By Caroline Kibii
Disposable Plastics (Single-Use Plastics)
Plastics, especially disposable, otherwise known as single-use plastics, are a looming danger hindering sustainable development globally.
United Nations Environment Programme indicates that 50% of all the plastics produced are meant to be used only once and disposed of. UNEP also notes that approximately one million plastic drinking bottles are bought every minute, while one to five trillion single-use bags are used annually.
Looking at the figures from a global perspective, one might not give much attention. Sub-Saharan alone is estimated to be producing almost 20 million tonnes of plastic waste annually. The figures will increase as long as the human population goes up and plastic production remains a ‘business as usual’ affair.
World Clean-up Day 2021 takes place on the 18th of September- it is one of the biggest civic movements that seek to create awareness on keeping the environment clean. It is an activity characterized by cleanups across the globe. To have such a day in the global calendar signals a mega problem that needs to be solved. Pollution is a global problem. Plastic waste is quickly becoming a pandemic.
In the world we live in, it is almost impossible to go a day without coming across a single-use plastic. Our supermarket shelves are full of items wrapped in disposable plastic packaging. The coffee shops use disposable cups; water and soft drinks come in plastic bottles.
All these single-use items accumulate in the environment for many years. Some find their way into marine ecosystems endangering aquatic life. When microplastics enter the food chain, they end up in human bodies threatening the quality of life.
For how long are we going to do cleanups? Removing plastic waste from the environment is a complex and expensive task that requires enormous amounts of money and technology. It may take several decades to clean up plastics that are already in the environment.
It would be practical to address the plastic menace from the source. This means stopping the production of single-use plastics. For other plastic products designed to be reused, emphasis should be on the quality, durability and raw materials used.
Achieving this ambitious goal is impossible without applicable regulations and policies. Many countries in Africa, including Kenya, have instituted policies meant to reduce the usage, importation, or manufacturing of single-use plastics. The downside of these policies is the lack of coordination among implementing agencies and weak political goodwill.
Besides effective legal frameworks, far-reaching and intentional concerted efforts are critical to realise success. The role of each stakeholder should not be downplayed but be capacitated to dispense their responsibilities accordingly.
Producers and Consumers
Ultimately, the buck stops with the plastic manufacturing companies to ensure that before any item is released into the market, their impact on the environment is minimal and that it meets all the legal requirements. Manufacturers should only produce items that can be returned for reuse within their production system; that way, the number of plastics and the overall waste generated per person per year will automatically reduce.
The end-user is a significant entity in the hierarchy of zero single-use plastic waste. The consumption behaviour of the citizens determines the products availed to the market.
In instances where consumers are okay with certain products, producers take advantage and supply more. Therefore, everyone must be aware of the dangers of disposable plastics not only to the environment but human health.
Equally, attitudes drive change- where consumers refuse to be served in single-use plastics forces business entities to change their operations to meet the demands of their clients.
Also, accustoming clients to carry their reusable packaging bags to the market or coffee cups to a coffee bar triggers behavioural change.
Declining to serve clients who have not met the eco-friendly measures is an unforgettable lesson that could be applied in all stores and supermarkets just like it is done to persons not wearing facing masks during this Covid19 pandemic.
Saving the oceans, birds, humans, and wildlife from the detrimental dangers of single-use plastics is only possible if done at the source. Managing plastics at the disposal stage does not put an end to the problem but breeds life to more disposable plastics.
Caroline Kibii is a Policy Fellow at the European University Institute and an environmental researcher