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As global awareness of the devastating health effects that can result from persistent plastic pollution continues to rise, many nations around the world have developed different solutions that are expected to address this important issue.
An Overview of Global Plastic Waste
Since plastic production skyrocketed during the 1950s, it is estimated that 9.2 billion tons of plastic have been produced around the world. Of this total, approximately 6.9 billion tons of plastic have become waste and less than 600 million tons of this material have ever been recycled. Mismanaged plastic waste can ultimately enter the ocean, especially when this material is not properly disposed of, which is a common occurrence in many low-to-middle-income countries, such as those within South Asia and Sub-Saharan Africa where less than 10% of plastic waste is ultimately recycled.
As large plastic waste products continue to enter and remain in the world’s surface oceans, these materials will ultimately break down into smaller plastic particles. It is estimated that over 5 trillion plastic particles have already accumulated throughout the Earth’s surface waters. The most notable plastic accumulation is the ‘Great Pacific Garbage Patch,’ which is an area of 1.6 million km2 within the North Pacific Ocean that, rather than clean water, is comprised of approximately 99.9% floating debris.
The impact of persistent plastic waste within marine ecosystems and wildlife includes a continuous ingestion of plastic, which can have multiple impacts on animal health ranging from gut perforation to death, as well as entanglement of marine organisms by plastic materials. Furthermore, the bioaccumulation of microplastic particles within commonly consumed fish can ultimately cause various toxic effects to reach humans as well.
Do Plastic Bans Work?
As of June 2019, over 60 nations around the world have taken distinct steps in the form of partial bans, full bans, and taxes on plastic products to lessen the use of single-use plastics. For example, Canada is one of the most recent nations to declare a nationwide ban of single-use plastics such as bags, straws, cutlery, plates, and stir sticks.
While these bans on single-use plastic have successfully reduced the amount of plastic waste generated each year, one study conducted in California found that the sale of plastic garbage bags rose by 120% after plastic grocery bags were banned in this American state. Furthermore, certain cities that banned plastic bags found that the use of paper bags inevitably increased, thereby resulting in a total of 80 million pounds of additional paper waste generated each year.
The Final Word on Plastic Waste Tax
As compared to bans on single-use plastic, which is a command-and-control approach that governments utilize to directly regulate plastic consumption behavior; many local, state and federal policies have emerged to instead utilize a market-based approach that involves an additional fee or tax placed on plastic products. The primary goal of this market-based approach is to incentivize the individual to decide for themselves to change their behavior in relation to their plastic consumption. This approach also provides a greater amount of flexibility for the consumer to selectively reuse plastic bags as needed for garbage disposal.
Overall, research has found that both plastic bans and taxes lead to a similar reduction in single-use plastic usage. While this may be true, there are several supplemental ways in which governments can ensure that these policies achieve their goal of maintaining low plastic waste production. For example, the availability of low-cost alternative reusable bags combined with a charge of 10 cents for each paper bag has been shown to dramatically reduce the demand for single-use plastic bags.
In 2002, Ireland became the first industrialized nation in the world to place a national tax on plastic bags. Since this legislation was introduced, the Irish government has found that plastic bags made up 0.13% of this country’s total waste in 2015, which is comparable to the 5% value measured in 2001. While there does not appear to be a perfect way to address this plastic pollution problem, it is imperative that each nation carefully considers all options available to reduce their plastic waste production in an efficient and logical manner.
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