Taoiseach Leo Varadkar recently announced his goal to crack down on single-use plastics in the public sector in 2019. The proposed policies will result in the banning of disposable plastic materials including plastic straws, coffee cups and cutlery in all government departments, state agencies, hospitals and schools. He garnered much praise for this proclamation of good intent; being lauded for his climate-savviness and forward-thinking mindset.
A hyper-focus on single-use plastic reduction has steadily mounted in the conversation around preserving the environment. Plastic has become the current cause célèbre. People everywhere can be seen smugly brandish stylishly-coloured KeepCups, self-righteously sipping water from reusable bottles, toting cotton shopping bags, and shame others who do not follow suit. High-profile chains such as Starbucks and McDonalds have begun to the anti-plastic trend, vowing to phase out plastic drinking straws or replace them with paper straws across their UK and Ireland branches. But how much do these changes actually help the environment?
Single-use plastic is a type of plastic is sent to landfills overseas, where it accumulates, often making its way into the surrounding oceans, negatively affecting their aquatic ecosystems. These landfills are also a source of methane, a potent greenhouse gas. An estimated 4.7 to 12.8 million metric tons of plastic inhabit the world’s oceans. The plastic bag you purchased on a whim to carry your grocery shopping can survive in the environment for 450 years – half a millennium – or possibly even forever. However, the largest source of this plastic is fishing equipment, meaning there is little you or I can do to mitigate this. Data shows that a mere 0.28% of oceanic plastic derives from European rivers, so, therefore, the plastic straw that you tossed is unlikely to make its way into a sea turtle’s nose.
Climate change is here. The terrifying reality of what we have inflicted on our planet became evident after the announcement by the UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) in October of last year, where they stated that ‘if greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions continue at their current rate, it would be impossible for the global average temperature increase to be limited to no more than 2.7º F (1.5º C), above preindustrial levels, by 2040’. Failing this, the Earth and its population would be facing devastating damages to their lands, economy, ecosystem and health, with a rise in sea levels, dying coral reefs and extreme events in the form of freak weather conditions – superstorms, heat waves, drought, wildfires, floods.
A major worldwide change is needed, and it is needed now. The push to reducing the consumption of single-use plastic is emblematic of the problem with how we approach this change. Policies and actions which focus on reducing waste rather than disincentivising environmental damage during the production process overshadow other more important. The burning of fossil fuels (coal, oil, and natural gas) accounts for almost one-third of global GHG emissions, and, in combination with cement production and industry, makes up approximately 90% of all CO2 emissions. The IPCC asserted that carbon emissions must be reduced by 45% by the year of 2030; this will entail stopping coal use entirely as well as renewable energy sources accounting for 70-85% of electric production.
The problem with the plastic-centric tunnel vision is that it makes it easy for the individual consumer to feel they are doing their part, and to do no more. While a worthwhile effort, shunning plastic is simply not enough if one is looking to make an active change for the benefit of the environment. Simply relying on recycling is not a viable option either. Recycling is an expensive and labour-intensive practice, and it has been found that only about 9% of the world’s plastic is recycled, with about 25% of those recycled materials ending up in landfills anyway.
So how bad is plastic, really? Disposable plastics actually use a lot less of resources (land, water, money) to be synthesised than their ‘eco-friendly’ counterparts – paper, cotton or glass, and their light weight allows for increased transport efficiency. Stainless steel releases an enormous amount of CO2 in its production (a stainless steel bottle needs to be used 500 times before it is better for the environment than a single-use plastic one). Paper bags have higher carbon footprints than their plastic counterpart and aren’t nearly as durable. It takes 20,000 litres of water to produce 1kg of cotton, water that is typically sourced from developing countries in which water is already a scarce resource. When it comes to the pernicious plastic, focus on just consuming less rather than replacing it with other alternatives.
What should you do instead? Join your local action group, ask for better transport and waste infrastructure, put pressure on politicians to enact divestment from fossil fuel reliance and instead opt for renewable energy sources (wind, water and sunlight). The implementation of wind farms and solar installations are things we can support locally that actually have a tangible, positive effect. Transportation is the second biggest cause of global climate-change pollution, supported predominantly by the oil industry, with numbers of transportation vehicles grow with each passing year. Switch to using public transport or ride shares, or walk or cycle. Also reducing meat and dairy consumption is an easy and accomplishable step in the right direction. The agriculture industry is the largest contributor to the annual GHG emissions of Ireland, making up almost 30% of emissions. Switching from plastic to canvas bags is less than 1% as effective for the climate as a year without consuming meat. Additionally, food waste is a major problem, with around a third of food produced for human consumption being lost or wasted; this lost food emits 4.4 gigatonnes (billions of tons) of GHG annually.
The excessive consumption of single-use plastic, which, yes, clogs oceans and collects in landfills, should not currently be our biggest focus when we have much bigger fish to fry. Whilst some might call the Taoiseach’s statement a good step in the right direction, it is speed and not intent which matters now. After all, we only have 11 years – and counting.
By Grace Browne – Science Writer