The European parliament has voted for complete ban on single use cutlery, cotton-buds, straw, balloon sticks and stirrers across the EU member states as part of law against polluting oceans and beaches. BBC reports that the proposal also calls for a reduction in single use plastic for food and drink containers like plastic cups. The EU parliament's decision is expected to be in force by 2021 in all EU member countries. As per published reports, Europe generate 25 million tonnes of plastic wastes every year and annually 150,000 tonnes of plastics wastes are carried to European water bodies. The Guardian reports (April 8, 2019) that the throwaway habit of plastic containers, water and soft drink bottles is the most prevalent form of plastic pollution in the European waterways. On the contrary, an estimated eight million tonnes of plastic wastes are entering into oceans every year. The plastics easily are transported by ocean currents to great distances. Plastic wastes have been accumulating in the bottom of seas and oceans too. In early 2018, Japanese researchers reported that they discovered plastic shopping bag at the bottom of the Mariana Trench near the Philippines. The researchers identified the object while studying the images recorded in 1998 collected under a deep-sea research exploration project. Large volumes of plastic wastes land at the beaches causing death to sea birds and other animals which eat them. Plastic wastes have been seriously polluting the seas and oceans causing major threat to marine life. Fish and aquatic animals are threatened by plastic pollution. Large whales are sometimes killed once they eat plastic and subsequently can not eat their foods and ultimately die. If the plastic micro fragments are consumed by fish, they can be passed on to humans through food chain.
There are concerns whether suitable alternatives to plastic i.e., disposable and biodegradable materials can be made available at affordable costs if single use plastics come under ban. Several countries think there are readily available alternatives to single use plastic containers such as paper straws and cardboard containers and wrappers. For items where alternatives are not available, the reduction rate would be 25 per cent within 2025 in the EU member countries. Alongside single use plastic, EU parliament members have wanted to secure reduction of cigarette filters and drink bottles. Currently, cigarette filters and drink bottles are major pollutants for water bodies and oceans. As per the EU parliament's decision for banning single use plastics, cigarette makers are to reduce 50 per cent of plastics within 2025 and 80 per cent by 2030. Also, there is an ambitious target for recycling 90 per cent of all plastic drink bottles by 2025.
China used to be the largest importer of solid waste materials including plastic wastes for recycling and fueling its own manufacturing sector. As per published report, in 2016 Hong Kong was the top exporter of plastic wastes (19 per cent of global total). United States exported 13 per cent and Japan 10 per cent of global exports of plastic wastes. Germany was among the top five plastic waste exporters to China.
However, ban on import of plastic wastes came into effect in China since December 31, 2017 which restricted import of 24 kinds of solid waste materials including plastics, electronics, textiles and some metal scraps. As the Chinese market was open and export of waste materials to China was permissible in the past, many developed countries focused only on collecting the trash for exporting them. Little attention was given for developing necessary infrastructure for effectively recycling and reusing the waste products. On the other hand, weak and often absent legal framework for recycling waste materials enabled informal recycling sector to flourish in some countries. Export of recycled wastes was an attractive and viable business. Before the import ban by China, Thailand, Malaysia, Indonesia and Vietnam exported approximately 5 per cent of global plastic exports to China. But now these countries have become top importers of plastic wastes; they are trying to attract Chinese investors in the sector. The Bureau of International Recycling (BIR) believes that the global export volume of plastic wastes is now going mainly to these four South East Asian countries.
Still, reduction of plastic waste is extremely important. At the same time, efforts should be there to build awareness of plastic consumers for changing their habit. Developing new technology for recycling plastic wastes and finding ways to develop new and larger range of products will be important for managing wastes.
Mushfiqur Rahman is a mining
engineer and writes on
energy and environment issues.
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