Saying NO to single use plastics | Sunday Observer

Saying NO to single use plastics

31 March, 2019

In this era of massive environmental pollution that threatens all living beings, the world is well aware that it needs to focus on saving the Earth if it is to be preserved for future generations. Fearing the loss of an environment conducive to life, the environmentally conscious are striving for a ‘greener’ Earth sans pollution. Apart from the felling of trees and killing of animals, plastic pollution is an issue that is growing at an alarming rate. Currently, experts are in search of ways that can mitigate pollution caused by single-use plastics while also looking for alternatives to polythene and plastic.

According to the UN Environment report in 2018, single-use plastics are ‘items intended to be used only once before they are thrown away or recycled’. Some examples for single-use plastics are plastic forks and knives, plastic shopping bags, plastic water bottles, Styrofoam and plastic take-out containers and plastic straws that end up in local waterways most of the time.

As a result, Sri Lankan environmentalists have been demanding a ban on single use plastics. Writing to President Maithripala Sirisena recently, the Centre for Environmental Justice led by its Director, environmentalist Hemantha Withanage highlighted the dangers of single use plastics and stressed the need to impose a ban to safeguard the country’s environment.

According to Withanage by 2015, Sri Lanka had produced 141 million plastic products. “Even though we send most of the plastics for recycling, only 2 percent of them are actually being recycled via effective recycling” he noted, adding that recycling is actually a myth as the majority of the plastics often go un-recycled. “Sri Lanka is currently in the fourth place in the list of countries that have misused plastics” Withanage said. He also said that though easily tossed out after just one use, a plastic bottle would take almost 1000 years to decompose while plastic straws could remain in the environment for almost. 700 years. “A tiny lollipop stick does not decompose for nearly 400 years while a plastic bag takes 450 years,” he claimed.

According to Withanage, steps would be taken towards reducing the use of contaminating plastics and eventually towards banning them. He said that before September 1 this year, his organisation expects to be made aware of the Government’s stance.

Environmental impact

“President Maithripala Sirisena has already emphasised the need to bring solutions to this issue in a UN Environment meeting held in Kenya” he said. Withanage also explained that they hope to introduce new concepts such as ‘scientific management strategy’ for waste management which will however require the support of the cabinet.

As for the impact on the environment Withanage explained that the wetlands have turned to waste-dumping lands where loads of tins, bottles and cans which do not biodegrade, are dumped. Such excessive plastic dumping has become a pitfall to birds, elephants, fishes and turtles whose comfort zones are the wetlands. He also noted that the turtles mistake plastic bags as jellyfishes and often consume them.

Considering the plastic pollution impact on marine life, Prabath Jayasinghe, a senior scientist at the National Aquatic Resources Research and Development Agency (NARA) said marine mammals, sea turtles and seabirds are the most vulnerable species to single use plastic pollution. Noting that marine plastic pollution is at an all time high, he said that almost all the oceans are affected, citing the example of the ‘ Great Pacific Garbage Patch.’ According to Jayasinghe plastic causes injuries in the intestine of fish resulting in death. “As for turtles they consume plastics as food which causes internal injuries and their stomachs get full by the plastics so that they don’t feel hungry afterwards, and don’t search for food” he said. “Half of the sea turtles in the world have plastics in their bodies” he added.

He said that these sea turtles come to the beaches and lakes to lay eggs but unfortunately the beaches and banks are covered with plastics, so their life ciycles get affected that way.

Talking about sea birds, he explained that 60 percent of them die due to starvation. According to him, because of the garbage floating on the oceans, light cannot penetrate through the surface of the oceans. This disturbs the ‘photosynthesis process’ which takes in the carbon dioxide produced by all breathing organisms and reintroduces oxygen into the atmosphere. As a consequence, these garbage patches lower the whole productivity of the marine environment.

The results of a marine survey done by Dr. Fridtjof Nansen, reveal that almost all of our sea areas are affected with micro plastics and the North West area is the most affected.


In addition, Withanage said the low standard of Polyethylene Terephthalate (Commonly known as PET) that is used in producing plastic bottles that are neurotoxic to all living beings. Withanage explained the vast destruction caused by ‘micro plastics’, the tiny particles of plastic that result from the breaking of sachet packets, washing powder packets, toothpaste tubes and others of their ilk.

He said that these particles blend into air and water and end up in the respiratory systems of both humans and animals and that if ingested, can damage nervous and reproductive systems. “By 2050, 99 percent of the bird species and 15 per cent of the animal species as a whole will become extinct. No species can get away from plastic pollution” he added.

On the call to ban single-use plastics, Withanage declared that all plastics cannot be banned as they play a vital role in our lifestyles. However, according to him almost 25 or 30 countries have banned single-use plastics including Rwanda and European Union countries.


As some alternatives to plastic, Withanage suggested cloth bags to be taken to supermarkets instead of plastic bags and the stainless steel lunch boxes instead of lunch sheets (which only exist in Sri Lanka ) and is a major cause for kidney issues. He also suggested making yoghurt cups with cardboard instead of plastic and to make recyclable straws. As a major alternative, he cited the value of introducing glass bottles since we have enough silica gel here in Sri Lanka.

Even though there’s the call to ban harmful plastics, he said that certain people and organisations are still against this decision just because it disturbs the procedures of their businesses. He emphasised the harm to the health of the people for which none of the polythene producers are responsible but the government has to pay for their illnesses. According to him, people can be really in control of managing and mitigating 75 percent of this issue.

Speaking to the Sunday Observer, an official from the Central Environmental Authority said the Government has not decided yet whether to come up with substitutes for single-use plastics or to ban them completely. “Actually it’s too early to talk about the steps we would take because the discussions are still in progress with the Government.” Deputy Director General, Waste Management of the Central Environment Authority (CEA), Engineer Upali Indraratna said.