manufacture, use, importation, and sale of single-use carrier bags. Violations can earn you a jail sentence, although typically offenders receive fines of about $61.
According to Plastic Oceans, the plastic bag ban is just the start for Rwanda, which is now hinting at becoming the world’s first plastic-free nation and planning to become completely sustainable by 2020.
It is interesting to note that a Somali terrorist group also banned single-use plastic bags in the areas it controls. In 2018, al-Shabab cited the “serious threat” that plastic bags pose to the “well-being of both humans and animals,” according to the BBC.
But this is not the first time terrorists have shown concern for the environment.
Documents seized during the 2011 raid on Osama Bin Laden’s hideout in Pakistan included a letter in which he called on Americans to help President Barack Obama fight “catastrophic” climate change and “save humanity,” the Reuters news agency reports.
In July 2017, Zimbabwe announced a total ban on expanded polystyrene (EPS), a styrofoam-like material used for food containers that take up to 500 years to decompose. Those caught violating the ban have to pay a fine of between $30 and $500.
Mexico City launched its plastic bag ban on January 1st, 2020. The law, which was passed in May, now restricts all businesses excluding perishable food vendors.
Companies that produce plastic bags outside of the area will also be prohibited from selling them to Mexico City businesses.
The European Union
The plan is to ban single-use plastic items such as straws, forks, knives, and cotton buds by 2021. In 2018 the EU banned 10 throwaway plastics including Styrofoam and single-use straws.
Manufacturers of other plastic products including water bottles and cups have also seen more strict regulation and all plastic water bottles will need to contain 30 percent recycled content by 2030.
A tax on plastic bags was introduced in 2015 and banned the sale of products containing microbeads, like shower gels and face scrubs. A ban on supplying plastic straws, stirrers, and cotton buds recently came into force.
In 2015, England joined Wales and Northern Ireland by adding a 5p charge for carrier bags in large supermarkets and stores. Further legislation on lightweight carrier bags and disposable food containers will be clarified and implemented by December 2024. In the next five years, a policy on single-use plastics will begin to take effect.
The Welsh government has said Wales aims to be zero waste by 2050. The country will also phase out all single-use plastics and plans to become the world leader in recycling.
New York and California restaurants are no longer allowed to automatically provide patrons with plastic straws but can provide customers with straws if they ask. Violations can cost restaurants $25 a day.
In 2015, the U.S. banned plastic microbeads in cosmetics and personal care products.
There are many natural alternatives to microbeads in cosmetic products. Some companies have switched to using natural exfoliates such as oatmeal, sea salt, apricot pits, and even coconut husks.
California was the first state to ban single-use plastic bags in 2014 and the first to implement a partial ban on plastic straws in 2018. While not statewide, single-use bags are banned almost everywhere in Hawaii.
Many cities are also banning single-use bags, including, Anchorage, Alaska; Boston, Massachusetts; Portland, Maine; and Eugene, Oregon.
A US-based website called Ban the Bag helps users track pending and enacted bans in cities and counties.
Victoria is the most recent Australian state to ban the sale of plastic bags. From November 2019, all retailers in Victoria will be subject to heavy fines for providing plastic carrier bags.
South Australia, the Australian Capital Territory, Tasmania, and the Northern Territory, have state-wide bans on single-use plastic bags, and Queensland is set to follow in July 2018.
On July 30, 2017, its independence day, the Pacific nation of Vanuatu announced the beginning of a phasing out of plastic bags and bottles.
When implemented, it will ban the use or importation of single-use plastic bags and bottles; and it will make Vanuatu the first Pacific country to launch such a ban.
Following a single-use plastic bag ban in 2019, New Zealand’s government is planning to implement several new initiatives to eliminate single-use plastics.
Packaging Gateway reports that the country’s primary goal will be to eliminate single-use packaging and beverage containers made from hard-to-recycle polyvinyl chloride and polystyrene, including polystyrene meat trays, cups, and takeout food containers.
The report also notes that the government plans to invest NZD 40 million (USD $26.2 million) to help create a circular economy for plastics.
In Canada, infrastructure is being introduced nationally to reduce plastic waste. Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau announced last year that the country will aim to ban “harmful” single-use plastics by 2021. Trudeau said in a statement: “As parents, we’re at a point when we take our kids to the beach and we have to search out a patch of sand that isn’t littered with straws, Styrofoam, or bottles.”
Research had previously found that there were 1.1 million microbeads per square kilometer in Lake Ontario.
In 2016, France became the first country to announce a total ban on plastic cups, plates, and cutlery, to be brought in from 2020.
It followed the country’s total ban on plastic bags in 2015, in an effort to transform France into “an exemplary nation in terms of reducing its greenhouse gas emissions, diversifying its energy model, and increasing the deployment of renewable energy sources.”
Before the ban, Morocco used 3 billion plastic bags every year; an incredible 900 bags per person every year. That made it the second-largest plastic bag consumer in the world after the US.
The city of Hamburg brought in a fairly niche plastic ban in February 2016 — against non-recyclable plastic coffee pods.
Many of the pods can’t be fully recycled, and those that can be recycled consume a lot of energy because of their complicated design. Before the ban, billions of plastic shells were piling up in landfills each year.
There are many steps being taken, but is it enough?
As there are more and more countries making an effort to make a change, we still are producing plastic like never before. The goal is that as people are more and more aware of the issues, they will take the initiative to make better choices. The buying power can guide the companies where to go with their future decisions.
Written by Jay Weaver, published 12/28/2020