Today is World Environment Day, and the theme for this year is: “Beat Plastic Pollution.” But, why this theme? The reason is due to the levels of pollution as a result of plastic pollution, and the high cost of single-use plastics to the environment, our health, the economy, and sustainable development. So what are the specific issues as it relates to plastic, and particularly single-use plastics?
Here are the facts, according to UN Environment:
- 13 million tonnes of plastic end up in the ocean every year.
- Plastic bags can block waterways and worsen natural disasters.
- By clogging sewers and providing a breeding ground for mosquitoes and pests, mosquitoes can increase the spread of vector-borne diseases such as malaria, dengue fever, and CHIK-V.
- Plastic materials, particularly plastic bags, have been found blocking the airways and stomachs of hundreds of species in the ocean.
- Toxic chemicals added during the making of plastic products transfer to animal tissue, including those consumed by humans, eventually entering the human food chain.
- Styrofoam products, which contain carcinogenic chemicals like styrene and benzene, are highly toxic if ingested, and can damage the nervous systems, lungs and reproductive organs.
- In poor countries, plastic waste is often burned for heat and cooking, exposing individuals to toxic emissions.
- Disposing plastic waste by burning it in open-air pits releases harmful gases into the environment.
We have seen the impact of plastic use on the environment and our health. But what is the impact on our pockets? The main sectors adversely affected by plastic use are tourism, fisheries, and shipping. These are all vital industries to the economies of many countries. Tourism is one of the world’s largest industries, contributing 1 in 10 jobs globally. The global fisheries industry contributes to the livelihoods of up to 12% of the world’s population, generates US$148 billion in exports, and feeds billions every year. Shipping is the driver of the global economy, making 90% of international trade possible. Plastic pollution puts these income generating activities at risk, costing more than US$13 billion annually, by way of marine litter, and an enormous US$139 billion, when socio-economic and environmental impacts are factored in (UN Environment).
So what are we doing about it? More than 60 countries have imposed varying types of bans or levies to prevent and/or reduce single-use plastic waste, including styrofoam. These countries include Botswana, Ethiopia, and Mali (in Africa), Taiwan and Hong Kong (in Asia), Ireland, Netherlands and Portugal (in Europe), and Guyana and Saint Vincent and the Grenadines (in the Caribbean). However, these measures are not strictly enforced in some countries, and it is too soon to assess the impact of those which are being enforced. In addition to measures like these, voluntary agreements are recommended to stem the use of single-use plastics.
We can all play a part in beating plastic production by resolving to minimise our use of plastic products. Plastics can take hundreds of years to biodegrade, and recycling does not necessarily prevent pollution, but merely delays it. Therefore, using biodegradable products or multi-use plastics is preferable. A general rule of thumb should be: if it can’t be reused, refuse it. Our future, and the future of generations to come, depends on it.