As reported by BBC News, the European Parliament has voted to ban single-use plastics across the board in an attempt to stop the unending stream of plastic pollution making its way into the oceans.
Such plastic products include things like straws, plates, cups and cotton buds, and can take several centuries to degrade in the oceans where they are increasingly observed to be consumed by marine life. According to the European Commission, such plastics make up 70 percent of all marine litter.
A ban was proposed in May after the public outcry and awareness over the issue reached a new zenith. A vote at the European Parliament was held earlier this week, with a huge majority of MEPs – 571 yays to 53 nays, with 34 abstentions – agreeing to enforce the ban by 2021.
The ban is, at a glance, comprehensive. Aside from the 2021 complete ban on plenty of single use products, the use of plastics for which no alternatives currently exist – mostly food packaging – will have to be cut down by 25 percent by 2025. Beverage bottles will also required to be collected and recycled at a rate of 90 percent by 2025. Cigarette butts, remarkably resilient components of plastic pollution, will have to be reduced by 50 percent by 2025, and 80 percent by 2030.
As researchers scramble to work out precisely what negative effects it may afflict on those that inadvertently eat them – especially marine mammals, many of which can suffer from just consuming one small fragment of plastic – news reports keep cropping up that remind us that we are increasingly reaping what we sow. Just in the last week or so, it was confirmed that plenty of table salt contains microplastics, as does human poop.
Things clearly can’t stay the same, and an increasingly multidisciplinary approach to dealing with the problem is at least appearing to gain steam. There are, in crude terms, three major prongs to this: engineering, political action, and public awareness.
This latest move seems to be a rare political action that might end up making a difference. Although plenty of national governments appear to want to do something, what usually happens is dissenting, powerful voices manage to weaken proposals that otherwise might provide an effective, united front.
Back in December 2017, for example, a UN resolution was tabled that aimed to prevent any plastic from entering the waterways of the world. Originally legally enforceable, protestations from the US rendered it non-mandatory and far less sweeping in its scope. At the G7 summit in Quebec this summer, a similar agreement was put forward. Although it focused on the wider issue of ocean health, it also made a point about the importance of scaling back the use of plastics that inevitably end up in the sea. The US and Japan, sadly, failed to sign on to that section of the blueprint.
The politics as to why various nations prefer not to pull their weight are complex, and worthy of writers with more specialized expertise than myself. The perception of who is to blame, and who should handle the problem, certainly plays a role, though.
China, until recently a bit of a dumping ground for much of the world’s potentially recyclable rubbish, no longer accepts the world’s non-industrial waste. Plastics that were once repurposed are now being sent to landfills. Somewhat happily accepting so much waste for a fairly long period of time, the Chinese government has now decided that it shouldn’t keep taking on yang laji – “foreign trash.”
Lest we forget, the plastic manufacturing industry is a colossus that has a huge influence over countries’ various decisions over plastic. Certainly, public awareness of the problem is a good thing – even if things like bans on plastic straws are probably misleading the public as to the true scale (and causes) of the crisis – but individual action will only go so far. Unless there’s an industry-wide change, vast quantities plastic will still make it into the oceans.
That’s where engineering comes into the story. There are research groups all over the world currently working on ways to rid ourselves of single-use plastics once and for all, with some projects showing more promise than others. There are some that suspect that making plastic 100 percent recyclable is the way forwards, and proof-of-concept, low-energy intensive plastics that can achieve this have been invented. Others suspect that biodegradable plastics, those that break down quickly after use and can’t pollute, may be our best bet.
It must be stressed that such projects are still very much early days endeavors, so right now, it seems clear that stopping plastic getting into the oceans in the first place is of the utmost importance. Based on the track record of such actions, it's understandable to have a bit of healthy skepticism about the EU's approval of a sweeping ban. After all, it's not clear how enforcable it will be at present - and the proof, as they say, is in the pudding.