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Wednesday
Mar072018

The Laws and Wars on Plastic  Straws

Flickr | Horia VarlanIf you have even a slight interest in environmental issues and read our blog regularly, you probably know about most of the negative effects of plastics on the environment. Despite the fact that it is a very handy material and unlikely to be removed from, for instance, the medicine sector, plastic has become a symbol of environmental destruction. We are exposed more and more to photographs of divers swimming in shoals of plastic debris or terrified sea creatures trapped in pieces of trash. Even political leaders consider plastic pollution a relevant issue to be solved. What does the current worldwide legislation on banning plastic look like?

A plastic bag as an arch enemy

Starting in 2002 in Bangladesh, national governments have been taking action in reducing the lightweight plastic bags that had often been given to customers in supermarkets for free. Currently, in more than forty countries worldwide, the usage of plastic bags is in some way limited. However, the strictness varies from country to country. While American states introduced mostly partial taxes or bans, African countries frequently banned all kinds of single-use plastic bags.

Kenya is considered as a good example of a plastic legislation since it introduced a total ban on manufacturing, importing and using plastic bags. Those who break the law might be forced to pay up to £27, 000 or spend four years in jail. So if you happen to be in Kenya carrying your groceries in a plastic bag, police have the right to arrest you. Travellers from foreign countries are obliged to hand over their plastic bags at the airport. Strict rules are also enforced in Mauritania, where ingesting plastic had become a leading cause of lifestock death, or Somalia whose citizens had renamed plastic bags “Hargeysa flowers” – as many of them used to end up being stuck in bushes and trees.

Pexels | Krizjohn RosalesThe European fight

The European Union has set the target of an 80% reduction in plastic bags by 2019, and European national governments are taking action as well. However, they are not as strict as in Africa. Customers can keep their plastic bags but in contrast to previous years, they now have to pay for them.

Although the European fight seems to be promising, it must be pointed out that the legislation recognizes differences between various weights of plastic bags. At the beginning of 2018, the government of the Czech Republic finally imposed a charge on plastic bags - however, ultra-lightweight plastic bags that are often used for fruits, vegetables and baked goods are still free. Around the same time, in Italy, these smaller bags were banned. Supermarkets now offer biodegradable alternatives that customers must pay for. Despite their incredibly low price, the law became a point of political contention between the current government and its opposition.

Pixabay | HansLaws and Straws

Bags account for just a fraction of the huge amount of plastic pollution worldwide. The public is becoming more aware of the negative effects of other plastic products, for example straws. In the UK, 8.5 billion of them are used every year and we’re now hearing the first thoughts about banning them coming from British politicians. Great news came from Buckingham Palace too as the Queen banned plastic straws and bottles from the royal estates. This February, the city of Malibu in California went further and voted to ban all single-use plastic straws and cutlery to protect their beaches. Only wood, bamboo and paper materials will be allowed in restaurants.

The European leader in anti-plastic actions, though, is France. Its government has approved the ban of all plastic plates, cups and utensils. All of these will have to be compostable by 2020. The law is a part of the French plan to cope with climate change. And that’s not everything – France, followed by Britain, has banned plastic microbeads in cosmetics as well.

Wikimedia Commons | AneyThe crucial dilemma

Looking at the results of plastic bag legislation, it seems like governments’ actions have been very successful. For example, the charge of 5p per single-use bag in the UK led to an 85% reduction of their usage within six months. However, some experts are afraid that despite managing to reduce our plastic pollution, these laws do not contribute to actions against climate change.

Why? The chosen alternative to plastic bags is crucial. Single-use paper bags are not the best solution as they require more energy to be produced and transported to stores. In actual fact, they might have a higher carbon footprint than plastic. An ideal alternative probably doesn’t exist. Finding the best solution depends on many factors – was the material for the bag recycled? Will it be recycled again? Was the bag produced in a local factory? Even cotton bags have their weaknesses; we must ask ourselves where the material comes from and how we can recycle it.

Legislation against plastic is beneficial but to make it truly successful, a shift in consumers’ thinking is essential. We need to adopt zero waste attitudes and bring reusable bags to the store instead of buying single-use paper ones. Carrying reusable bags, containers, bottles, cutlery and straws must become a habit.

By Eliška Olšáková - Online Journalism Intern

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