Fri | Jul 19, 2019

Michael Abrahams | Why ban plastic bags?

Published:Monday | January 7, 2019 | 12:46 AM
Abrahams

As of January 1, 2019, single-use plastic bags have been banned in Jamaica. Our government made the announcement in September 2018, and some are finding the transition to be a major inconvenience. The government should be applauded for making the move, which demonstrates respect for the environment and an understanding of the long-term effects of plastic pollution, although more time could have been given to allow consumers and retailers to prepare themselves, and a thorough public education campaign would have been useful.

But the ban is necessary.

Bangladesh, China, Israel, South Africa, the Netherlands, Morocco, Kenya, Rwanda, Mauritania, Sri Lanka, Papua New Guinea, Vanuatu, Albania and Georgia have implemented similar bans. More recently, in August 2018, the government of New Zealand also announced that they will be banning the bags this year too. At a press conference last year, Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern said that plastic was the single biggest subject school children wrote to her about, adding “We’re taking meaningful steps to reduce plastics pollution so we don’t pass this problem to future generations.”

Bangladesh was the first country to ban plastic bags. The action was taken after the discovery that the bags had a devastating impact on their storm water drainage system. The country has an annual rainfall of up to five metres and flooding is a common occurrence there. Discarded plastic bags contribute to the problem by blocking drains and waterways, causing damage to the environment and creating severe safety hazards.

Following the flooding that occurred during the 1998 monsoon season, it was estimated that up to 80 per cent of the city’s waterlogging was caused by polyethylene bags blocking drains.That year, two thirds of the country, including a large part of Dhaka City, was under knee deep water for nearly two months, and clogging of city drains by polyethylene bags was found to be the main reason.

It was also discovered that improper disposal of plastic bags increases the incidence of mosquito-borne diseases such as dengue and malaria, maladies which not only cause significant morbidity, but can also be fatal. The stagnant water resulting from the blockage of drains by plastic waste provides an excellent breeding ground for mosquitoes. When plastic bags are left lying around, even when not blocking drains, water can settle in or on them, providing micro breeding grounds for the pests.

Improperly disposed of bags also end up in the sewer, creating blockages and water logging. The resultant ponds contain raw sewage and a variety of other materials disposed of via the sewer. Sunlight and decomposition then cause these ponds to emit toxic gases at an alarming rate.

As the Bangladesh experience shows, the negative impact of plastic products on the environment is not to be taken lightly, and the above mentioned issues regarding blockage of waterways is only part of the problem.

The issues actually begin with their production. Plastic bags, bottles and other products are made of materials that are manufactured from petroleum and natural gas, both of which are non-renewable and fossil fuel-based. Through their extraction and production, they create greenhouse gases, which contribute to climate change. Plastic bag production is also very energy intensive. It has been estimated that to produce nine plastic bags, it takes the equivalent energy to drive a car one kilometre.

Plastic products end up in our dumps and landfills, and as they slowly disintegrate, they release toxic chemicals into soil and groundwater, contaminating them. Also, micro-organisms break down plastic to release methane, a greenhouse gas that contributes to global warming. In addition, when fires occur at these sites, large amounts of plastic will burn, liberating carbon monoxide, a toxic gas, and carcinogenic compounds such as dioxins and furans into the atmosphere.

But the biggest threat that plastic poses is to our oceans. Plastic is not biodegradable, and plastic products can take up to 1,000 years to fully disintegrate. Plastic bags, along with other plastic debris, contribute significantly to ocean pollution, with devastating results.It has been estimated that about eight million tons of plastic are dumped in these bodies of water every year. One million sea birds and more than 400,000 marine mammals die annually as a result of plastic, and more than 267 marine species are affected. Plastic particles are often mistaken for food by marine creatures, causing choking, suffocation, intestinal obstruction, infections, poisoning and entanglement(which can cause injury and starvation).

As plastics break down, chemicals such as bisphenol A (BPA) and polystyrene are released, adding a chemical dimension to the pollution, which also has a deleterious effect on sea life, as well as on humans who ingest seafood.

Plastic does pose a genuine threat to the planet. Please co-operate with the measures being taken to protect our environment. Just walk with your own re-useable bags.  It really isn’t that hard to do.

- Michael Abrahams is a gynaecologist and obstetrician, comedian and poet. Email feedback to columns@gleanerjm.com and michabe_1999@hotmail.com, or tweet @mikeyabrahams.