Single Use Plastic Banned by the European Union: Lessons we Must Learn

ENVIRONMENT

In an unprecedented welcome step, the European Parliament approved a ban on single-use plastics. The decision of the parliament makes it important for nations throughout the world to acknowledge the gravity of the matter and cut down their use of plastic.

Priyanka Yadav | The New Leam

[dropcap]P[/dropcap]lastic is more than just another material used for the manufacturing of a range of products, it is rather a way of life. The manner in which society has built its bond with plastic determines its penetrating impact on the way that persons lead their lives, consume commodities and negotiate their relation to nature. Plastic has in one way become an all pervading truth of the contemporary world.

Planet Earth is flooded with plastics of all kind in bags, plates, spoons, bottles, hair-clips, storage containers, toys and almost everything. Image Credit – Dan Kitwood / Getty Images

I remember that my mother used to collect plastic bags she often got for free during her shopping sprees – at the cloth market, at the vegetable stall, at the milk shop and almost everywhere she went shopping. The shop vendors used cheaply procured plastic bags to hand over the commodities they sold to their customers. It was almost taken for granted that all kinds of shops would have access to these plastic bags which they offered to their customers.

In fact there was a time in the 90s when plastic was in fashion. Owning a plastic water bottle or a plastic lunch box was a style statement and the more eco-friendly, non-controversial steel tiffin was considered to be the option of the boring and non-trendy people.  The onslaught of plastic was such that, far from being cautious of its devastating impact on ecology, it was preferred to distribute it to the remotest corners of the country. From cold drink bottles, chips and biscuit packets, to toys and cutlery everything made of plastic began dominating the market.

The market was flooded with plastics of all kind in bags, plates, spoons, bottles, hair-clips, storage containers, toys and almost everything. It was much later that we discovered that what we were consuming so conveniently and conspicuously is harming the environment rapidly. The acknowledgement of the gravity of the matter came much later; the all penetrating presence of the plastic was hardly ever problematized.

Plastic packaging is a widespread truth. From an eraser at the stationary shop, to gadgets wrapped in plastic bubble wrap, to food ordered from a restaurant and to books and clothes purchased from a shop- everything comes wrapped in plastic. It is not difficult to understand that plastic is perhaps one of the most widely used substances for the purpose of packaging.

In this overwhelming presence of the plastic for packaging little did we know that plastic packaging contributes nearly 47% of the plastic waste in the world as per United Nations Environment data of 2015 where major contributors to plastic wastes are countries like China, USA and the European Union.

Source oceancrusaders.org

The most common forms of single use plastics are found in cigarette butts, plastic drinking bottles, plastic bottle caps, food wrappers, plastic bags and take away containers. The most harmful form of environment pollutants is single-use plastic. Single use plastic is not biodegradable and cannot be recycled.  

Single use plastic is quite carelessly used in the public sphere and is a major contributor to the litter found around. Mindless chain smoking harms the body and environment in every possible way, careless disposal of plastic bottles and plastic caps on roads, disposal of polythene bags, industrial and medical waste in the form of plastic, burning of plastics etc. supplemented by a poor waste management contribute to plastic associated pollution at a large scale. The inability to tackle plastic, reduce its usage for packaging and enabling the ceaseless usage of plastic to be banned are significant initiatives to be taken forward.

Plastic bags and Styrofoam (foamed plastic, is the material most widely used to produce food containers) take up to a thousand years to decompose and contaminates the soil and water. They also bring about ingestion, choking and entanglement posing a hazard to wildlife on land and in the sea. Due to its weight and shape most of the plastic blows up in the air and ends up in the ocean or on land.

Styrofoam items contain toxic chemicals like styrene and benzene which are carcinogenic in nature and lead to a lot of health complications in human beings. Single use plastics directly affect the environment and pollute it. What is ironic is that the future cost of eliminating single-use plastic is very high.  

Pointing to the harmful effects of using plastic upon the environment, the UN set up a ‘Ten Step Roadmap’ for international governments which can be helpful in regulating plastic use. The steps that it suggests are as follows:

  1. Targeting the most problematic single-use plastics by conducting a baseline assessment to identify the most problematic single-use plastics, as well as the current causes, extent and impacts of their mismanagement.
  2. Considering best actions to tackle the problem, in terms of suitability and appropriateness with regard to the country’s socio-economic standing.
  3. Assessing the potential social, economic and environmental impacts of the short-listed instruments/actions.
  4. Identifying and engaging key stakeholder groups- retailers, consumers, industry representatives, local government, manufacturers, civil society, environmental groups, and tourism associations- to ensure broad scale support.
  5. Raising Public awareness about the harm caused by single-used plastics.
  6. Promoting and assessing the availability of alternatives before banning or fixing a levy on single-use plastics.
  7. Providing incentives to industry by introducing tax rebate or other conditions to support its transition.
  8. Using revenue collected from taxes or levies on single use plastics to maximise the public goods. Support environmental projects or boost recycling with the funds.
  9. Enforcing the measure chosen effectively by making sure that there is clear allocation of responsibilities and roles.
  10. Monitoring and adjusting the chosen measures if necessary and update the public on progress.

With a vision to reduce plastic use, the European Union Parliament on Wednesday, with 571 to 53 votes and 34 abstentions- voted for a complete ban on some single-use plastics such as drinking straws and disposable cutlery- across European Union. Before legislating the order, the parliament is yet to negotiate the matter with the European Council of government ministers from its member states.

The legislation has called for direct bans on single-use plastic items such as plates, cutlery, straws, balloon sticks or cotton buds by 2021.  There is also a restriction on the usage of fishing gear which contributes to 27% of the waste found on Europe’s beaches, such as monofilament fishing line, and tobacco waste in order to reduce waste from tobacco products and cigarette filters containing plastic. European parliament also seeks to recycle a target of 90 % of all recyclable drink bottles by 2025.

According to European Commission, plastic makes up to more than 80 % of marine litter. And it is high time that countries across the world realise its harmful effect and cut down on plastic consumption.

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