There will soon be more plastic in the ocean than fishes inhabiting it. Taking between 400 and a 1000 years to degrade, they not only litter the whole planet, but choke animals, especially marine species and birds that mistake them for food. Under natural UV radiations, plastics tend to break down in smaller pieces that are ingested by fishes… and eventually find their way to human’s meals.
In front of the ecological disaster created by plastics of all sorts, many countries are taking the wagon to ban their use, hoping to reduce its use and discharge to the environment. And for once, many initiatives didn’t come from rich and privileged countries.
Perhaps surprisingly, Bangladesh was the first country to ban plastic bags, in 2002, following a clogging up of their drainage system during floods. Eritrea banned plastic bags in 2005, while Botswana introduced a fee on plastic bags in 2007. Rwanda, also facing clogging issues and toxic fumes from burning of plastic garbage, decided to ban all plastic bags in 2008. Travellers coming in the country now have their luggage checked for the illegal bags. Similarly, in Mauritania, the use, importation and manufacture of plastic bags can lead to a prison sentence for offenders since 2011. The bags were responsible for 70% of cattle and sheep deaths in the Mauritanian capital, Nouakchott, where the poor animals were choking on them. The lack of proper waste management and recycling infrastructures in Africa is propelling the plastic ban across the whole continent, where the guilty commodity could become an historical artifact. In contrast, most North American and European countries only started imposing a fee on plastic bags in 2011, and few countries have banned them so far. Australia and New Zealand still don’t have any country-wide levy or ban. Some states of U.S.A, such as Michigan, even adopted a law to ban banning plastic bags!
Meanwhile in New Delhi, India, all disposable plastics, including cutlery, bags and other small items have just been prohibited from the busy capital. Representing one of the major plastic polluters in the world, India could contribute up to 60% of the plastic dumped in the oceans. The mass burning of plastic waste is also partly responsible for the severe air pollution breathed in New Delhi. In France, a new decree plans to ban all disposable plastic cutlery and dishes (such as plates and glasses) in 2020. By then, only compostable items could be sold at the supermarket.
Another type of plastic pollution is created by plastic microbeads, found in numerous hygiene and cosmetic products. Microbeads are washed down the sewage system and spread in fresh or marine waters where they are ingested by fishes and other aquatic organisms. The U.K. and U.S.A will phase-out microbeads from all cosmetics in 2017, while Canada and Australia would have an effective ban in 2018.
Indeed, the ban of plastic bags has met some shortcomings in its implementation and enforcement, especially with small vendors and wet markets, ubiquitous in Asia and Africa. The ban has also led to an illicit smuggling of plastic bags from Democratic Republic of Congo to neighbouring Rwanda. It is thus important to complement the ban with awareness activities – and free distribution – of alternatives to plastic, such as reusable bags, containers and water bottles. Even a levy of a few cents per plastic bag can make a difference. For instance, a drop of 85% of single-use bag usage has been observed in England after a 5 pence charge has been imposed to consumers. Efforts should come from both individuals and governments, where a combination of phase-out/replacement of single-use plastic items, efficient recycling facilities and reduction of packaging could all lead to a better quality of our ecosystems.
Harrington, R. By 2050, the oceans could have more plastic than fish. Business Insider, 26 January 2017
Clavel, É. Think you can’t live without plastic bags? Consider this: Rwanda did it. The Guardian, 15 February 2014
Harvey, C. Yes, this is real: Michigan just banned banning plastic bags. The Washington Post, 30 December 2016
BBC News, Mauritania bans plastic bag use. BBC News Africa, 2 January 2013
Johnson, I. India just banned all forms of disposable plastic in its capital. The Independent, 25 January 2017
Vaughan, A. UK government to ban microbeads from cosmetics by end of 2017. The Guardian, 2 September 2016
Pilgrim, S. Smugglers work on the dark side of Rwanda’s plastic bag ban. AlJazeera America, 25 February 2016
Smither, R. England’s plastic bag usage drops 85% since 5p charge introduced. The Guardian, 30 July 2016
Featured image by Henkadriaanmeijer via Pixabay (Creative commons CC0)