Plastic has slowly emerged to become an important element of human life, ever since its invention by John Wesley Hyatt in 1869. Because of its flexibility, durability and lightness, items made out of plastic occupy an important role in our lifestyle today, not only in cities and towns, but also in villages. One of the most striking trends in this development is that consumers and businesses throughout the world are using a variety of single-use plastic items in their everyday lives and activities. But, this convenience offered by plastic items has made us pay a big price – very little of the plastic produced gets recycled.
Single-use plastic items are littering our cities, villages, oceans, and waterways, and contributing to serious health problems in humans and animals. This menace has grown into an alarming proportion and as a result, there is an increasing concern worldwide about serious negative impact of single-use plastic items. Well-managed campaigns are emerging in the horizon against this menace from governments, industry bodies, NGOs, etc.
It is interesting to note here that the movement towards the phase-out of single-use plastic items is gaining further momentum around the world. Out of these items, single-use plastic shopping bags probably occupy the largest volume in use. These bags, commonly made from low-density polyethylene, have been traditionally given for free by stores while purchasing various goods. There are many other widely used items, other than plastic shopping bags, which belong to single-use plastic items, for example, straws, stirrers, cups, bottles, and cutlery.
There are three key problems associated with single-use plastic items – use of non-renewable resources in the making of it; problems associated with its disposal; and its significant negative impact on environment. While large amounts of fossil fuels are used in the creation of these items, the manufacturing process itself is a significant source of pollution to the environment.
According various reports, today we produce about 300 million tonnes of plastic waste every year, which is equivalent to the weight of the entire human population. It is reported that more than 8.3 billion tonnes of plastic has been produced since the early 1950s, about 60% of which has ended up in either a landfill, or the natural environment. Plastic breaks down by polymer degradation, and, as a result, the toxic elements it contains, like flame retardants, antimicrobials, plasticisers, etc., will be released into the environment.
Single-use plastic items create a huge amount of waste – many of these end up on streets and later on pollute important water streams and sources. According to certain reports, fish consume huge amounts of plastic regularly, thereby plastic waste ending up in our food chain. It is predicted that there will be more plastic than fish in the oceans by 2050.
While vast majority of the political and industry leaders agree that a total ban on single-use plastic items is an absolute necessity, implementing this ban rigorously is not an easy task. A striking recent example in this direction is Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s bold plan to tackle single-use plastic items in the country, and the subsequent shelving of the plan. India uses about 14 million tonnes of plastic annually, and lacks a structured system for management of plastic waste.
Nevertheless, there are many other governments, which are in the path of ban on single-use plastic items. For example, Canada plans to ban ‘harmful’ single-use plastics as early as 2021. In March this year, the European parliament has voted to ban single-use plastic cutlery, cotton buds, straws and stirrers as part of a sweeping law against plastic waste that despoils beaches and pollutes oceans. It is interesting to note here that Dubai Airports will ban single-use plastic items such as plastic knives and forks, straws and shopping bags, from consumer spaces from 1 January 2020.
The need of the hour is strong political will from the heads of governments of developed and developing nations as well as industry leaders to phase-out production and use of single-use plastic items within an acceptable timeframe. Meanwhile, we – as consumers – can be involved in this cause by refusing to use single-use plastic items.
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