IT is a scourge of modern living. The sight of a baby Minke whale being poisoned to death because the milk it was feeding from its mother was contaminated with micro-plastic particles — due to the plastic debris in the world’s oceans and seas she was consuming — is heart-rending.
Sir David Attenborough’s defining Blue Planet II television series could not have better articulated the environmental catastrophe mankind seems to be sleepwalking into, thanks to the scourge of plastic pollution as a result of human activity.
A few months ago, Norwegian scientists found 30 plastic bags and other plastic waste in the stomach of a Cuvier’s beaked whale stranded off the island of Sotra. The animal was so emaciated that it had to be put down.
The plastic makes the animal feel full but in reality it makes it malnourished, leading to eventual death. The litany of such episodes is endless and no country with marine and coastal environments is spared.
When supermarket chain, Iceland — the first in the world — last week announced in London that it would eliminate plastic packaging of all its 1,000-plus own-label products by end 2023, my immediate reaction was: “Why don’t all supermarket chains the world over do the same?”
Iceland will switch to using a paper-based tray as packaging.
The hubris and irresponsibility of supermarket packaging was last week highlighted by public outcries over the plastic packaging of “cauliflower steaks” (a piece of the vegetable cut in the shape of a steak) and coconuts by a household United Kingdom department store, which has branches in Malaysia.
In contrast, UK Prime Minister Theresa May seemed oblivious to the urgency of the plastic threat.
Last week, she announced a “long-term” green strategy, including eradicating all avoidable plastic waste in the country by 2042.
The strategy has no legal force and would take 25 years to materialise.
As an immediate measure the government is extending the five pence charge for plastic carrier bags to all retailers in England, will allocate funding for plastics innovation, and has pledged to help developing nations tackle pollution and reduce plastic waste, including through UK aid.
The anti-plastic momentum in the UK has surfaced in other novel ways led by George Osborne, editor of London Evening Standard and former UK Chancellor of the Exchequer, with his nascent “Last Straw” campaign aimed at eradicating the use of plastic straws, of which a staggering two billion are used and discarded in the UK every year.
The campaign is cooperating with the City of London Corporation to end single-use plastics, and has already attracted the support of Michelin-starred chefs such as Raymond Blanc.
I cannot but hanker for the memories of my childhood in Cape Town in the 60s when everything from fresh fruit to meat and fish was packed in brown paper and bags. Plastic packaging was meagre, then.
Ironically, the 60s was also the decade when the plastic bag revolution started.
Swedish engineer Sten Gustaf Thulin had developed a method of forming a simple one-piece bag by folding, welding and die-cutting a flat tube of plastic for a local packaging company Celloplast. The development of high-density polyethylene bottles was similarly first mass produced in the 1960s. According to the journal Science Advances, some 480 billion plastic bottles were sold globally in 2016, of which 110 billion were made by Coca Cola.
Plastics in reality are derived from materials found in nature, such as natural gas, oil, coal, minerals and plants. While most plastic waste ends up in landfills, its devastating impact is most affecting the world’s oceans and seas, which cover more than 70 per cent of the earth’s surface, and which feeds the world, regulates its climate, and generates most of the life-sustaining oxygen humans need to breathe.
The oceans are also an essential global economic asset supporting sectors such as tourism, leisure sports, fisheries and international shipping.
Plastic pollution is one of five scourges threatening oceans, the others being climate change in damaging coral reefs and other marine ecosystems, overfishing, nutrient pollution and its creation of dead zones, and the discharge of nearly 80 per cent of the world’s wastewater without treatment. The United Nations Environment Programme estimates that eight million tonnes of plastic waste end up in the world’s oceans each year.
The UN 2030 Sustainable Development Agenda (SDA) has targets for managing and protecting life below water, which encapsulates Goal 14 of the Agenda and calls for the conservation and sustainable use of oceans, seas and marine resources.
The SDA is a necessary initiative because some three billion people depend on marine and coastal diversity for their livelihoods and nearly a third of the world’s fish stocks are overexploited.
But, the sheer scale of the problem suggests that the world needs to urgently rethink its anti-plastic pollution and climate change strategy before we reach a point of no return, where the environmental damage is so great that a remedy would be futile.
Plastics is so pervasive today to the extent that it has transformed everything from clothing, cooking and catering to product design, engineering and retailing.
However, the use of the technology seems to have been on the basis of “pollute and be damned”. The statistics of plastics are damning. According to the UN, an estimated 8.3 billion tonnes of virgin plastic has been produced to date, generating some 6.3 billion tonnes of plastic waste at the end 2015.
Of this, only nine per cent has been recycled, 12 per cent incinerated and a staggering 79 per cent festering in landfills or the natural environment, such as the oceans and seas.
The Science magazine estimates that at current production and waste management trends, some 12 billion tonnes of plastic waste will be in landfills and the natural environment by 2050.
The writer is an independent London-based economist and writer