Plastic pollution is choking us, we must regulate its use

According to the estimates by Unesco, more than a 100,000 marine mammals die each year due to plastic pollution.

By Habiba Al Mar'ashi

Published: Tue 16 Apr 2019, 7:00 PM

Last updated: Tue 16 Apr 2019, 9:55 PM

If a picture is worth a thousand words, imagine this: A whale dying of starvation because it had 88 pounds of plastic in its body. If that does not encapsulate the double-edged consequence of single-use plastic, nothing will.
That the mammal was found in the waters of Philippines, which is one of the top plastic polluters in the world might be used as an excuse by apologists of plastics but it does not belittle the crisis that is staring us in our face.
It is not a one-off incident. The occurrence is pandemic now. In recent years, 45 whales have died due to plastic. And whales aren't the only casualty - dolphins, birds and fishes are also turning up dead with their stomachs full of plastic, and in some cases plastic that has calcified.
According to the estimates by Unesco, more than a 100,000 marine mammals die each year due to plastic pollution. And the numbers are only increasing. Currently there are five floating patches of plastic in the world's oceans which are all interconnected. The biggest of these is the Great Pacific Garbage Patch, a giant floating mass of plastic between Hawaii and California. According to a study published in the Scientific Reports last year, it is three times the size of France, and still growing.
We stand at the edge of the abyss. Every day the ground beneath our feet is slipping a little and we are sliding a little more down the eventual precipice. Our fate, just like the oceans, is interconnected.  We might think that we are far and away from the affected areas and sea but I believe that will be naïve thinking. The millions of tonnes of plastic that end up in the ocean is consumed by marine life and eventually ends up on our dinner plates and in our digestive systems.  According to the study Microplastics in Seafood and the Implications for Human Health published in 2018, the average mussel contains almost 90 pieces of microplastic. Although the impact of ingesting this on the human body is not yet known, but if it can kill a whale, it certainly won't be good for us.
The time is here and now, and unless we come together and pool our resources to find a drastic solution, it might be too late for our future generations. Some believe that the time to take action has already passed.
It is time for UAE to seriously start focusing on curbing the usage of these deadly substances before it is too late. According to multiple sources such as Eco MENA, Euro News a UAE resident consumes 450 plastic bottles annually, the highest rates in the world, and 13 million bags in a year.
The time is now for the giant retailers and outlets to put money where their mouth is. Having one-off, superficial campaigns such a plastic free aisle with products being sold in bulk, charging consumers for the use of plastic bags etc. may seem like a virtuous step forward, but they do not address the problem. Until economically and environmentally viable alternatives to plastic are presented to the consumers, this menace cannot be tackled well.
Business corporations have generally been reluctant to fully embrace sustainability and environmental initiatives because traditionally they were considered good for consumers and the planet but bad for the business.  This is no longer true. Going green and adopting sustainable initiatives has equal or similar margins. This trend of going green and sustainable is now used by various organisations on a global scale.
The European Union's recent ban on single use plastics is an example of policymaking designed to influence public preference. We have examples of this strategy working. One such example is that of Canada's one per cent tax on carbon pollution. By making pollution costlier for the companies, the government has been able to gradually change the behaviour which has translated into a reduction of greenhouse gas emissions in the area. Changing behaviour of consumers is a long and gradual process but not an impossible task, which when accomplished will have an extremely positive impact on the health of the environment and all living entities on the planet.
Some countries have taken steps towards banning the use of single-use plastics. This includes Oman where the government announced in June 2018 that it would soon ban all plastic bags. After the devastating floods of 1988, the government came down hard on the use of single-use plastics in the Indian state of Maharashtra. With the ban on plastic bags, the shoppers are now accustomed to carry their own bags to the market. However, these only force the burden of finding a solution on to the consumers without solving the problem.
And it does not address the root cause of the problem. Getting plastics out of the oceans and into a landfill will not resolve the issue.
This should not continue if we want to preserve the ecosystems and the biodiversity. The government bodies across the globe should implement strict policies on the producers of plastic products that cannot be efficiently recycled. There is a need to remove non-recyclable plastic products and replace them with recyclable ones or other alternative eco-friendly products. The producers and suppliers of plastic must invest in research for new products that can be recycled into a closed loop economy and market these new products to the retailers and in turn to the consumers. Unless the producers, suppliers and retailers take a decisive step to curb this problem, campaigns by consumers and NGOs alone will never be able to address the problem effectively.
In all essence, a framework has to be outlined by governments to the producers, suppliers and retailers of plastic whereby:
>Plastic producers should collaborate with academia, suppliers and retailers to develop technologies to recycle plastic efficiently.
>Producers and suppliers should provide a plan on the sustainable method to recycle or dispose these products to establish a closed loop economy.
>By 2050, all the single use plastic products should no longer be in production or circulation and all the plastic being produced should be recyclable.
This is only a start. More needs to be done at the individual, community, business and state levels. We might not have forced marine animals to ingest the plastic but by keeping quiet and passive we are culpable in putting it there.
Habiba Al Mar'ashi is President & CEO, Arabia CSR Network

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