Plastic scourge means we’re ruining planet for our children
Should we pat ourselves on the back for this month’s World Cleanup Day, which was attended by millions of people? One swallow doesn’t make a summer, and one clean-up day solves nothing. Collecting rubbish on a beach is not a policy, though it is a nice idea and a great photo opportunity.
It has become abundantly clear that there is no time to lose in changing how we consume. This type of event is a great way to raise awareness of environmental causes, but not a day goes by without a dire warning about the damage caused by plastic in our oceans or without the appearance of a new private or public initiative for combating this pollution.
The figures speak for themselves. The amount of plastic we consume is mind-boggling: More than 500 billion disposable plastic bags are used each year; a million plastic bottles are purchased every minute around the world; and we use and throw away the equivalent of our body weight in plastic each year.
And the figures on the amount of plastic in the oceans are astronomical: The equivalent of a dustcart-load of plastic is dumped into the oceans every minute; up to 8 million tons of plastic find their way into our oceans each year; and it is estimated there are at least 93 million tons of plastic in the oceans.
These are the sad origins of the “plastic continents,” made up of rubbish from coasts and ships that breaks free and drifts for years before coalescing into a floating island. The most disastrous example is, without a doubt, the North Pacific Subtropical Gyre — an immense vortex that is 30 times larger than France. There is also the river in Beirut that has become so polluted with plastic.
The plastic waste dumped into the oceans poses a clear and present danger to marine wildlife. There are now nearly 500 dead zones (lacking dissolved oxygen) covering a total of almost 245,000 square kilometres — an area the size of the UK. Nearly all marine species have now come into contact with plastics, which cause the deaths of about 1 million marine birds and 100,000 marine mammals each year.
And there is little hope for improvement on the horizon: Estimates show that, by 2050, there will be more plastic than fish in our oceans. Again by 2050, 99 percent of marine birds will have ingested plastic in the form of micro or nanoparticles.
Plastic is also ubiquitous in school canteens, in plates, packaging containers and the pouches used to cook the food. Plastic pouches lose about 1 gram after being used for cooking, and that gram ends up in our children’s food.
The situation is more than just worrying: We are approaching the point where these problems can no longer be reversed in our lifetimes. We have begun working toward the goal of eliminating plastic, most notably in France through the Egalim Food Act, which is currently being deliberated in parliament. This law is expected to make modest inroads by banning plastic utensils in school canteens within a fairly short period of time and introducing a bonus/penalty system. The government is hoping this will help us reach a 100 percent recycling rate for plastics by 2025. For its part, the National Assembly has voted to ban plastic cutlery and containers by 2025; a measure that joins the ban on plastic straws and stirrers passed by the Senate.
At the European level, the Commission is looking to limit plastic pollution by targeting 10 single-use plastic products such as straws, cotton swabs and plastic cups. These products will be banned unless no affordable alternatives are available.
The UN has launched a global campaign called #CleanSeas that aims to end ocean pollution. This campaign takes aim at two major sources of marine waste: Microplastics found in cosmetics and the proliferation of single-use plastic items. The UN called on countries to implement policies for reducing plastic, including asking industries to limit plastic packaging and redesign products.
Consumers are the ones who can make or break these policies: We must change our “everything is disposable” lifestyles. These national and international measures must be supported with local awareness-raising efforts. We must do more, we must do it better, and we must do it faster.
The situation is more than just worrying: We are approaching the point where these problems can no longer be reversed in our lifetimes
Across the globe, individuals are taking up the cause. A recent initiative in Tripoli, Lebanon, got the whole city involved. The Omar Harfouch Foundation spearheaded a war on pollution with the support of the city’s Chamber of Commerce. They created a policy to eliminate plastic bags in an effort to empty an open-air landfill site that was nearly 45 meters tall. This was made possible with the help of innovative methods promoted by institutions like the UN, which supports ground-breaking programs under the strong and remarkable leadership of Under-Secretary-General Philippe Douste-Blazy.
Younger generations must understand the extent of the damage and work to advance the measures that will protect their own interests; the same measures their parents lacked the resolve to implement.
Everyone can do their part. Sorting recyclables is a great place to start, as this has yet to become an ingrained habit. France must follow in the footsteps of San Francisco, which is on track to become the first zero-waste city by 2020 thanks to its incentive programs.
The time has come to end food waste, excessive packaging and the scourge of plastic. Lobby groups and massive corporations have no say in the matter — we must act now. The time for “maybe” and “someday” has passed!
In addition to citizen engagement, research plays a key role. It is worth considering a European or nationwide fund for accelerating basic research on alternatives to plastics, following the example of the Chilean researchers who succeeded in creating a biodegradable plastic bag that dissolves in water. The product is made from a limestone derivative that has no environmental impact.
Educating ourselves, changing our habits and promoting research are the way forward. This is an enormous challenge that is vital to our survival. It cannot be overstated.
We did not inherit the world from our parents, we are borrowing it from our children — and we’re leaving it to them in a sorry state.
• Nathalie Goulet is a member of the Senate of France, representing the Orne department (Normandy). Twitter: @senateur61