Mon | Nov 11, 2019

Orville Taylor | The war on plastic

Published:Sunday | January 13, 2019 | 12:00 AM
The age of single-use plastic or 'scandal' bags, such as those being carried by this shopper, is coming to an end as legislation banning their use took effect earlier this month.

Now the Government has put its foot down and decided that it is going to end all 'scandals' created by petroleum products. Well, that includes the single-use plastic bags that go by the same name and are notorious for filling up our drains and also in 'rear' cases, for the disposal of bodily waste.

Given that there are major consequences of using plastics that are non-biodegradable, any attempt to stem the tide of plastics and other pollutants entering the biosphere must be commended.

Globally, almost 300 million tons of plastic is produced each year. Of this amount, roughly half is used only once and then discarded without any further thought. According to the 2018 World Environment Day Outlook, around 13 million tonnes of plastic reach our oceans each year. In fact, the UN's State of Plastic report warns, "If current consumption patterns and waste-management practices continue, then by 2050, there will be around 12 billion tonnes of plastic litter in landfills and the environment."

The majority of plastics do not break down in the true sense. Rather, they degrade into micro-particles and are ingested by animals we eat, enter the body by other sources, and have impacts that we are only just learning about. Oceanbound plastics kill all species of marine life, including corals, which only need to be touched by certain types of plastics for them to die. This is not a disaster waiting to happen. It already is occurring.

 

Plastic pollution

 

At present, the amount of plastic in the ocean is on target to surpass the number of fish in just over 30 years if present patterns continue. In fact, there are large numbers of plastic islands in the marine ecosystems, five of which are larger than many countries. These include the Great Pacific Garbage Patch, which can be found at coordinates 135degW to 155degW and 35degN to 42degN.

It is massive. An estimated 80,000 metric tons and an area of 1.6 million square kilometres. Closer to home, there is a North Atlantic garbage patch comprising at least 200,000 pieces of debris per square kilometre, and which has a seasonal mobility of around 1,000 kilometres.

Of course, the contribution that Jamaica makes to the global plastic phenomenon is negligible. We are more victims of it because of our relatively small size. However, being an island nation, with a high dependence on the ocean, we have to protect our little space of just under 11,000 square kilometres. This includes not only the oceans, but our internal aquifers. The time to put a lid on plastics is now.

Jamaica's brilliant and prosperity-driven initiative is not new. Although the main countries that produce plastics - like the USA, UK, China, and other industrialised nations - have dragged their feet in fixing the problem, Bangladesh took the lead in 2002. Rwanda, which was torn apart by a murderous internal conflict just around a quarter-century ago, has had such a ban since 2007. Kenya and a slew of African nations have seen the benefits of bans that others, including their manufacturers, cited as draconian and hurried.

 

Social problem

 

Yet, as with all policies, things are not as simple as one suggests, and fixing one problem in one part of a system without understanding the connection to others can be dysfunctional and counterproductive. A large part of any fixing or identification of any social problem is definition.

We are targeting at present 'single-use' plastic bags and styrofoam containers that are non-biodegradable. However, it has been noticed that some containers have the 'biodegradable' label on them, thus making them escape the ban.

While one can scarcely argue that 'box food' containers are generally just used and discarded, scandal bags are often reused in multiple ways. Most homes have stashes of black bags that are later used as garbage bags, secondary wrappers for food, protection against rain, and as shoe covers, to name a few.

Truthfully, the bags that are now allowed and considered to be biodegradable are the ones most likely to be used only once. For the record, syringes are single-use plastics and latex condoms are not rubber. They are actually polyisoprene and polyurethane. Not rubber - plastic. However, I am sure no one is even thinking of giving them the boot.

Nevertheless, when we speak of 'biodegradable' and 'compostable', it is often a deceptive description because unlike cardboard or the old paper and crocus bags, if left in a heap of rotting leaves and plant products, it will not break down within our short lifetimes.

 

Biodegrade conditions

 

The report notes: "In reality, the majority of biodegradable plastics only biodegrade under high temperatures. These conditions are met in incineration plants but rarely in the natural environment. Even bioplastics derived from renewable sources such as cornstarch, cassava roots, sugar cane, or from bacterial fermentation of sugar or lipids (PHA) do not automatically degrade in the environment and especially not in the ocean."

All of these will still end up in the ocean and do exactly what the so-called non-biodegradable plastics do.

Real biodegradable bags are made from natural sources like cotton, wood, corn stalk, and even bamboo. Paper bags are generally single-use, but fabric is washable for multiple reusage. However, I am not sure how to wash bamboo cloth given its fragility.

Yet, it gets even more complicated. Paper leads to deforestation, and even if we replant, many of the replaced trees are not appropriate for other life forms in the denuded environment. Furthermore, it might be surprising to know that the production of one paper bag or cotton bag leads to more greenhouse gas production and more pressure on the biosphere than its plastic equivalent. This is even more so for those made from recycled material.

Thus, while we recognise that reducing the use of 'scandals' and food box styrofoam is a good first step, the real problem is not the use of these handy products, but how we get rid of our garbage.

We are simply still too nasty.

- Dr Orville Taylor is head of the Department of Sociology at the UWI, a radio talk-show host, and author of 'Broken Promises, Hearts and Pockets'. Email feedback to columns@gleanerjm.com and tayloronblackline@hotmail.com.