During a research trip in Costa Rica in 2015, marine biologist Christine Figgener and her research team found a sea turtle with a plastic straw lodged in its nostrils. The video of them removing the straw is painful to watch, but it went viral online and alerted many to how plastic, especially single-use items, is harming the ocean and its inhabitants.
The statement, "there will be more plastic in the ocean than fish by 2050", has taken centre stage in world media recently … and with good reason. Plastic pollution has reached epidemic proportion.
Plastics production has increased twentyfold since 1964, reaching 311 million tons in 2014, the report says. It is expected to double again in the next 20 years and almost quadruple by 2050.
Despite the growing demand, just 5% of plastics are recycled effectively, while 40% end up in landfills and a third in fragile ecosystems such as the world’s oceans.
No one knows how much unrecycled plastic waste ends up in the ocean, Earth’s last sink. In 2015, Jenna Jambeck, a University of Georgia engineering professor, caught everyone’s attention with a rough estimate: between 5.3 million and 14 million tons each year just from coastal regions. Most of it isn’t thrown off ships, she and her colleagues say, but is dumped carelessly on land or in rivers, mostly in Asia.
The plastic waste situation is just as dire on land. Urban, rural and wilderness areas are fighting a continuous battle to overcome the scourge of plastic litter. Much of it accumulates in water bodies and plastic landfill sites. It releases harmful chemicals into surrounding soil. This contaminates groundwater and nearby water sources, impacting all those species that are reliant on them.
Numerous land animals, birds and fresh water fish – many of which are considered a staple in human diet – also eat plastic which they mistake for food. This leads to increased toxicity levels and possibly even premature death of the affected animals.
In this morbid plastic pollution problem, there is a ray of hope due to the recent explosion of attention to it, and even of serious, if scattered, efforts to address it. A partial list of the good news since 2014 would include, in no particular order: Kenya joined a growing list of nations that have banned plastic bags, imposing steep fines and jail time on violators. France said it would ban plastic plates and cups by 2020. Bans on plastic microbeads in cosmetics (they’re exfoliants) take effect this year in the U.S., Canada, the U.K., and four other countries. The industry is phasing them out.
More than 60 countries now have some kind of ban or tax on plastic bags, according to UNEP’s recent report. Data on the effectiveness of these rules is available for only half these countries, of which 30 percent have seen a dramatic decline in use, the report said. These include Denmark, Ireland, China, and the Netherlands. The other 20 percent of countries have seen no change. In May, the European Union proposed a ban on 10 single-use items, including bags, straws, and cotton swabs. Britain also has called for a ban on plastic straws, and other countries may follow suit; in the United States alone, 500 million plastic straws are used daily.
San Francisco banned the sale and distribution of single-use bottled water on city property in 2014. The liberal California city had previously led the way on banning plastic shopping bags, but the 2014 proposal to restrict bottled water was more modest. Although the board of supervisors voted unanimously to phase out the sale of single-use plastic water bottles, the rule only applied to city property. So even though San Francisco is known as one of the most environmentally progressive cities in the country – the first in the US to pass a comprehensive mandatory recycling and composting law – officials limited the bottled water ban to city-owned land, leaving private businesses unaffected.
In June 2018, one of the world’s strictest plastic bans came into effect in India, in the city of Mumbai. Plastic bags had been banned in Mumbai before, to little effect. The ban was on the manufacture, sale, and use of throwaway plastic items such as bags, plates, cutlery, straws, and small bottles, as well as new regulations governing retail packaging and Styrofoam. The penalties for manufacturing and selling these items included fines of up to $350 and jail terms of up to three months.
Then came the backlash. Within a week — after pleas from plastic manufacturers, milk suppliers, small traders, consumer beverage giants, and e-commerce giants — the government relaxed the rules, exempting small traders and granting more time for bigger players to come up with solutions for retail packaging, including alternative materials and recycling schemes. For now, only plastic bags, takeout containers, plates, and Styrofoam remain forbidden.
Evidently, it’s not easy to restrict a material that has become so deeply embedded in the modern economy. Plans of the local government to force Corporates to do recycling are still “plans”. Not only in a country like India but globally, corporations and brands need to do far more than what they have done.
However, corporations are gradually responding to public opinion. Coca-Cola, which also produces Dasani water, announced a goal to “collect and recycle the equivalent of” 100 percent of its packaging by 2030. It and other multinationals, including PepsiCo, Amcor, and Unilever, have pledged to convert to 100 percent reusable, recyclable, or compostable packaging by 2025. And Johnson & Johnson is switching from plastic back to paper stems on its cotton swabs.
Starbucks, perhaps compelled by the fact that its plastic cups and green straws keep ending up in photos of beach trash, pledged to phase out straws at more than 28,000 locations by 2020. New wave burger chain, Shake Shack, will phase out plastic straws in 2019, while Chicago’s largest restaurant group, Lettuce Entertain You Enterprises, has phased out the plastic drinking utensils at its 120 establishments. Food service heavy-hitter Aramark, eager to join in the straw buzz, announced its goal of overhauling single-use plastic straws and utensils in its business in July. The process is expected to be completed by 2022.
Based on the amount of media attention plastic straws are getting, it may be surprising to hear they are not the leading type of plastic waste. That record goes to food wrappers and containers, which account for about 31 percent of all plastic pollution. They are followed by plastic bottle and container caps at 15.5 percent, plastic bags at 11.2 percent, and then finally plastic straws and stirrers at 8.1 percent. The main reason cited for eliminating plastic straws is their negative impact on our oceans and marine wildlife. Of all the plastic that ends up in the ocean, straws make up only four percent of that waste but the problem is their size. They are small and inconspicuous. So much so that people often forget they are plastic and do not recycle them.
So, knowing that most straws, recycled or not, are likely to end up in our oceans, and knowing the amount of straws being used every day, individuals cutting back on use can make a difference.
The silver lining to this massive cloud is that awareness levels of the plastic pollution problem have increased manifold. What we cannot underestimate is the speed at which consumer opinion is moving, and how many brands that perpetuate plastic packaging are at risk from new formats. Even the humble bar of soap might just bounce back into public affection as it does not require the plastic packaging that shower gels and shampoos do!
The question that the Corporations and brands need to answer is are they willing to take a more active role in fighting this crisis and help the human kind?