Main offender in environment pollution | Sunday Observer
Single-use plastics:

Main offender in environment pollution

14 February, 2021

In another timely and important move, the Government has imposed a ban on a range of single use plastic products in the country. The ban was enforced on Poly Ethylene Terephthalate (PET) and Vinyl Chloride (PVC) containers, sachets made out of polythene and plastic, and various inflatable plastic toys such as plastic cotton buds.

Single-use plastic products made out of fossil fuel-based plastics create one of the worst environmental risks everywhere in the world. Meant to be disposed of after using once, often in a fraction of time, these products create havoc in the environment. Products such as food packages, liquid sachets, cups, straws, plates, bags, and many other similar items damage the surroundings with their non-biodegradable nature. Particularly, the marine environment around the island has been one of the worst affected due to haphazard dumping.

On an earlier occasion in 2017, the then government imposed a ban on the use of polythene below 20 microns in thickness. Similar to many such prohibitions, the then government failed to sustain enforcement of the ban due to its inefficiency and negligence.

Although the intention was genuine, actions were marred by a lack of coordinated monitoring and lukewarm punitive actions leading both sellers and users to ignore the ban. The global impact on single-use plastic (SUP) pollution is so significant, that in March 2019 at the fourth session of the United Nations Environmental Assembly (UNEA) in Nairobi, 170 countries pledged to 'significantly reduce' the use of single-use plastic products by 2030, in a resolution. Many of them including the United Kingdom, the United States, Kenya, India, and China have already commenced imposing rules, regulations, and, laws on selected SUPs in support of the UN resolution and to curb the menace in their respective countries.

Single-use plastic

It is clear that imposing a ban is only one positive step to confront the grueling problem. However, for the ban to succeed, the public must be aware of not only the hazard it creates but also understand what SUP is. Single-use plastic simply means products such as packaging, wrappers, water bottles, sachets, straws, shopping bags, and many other similar day-to-day use items. All these products are used only once and then discarded to the environment in a short time.

The use of SUPs has tripled since the 1990s due to the ease of use, ease of disposal, malleability, lightweight, and low cost, throughout the world. Since the introduction of single-use plastics Sri Lankans have embraced these products that were unknown territory at the time. However, by the time the extreme, bad impacts came to light, the country has become tenaciously accustomed to their use. Such a convenient or cost-effective option or substitute was not introduced since then for the common man.

According to the United Nations environment reports, only 9 percent of the plastic waste is recycled out of an estimated nine billion metric tons produced annually. Most of the balance waste ends up in landfills, oceans, waterways, and in the open environment. According to specialists, plastic waste is not biodegradable and remains in the atmosphere for hundreds, or maybe thousands of years, mostly in micro plastic form. That can contaminate the soil and water resources and shift to animal tissues and eventually wind up entering the human food chain.

Sri Lanka, an island surrounded by the ocean, throughout history, was regarded as a blessing in many spheres such as geopolitics, economic importance, and the naturally strategic location. However, it is regrettable that the damage done to the beaches around the country due to plastic waste dumping is arguably the worst pollution affecting Sri Lanka.

Plastic waste, not only single-use but every form of non-biodegradable products, causes severe damage to all forms of marine ecosystems around the country. According to experts, plastics and related debris contribute to 80 percent of marine pollution. At least 700 species of marine species including sea birds, turtles, and other marine mammals in the ocean are severely affected.

It is reported that every minute an estimated two million single-use plastic bags are given out around the world over the counters. Sri Lanka’s estimated quantity cannot exactly be determined, yet, a couple of hundred thousand would be a safe guess. Each year an enormous amount of micro plastic waste end up in beaches around the island either dumped by the people or washed ashore with the tides. A part of such trash sink and another part is consumed by marine animals or are accumulated in ocean gyres.

The impact of marine pollution on seafood is a matter that has not been properly discussed in Sri Lankan society despite its importance. Micro plastics generated through plastic waste can be ingested by fish, and in turn, end up in the human food chain.

Ocean debris

The impact of the harmful contaminants in seafood is not yet being studied in the country. As there is a potential risk, a monitoring program focusing on ocean debris should be introduced by the authorities to examine the possibility of food contamination.

Finding suitable alternatives to SUP items is a dire need today. Both, manufacturers and consumers must be made aware of the repercussions of using plastic products. However, considering the enormity of its current use, finding substitutes for SUPs can be a daunting task. Due to their ease of use and low cost, the transformation could take time, even with a feasible alternative.

An effective public awareness campaign on easy alternatives to avoid the negative impact should be on the cards of the authorities such as the Central Environmental Authority and the Ministry of Environment. The existing media publicity cannot single-handedly tackle the situation.

Occasional electronic media advertisements that appear do not make a significant impact on the public mindset. In fairness, it must be mentioned that Sri Lankan media, both electronic and print, perform a highly commendable task voluntarily on the subject of pollution and environment protection.

The public must be influenced to make a conscious effort to curtail the use of SUPs. They must be encouraged to avoid purchasing plastics as much as possible.

If and when an unavoidable need occurs, the people must be taught to use the minimum quantity, particularly when they purchase retail goods. Making them aware of the significance of re-use is highly productive to reduce SUP usage. The public must be made aware of the importance of recycling and persuade them to help recycle whenever possible.

Although the production and selling of SUP items are banned, the success of its continuity would depend on the monitoring process. If not, similar to the 2017 ban of polythene, the SUP products also will find ways to be back in the market. Fortunately, however, in Sri Lanka, unlike in some other countries, resistance is minimal from the producers as yet. Law enforcement is compulsory with an effective penal system with heavy fines to control the offenders who litter the environment.

Proper awareness

Providing proper awareness by educating the community is imperative to combat the menacing issue. As discussed, education is one of the key aspects in changing behaviour. Most of the citizenry is already aware of the harm caused by plastic pollution although they are not considering the issue as a pressing one. A well-planned and properly structured educational program starting at school level must be introduced to derive the best results.

Experts say that at present there is a dire need for a national action plan to minimise the damage. The imposed ban must be extended phase-wise with the consensus of all stakeholders. Producers of plastics and polythene based products (Approximately 400 manufacturers according to EDB) must be given adequate support by the Government to switch to alternative products unless their products are exported.

Also, every new entrepreneur who wants to produce eco-friendly substitutes must be given encouragement and assistance. The entire citizenry of the country must be influenced to fall in line to curb the life threatening plastic pollution hazard.