WHY BETTER POLICIES ARE NEEDED TO ELIMINATE SINGLE-USE PLASTICS?
Plastic pollution has come to be seen as one of the key issues in the global fight against protecting the environment. Our reliance on single-use plastics has had a severe effect on resource use and pollution across the world. More than half of plastic produced globally is designed for single-use and over 90% was never recycled in 2018. The water industry has played its part in this, with around a million single-use plastic bottles purchased every minute.
Governments around the world are waking up to the crisis, with China – the world's biggest plastic polluter – joining the pledge to tackle single-use plastics earlier this year. But is enough being done and what more can be done? Here's a brief overview of the situation.
Single-use plastic – what's the problem?
Plastic has become a key component in the manufacturing of everyday things over the last 60-70 years. However, our reliance on single-use plastic is having a detrimental effect on our environment and our species. Single-use plastic is, as the name suggests, anything that is designed to be used just once – this includes plastic water bottles, carrier bags and drinking straws.
Although single-use plastic is often recyclable, much of it doesn't get recycled. Single-use plastic products have typically either incinerated, releasing harmful CO2 into the atmosphere, or in landfills where they end up polluting oceans and waterways. For example, around 70% of plastic water bottles end up landfills rather than recycling. Statistics show that we produce around 300 million tonnes of plastic waste a year, nearly equivalent to the total weight of the global human population.
One of the big problems is that plastic is non-biodegradable. It takes a plastic water bottle between 500-1,000 years to degrade. Even when it does break down, it leaves behind microplastics which damage oceans and wildlife. Around 700 species – including endangered species – have been affected by polluting plastics in recent decades. These include seabirds, whales and turtles.
The production of these plastics is also a contributor to climate change. Studies have found that the production, refinement and management of plastic could be responsible for around 13% of carbon emissions by 2050.
What needs to be done?
There are various different ways that the single-use plastics problem can be tackled. Of course, awareness of the issue plays a key part. Many countries have invested in recent years in campaigns to encourage the reduction of use and recycling of single-use plastics among individuals, households and businesses.
Better waste management at national or regional level also come into play, especially in developing countries. Around half of plastic waste polluting oceans currently comes from five nations experiencing high levels of economic growth – China, Indonesia, Thailand, the Philippines and Vietnam.
However, recycling and management of existing waste only partially stems the problem. Studies have shown that plastics in products such as water bottles and food containers deteriorate over time and can still release harmful chemicals through repeated reuse.
The most effective way to tackle single-use plastics is to eliminate or greatly reduce the manufacturing of them. Some countries have begun to make pledges in this area. Leaders include:
Canada has vowed to ban certain single-use products by 2021 and also introduced the Ocean Plastics Charter at the G7 summit in 2018, pledging to make all plastics reusable, recyclable or recoverable by 2030.
In an important development in the world's fastest-growing economy, PM Narendra Modi has made a commitment to abolishing single-use plastic by 2022.
The Single Plastics Directive means that certain single-use plastic products where no alternatives exist, such as straws and plastic plates, will be outlawed in member states in 2021, while plastic bottles will have to contain at least 25% recycled content by 2025.
While these moves are undoubtedly a positive step, more needs to be done at policy level across the board. When it comes to reducing plastic bottle use, governments and intergovernmental organizations can look to new technologies to make water consumption more sustainable. Initiatives such as Source Zero offer a new way of producing and consuming water that has a minimum effect on the environment.
Source Zero uses new Q-Drop technology to produce remineralized drinking water from a variety of sources. This water is then stored in glass bottles which are returned, rinsed and washed locally for re-use. Plastic bottling is thus eliminated from the manufacturing process, meaning that the potential to revolutionize the industry and make single-use plastics a thing of the past is already here. The powers-that-be just need to get on board.