When it comes to the plastic issue, many people and businesses are contributing and have been for many years, but who is ultimately to blame and how are countries overcoming this issue?
As with any widespread problem, we see that change flows from the top levels of society – the Government in any country or region. Governments have begun to mandate penalties or restrictions on producing single-use plastics and incentivize the manufacturing and use of eco-friendly alternatives. Following this, manufacturers and consumers will follow.
What Is Plastic?
Traditional plastic – the type your soft drink bottles, shampoo bottles, plastic bags and takeaway containers are made from – has been around since 1907 and even earlier for the first synthetic plastic created in the 1800s.
Plastic is made from materials such as crude oil, gas, coal, cellulose and salt which are seen as natural materials or resources. The materials undergo a refining process and are treated by heat and ‘cracked’ before being combined with other materials to create different plastic types to turn into plastics you can use.
‘Cracking’ means the degradation of the materials by heating without oxygen – this is the main process breaking down the complex carbons into smaller ‘pieces’ creating the new chemicals for end result.
Due to the fact that crude oil and natural gas are the main ingredients, this makes the plastic in many cases toxic either to people, animals or the environment when breaking down. Manufacturing products from materials such as crude oil is also bad for the environment, releasing carbon dioxide into the air, and oil itself being toxic to animals and the environment on many levels.
Manufacturing of plastic also uses high amounts of electricity and water and the impact of plastic when it breaks down over decades or centuries contributes toxic residue and pollution for the environment, wildlife and marine life.
Can We Live Without Plastic?
Plastic is not only in plastic bags but across manufacturing, toys, food and drink service and more, which means that it’s fairly impossible to completely eradicate.
While there are many options around the world such as bamboo, glass, metal, fabric, compostable and biodegradable, there is still a long way to go to replace everything.
Unfortunately, this means that at this point, banning plastic completely isn’t possible. Until there are alternatives for everything from building supplies and medical implants to water bottles and toys, it’s not possible to ban plastic in its entirety.
Which Countries Are Taking Action?
With the rising awareness of the dangers of plastic, many countries have moved to ban plastic bags – single-use – and/or introduce a fee to encourage people to move to alternative options. According to a United Nations paper and several media reports, 77 countries in the world have either banned, partially banned or introduced a tax on single-use bags.
Africa is a big supporter of this ban as a developing country with a large pollution issue. Europe has 32 countries who have chosen to charge a fee to limit usage. France, Austria, Italy and Germany have banned certain types of plastic bags in favor of forced use of compostable bags which can break down into natural components when disposed of correctly.
Other countries such as China, have completely outlawed any plastic other than compostable when it comes to bags. Others allow sturdier, reusable plastic bags but charge a fee. The USA and Australia don’t have nation-wide bans or fees, however, many States have passed this legislation. India’s plans to ban plastic bags was halted due to COVID-19.
There are also countries encouraging composting, introducing plastic alternatives such as cassava and educating their towns and cities on recycling, composting and biodegradable items.
What Has Worked Before?
We can’t really say what has worked as plastic is such a significant problem across the world it will take time to see effect. However, banning single-use plastics has been a great initiative, as have recycling and composting programs in different countries.
The introduction of alternative plastics such as bio-plastics and their adoption by large companies has also been a great step in the right direction. Many large companies have also committed to reducing or eradicating their plastic use.
What Will Work Best?
When it comes to ‘what will work best’, that really depends on the adoption by countries and their governments. Plastic alternatives and strategies to reduce plastic use or increase composting are great, however, they need buy in from people to work.
Ultimately, any strategy that either replaces plastic, bans certain plastics such as single use, encourages recycling or composting and seeks alternative ways to reduce plastic will contribute to the greater good.