CC BY Leon Nixon

Analysis: Pioneering countries around the world say no to plastic waste

What do California, Rwanda and Morocco have in common? They have all turned the plastic bag down

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Region: Global

Plastics are brilliant. They are an extremely flexible and long-lasting group of materials. Our consumption of plastic, on the other hand, cannot last. More than eight million tonnes of plastic are emitted each year to the ocean. This is equivalent to dumping a truckload of plastic in the oceans of the world every single minute. This amount is expected to double over the next ten years. If the trend continues, the ocean will contain more plastic than fish by the year 2050. According to the UN, plastic pollution in the sea is to be considered as a “a common concern for humanity”.

Concern and home-knitted dishcloths

It has become popular to replace the common disposable dishcloths with home-knitted, recyclable versions, and fashionable reusable bottles for tap water have become a hip alternative to paying money for bottled water. Plastic production has exploded over the last 50 years – from 15 million tonnes in 1964 to 311 million tons in 2014, and the excessive consumption of plastics is obviously something that is important to many consumers – perhaps because it is such a visible source of pollution. A beached whale with 30 kilos of plastic in the stomach speaks directly to our guilty conscience.
The world now has a plastic problem, and the solution is a combination of preventing more plastic, both visible and invisible, to end up in nature, while removing the plastic that is already out there. Both solutions require innovation and political will at a completely different level than we have ever seen before. But new ambitious plastic bans around the world indicate that the political will for change is starting to appear.

Effective ban on plastic bags

On the same day as the people of the United States voted for Donald Trump to be their president, the state of California took a different turn: A ban on most types of disposable plastic bags. The US is well-known to be the world’s largest consumer of plastic bags. But it’s not only wealthy countries that have taken action against the millions of paper-thin plastic bags that you often see dancing in the wind. Even before California’s green decision, Morocco was way ahead with a ban on both the production and use of plastic bags, which came into force on first of July 2016. Morocco is the world’s second largest consumer of plastic bags, consuming 900 bags per person per year. And back in 2008, Rwanda, one of the world’s poorest countries, was a frontrunner and banned disposable plastic bags. The bags posed a serious health threat to the population and the environment because they were rarely recycled, but instead ended up blocking drains or was burned with other waste, releasing toxic fumes into the air. The next challenge for Rwanda is to combat the significant black market for plastic bags that the ban has caused.

Giant vacuum cleaners and edible cutlery
Bans and regulation are not the only tools towards a more sustainable relationship with plastic. Researchers, companies and entrepreneurs worldwide are constantly testing new ideas and alternatives to the disposable products. The Dutch environmentalist Boyan Slat, only 23 years old, has received awards, wild media attention – and also criticism that his ideas may be unfeasible – with his Gyro Gearloose-like giant vacuum cleaner that is meant to capture the plastic that is already floating around in the oceans. The project is called Ocean Cleanup and it has crowdfunded more than two million dollars for research and development of the finished prototype which was put in the water in 2017. The goal is that the finished machine be implemented and ready to vacuum the ocean‘s plastic by 2020.

Another interesting solution to the plastic solution is the production of bioplastics, which is a 100 percent compostable, plant-based plastic. Ordinary plastic is made of oil and gas, which means that this type of plastic can only be made as long as we continue to pump oil and gas out of the ground. This means that in line with the renewable energy revolution, there is also a need for a plastic revolution. It will probably take some years before we will see food, for example, wrapped in decomposable plastic packaging.

On the other hand, a solution that has already been introduced is edible cutlery. The Indian capital of New Delhi introduced a ban on disposable plastics at the beginning of 2017. India is a major consumer of disposable cutlery, so the decision to ban it from the capital city may be a boost for the Indian company Bakeys, which since 2011 has produced edible disposable cutlery made of sorghum flour.

Meanwhile in Denmark, major brewing company Carlsberg is developing a biodegradable bottle made of sustainable wood fibres.

Plastic bans, plastic vacuum cleaners, and plastics made out of plants are, of course, only small steps on the way to manage the challenges of our overconsumption of plastic, but these are important steps towards the anti-plastic revolution that our planet needs.

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