Contending with plastic pollution

With over eight billion metric tons of plastics produced since 1950

Syed Mohammad Ali February 14, 2020
The writer is a development anthropologist. He can be reached at [email protected]

We have seen recent attempts in Pakistan to ban single-use plastic bags. Plastic bags, however, are just one component of a much larger problem of plastic pollution which has become a key environmental challenge.

The world is literally choking on plastic. Plastic pollution is readily found in all major ocean basins, remote islands, at the poles and the deep seas. Microplastics are also found in the freshwater we drink, and in animals and the marine life we consume.

Since 1950, over eight billion metric tons of plastics have been produced and less than 20% of it has been recycled, causing a lot of plastic to accumulate in landfills and strewn across land and water in countries with scant waste management capabilities. Moreover, millions of metric tons of new plastic are being produced every year.

Why plastic use has become so prevalent in the world? Plastics have a high strength-to-weight ratio and they can be moulded easily. They are impermeable to liquids, highly resistant to physical and chemical degradation, and cheap to produce. The use of plastic is very helpful in healthcare and the car industry, where it enables greater fuel efficiency.

However, the proliferation of plastic in everyday use, combined with poor waste management practices, has resulted in a widespread and persistent pollution problem.

Policymakers have been slow to respond to this growing menace. Now numerous countries are trying to implement some type of policy, regulating plastic bags. One of them is Pakistan which has tried to get rid of the plastic bags menace a few times in the past, though without success.

This time around, a wider attempt is being made to ban polythene bags. There is a provision whereby bigger plastic bags used to collect hospital or municipal waste are exempted. However, the plastic bag ban has still not been thought through in required detail. There is a lack of coherent planning in terms of compensating workers or business owners in the industry, implying that the supply-side compulsions have not been adequately addressed. Moreover without adequate alternatives, food vendors for example, are using plastic foam boxes which are even harder to recycle.

Developing a comprehensive plan to curb single-use plastic bags in Pakistan would certainly be a step in the right direction. However, more is needed to address the broader problem of plastic use in our country and beyond.

Entities like the Ellen MacArthur Foundation are trying to create a “plastic economy” which can be restorative and regenerative. One hundred and fifty big companies have pledged to reduce their plastic usage as part of this campaign. Several large companies have also now begun to reveal how much plastic packaging they create in a year.

Coca-Cola uses a staggering three million tons of plastic packaging in a year, and is one of the biggest producers of plastic waste. It has now pledged to recycle as many plastic bottles as it uses by 2030. But environmental campaigners argue many bottles will go uncollected and end up being thrown away. Coca-Cola, however, has not renounced the production of single-use plastic bottles. It argues that besides hitting sales using only aluminum and glass packaging could increase the firm’s carbon footprint. There is a point here. Some environmental studies aiming to determine the impact of farmers, retailers and consumers using recyclable products to package their goods rather than plastic found that such efforts took more energy and increased greenhouse gases.

The idea of the “new plastics economy” does not challenge rampant consumerism but wants to make existing plastic use more efficient by eliminating unnecessary plastic packaging. It also wants to make most plastic packaging recyclable or compostable. One hopes such an approach will be able to do what it claims, before the rampant plastic pollution problem wreaks further havoc across the world.

Published in The Express Tribune, February 14th, 2020.

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