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Plastic Pollution


The report of UN Environment (UNEP, 2018: SINGLE-USE PLASTICS) provides a roadmap for sustainability and gives some advice to policymakers who consider introducing a ban or a levy for the production and use of single-use plastics.

Plastic is a lightweight, durable and cheap material that can easily be put into any shape. It does not rust or corrode. Manufacturing this material is so easy compared to other alternatives. In short, the benefits of plastic are undeniable.

These qualities have led to a huge increase in the production of plastic over the past century and the production continues with an increasing pace. We use many kinds of plastic in our everyday life: bags, trays, containers, milk bottles, freezer bags, shampoo bottles, bottles for water and many other drinks, cutlery, plates, toothpaste, food packaging etc.

Much of the plastic is designed to be thrown away after being used only once, which we call single-use plastic, and the resulting plastic packaging corresponds to a very huge part of the industry, as shown in the figure below (Grand View Research, Inc.):

As per the report of UN Environment, which is based on the data received as a result of an effective field research worldwide, a product or packaging after use is recycled, incinerated, landfilled, dumped in uncontrolled sites, or littered in the environment. Recent estimates say that 79% of the plastic waste is in landfills, dumps or in the environment, while about 12% has been incinerated and only 9% has been recycled (Geyer, Jambeck, and Law, 2017). A study of 2014 estimated that 5.25 trillion plastic particles -weighing 269,000 tons- are floating on the sea and it is known that plastic debris accounts for 60-80% of marine litter. (David K. A. Barnes, Francois Galgani, Richard C. Thompson, Morton Barlaz, June 14th, 2009)

Leaving the numbers aside, why exactly do we need a change?

It already becomes difficult to cope with the amount of plastic waste we generate. We see lots of cigarette butts, plastic drinking bottles, food wrappers, grocery bags, plastic lids, straws and stirrers and many other plastic containers around as we walk down the street every single day.

If current manufacturing & consumption rate and use of single-use plastic continues the same way and if governments fail to find more efficient waste management practices, by 2050 there will be nearly 12 billion tons of plastic waste in landfills and more plastic than fish in the oceans.

Across the world, plastics make up 85% of marine litter. Bad news is that most plastics do not degrade and they can take up to thousands of years to decompose. They contaminate both soil and water. They only break down into microplastics which are swallowed by many fish resulting in them entering into our food chain. Plastics also find their way into our lungs and dinner tables, with toxic micro-plastics in the air, water and food. The impact of these micro-plastics on our health in the long run is yet to be discovered.

Although it is very difficult to monetarize the true environmental costs, the UN Report and many other studies (S.C. Gall, R.C. Thompson, The impact of debris on marine life, 2015) demonstrate that the total economic damage to the world’s marine ecosystem caused by plastic amounts to at least $13 billion every year.

The most problematic ones:
Single-use plastic bags & foam food containers

Single-use plastic bags (1 to 5 trillion plastic bags are consumed worldwide every-year) and “styrofoam” products are widely used because they are strong, cheap and hygienic ways to transport goods. These are generally the most visible forms of plastic pollution and they seem to be perceived by governments as the most problematic sources of plastic.

Single-use plastic bags and foam food containers have many negative environmental, social and economic impacts and they harm the human health.

These items can pose significant ingestion, choking and entanglement hazards to wildlife. Entanglement of species by marine debris can cause starvation, suffocation, laceration, infection, reduced reproductive success and even mortality (Katsanevakis, S., Marine debris, a growing problem: sources, distribution, composition, and impacts, 2008).

They can be blown away by the wind because of their lightweight, they float on water and break down into smaller pieces that are highly toxic if ingested. They cause land and ocean pollution and loss of bio diversity. Styrofoam items contain toxic chemicals such as styrene and benzene. According to Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry, both are considered carcinogenic and can lead to additional health complications, including adverse effects on the nervous, respiratory and reproductive systems, and possibly on the kidneys and liver.

These plastics may also aggravate natural disasters like the blockage of drainage areas. They contaminate water. The existence of plastics in the marine environment also presents a number of challenges that hinder economic development. Huge plastic waste along shorelines create an aesthetic issue, which creates negative impacts on tourism. The negative economic impact of plastic pollution is also seen in fishing, shipping and agriculture sectors in many countries.

Global Steps Taken to Minimize the Use of Single-Use Plastics

Governments have been struggling for decades to reduce marine plastic debris. Many non-governmental organizations like The 5 Gyres Institute, The Ocean Conservancy, Clear Blue Sea, Greenpeace, One Green Planet, Oceana, World Wildlife Fund (WWF) conduct monitoring research on marine debris to increase awareness.

It is seen that governments implement two different strategies in order to prevent overuse of plastic; some prefer market based instruments like implementing levies on new plastic bags for minimizing waste while some other governments choose to enact regulations, legislation to reduce marine pollution such as by imposing bans for plastic bag manufacturing. Regardless of the strategy chosen, the number of policies regulating plastic bags and styrofoam products at the national level drastically increased after 2015, mainly due to DIRECTIVE (EU) 2015/720 OF THE EUROPEAN PARLIAMENT AND OF THE COUNCIL of 29 April 2015 that amends Directive 94/62/EC as regards reducing the consumption of lightweight plastic carrier bags.

According to this new directive, member states must ensure that by the end of 2019 no more than 90 single-use lightweight plastic bags are consumed per person a year. By the end of 2025 that number should be reduced to no more than 40 bags per person.

It is expected that this new directive will bring both environmental and economic benefits: avoiding the emission of 3.4 million tons of CO2 equivalent, avoiding environmental damages which would cost the equivalent of €22 billion by 2030 and saving consumers a projected €6.5 billion. Another expectation is that it will provide clarity, legal certainty, and increase the opportunity of new markets for innovative multi-use alternatives, new materials and better designed products.

Turkey has also taken a step parallel to abovementioned EU directive. Turkey’s Ministry of Environment and Urban Planning has issued the “Regulation on Packaging Waste Control” (Official Gazette No.30283, dated 27.12.2018) which reduces the amount of lightweight single-use plastic bags to the same number determined in EU Directive.

What else can be done?

The UN Report suggests 5 main alternatives: improving waste management, promoting eco-friendly alternatives, creating more social awareness, lessening plastic packaging through voluntary reduction agreements and enhancing true policy instruments via effective monitoring and stakeholder engagement. Furthermore, the EU is now preparing to introduce some new regulations concerning single-use plastic products, which together with fishing gear, account for 70% of the marine litter in Europe.

In conclusion

Plastic is a miracle and can be awesome in terms of its practicality, but we need to use it more responsibly. If new and effective cooperative strategies can be developed and implemented correctly by governments, producers and consumers regarding the plastic problem, then we all will be able to move towards sustainable alternatives. Taking true steps can also bring new opportunities for innovation, competitiveness and job creation.