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Anna Mae Yu Lamentillo

Mar 20, 2024

Why we need to seek alternatives to single-use plastics

When single-use plastics were on the nascent stage, they were advertised as the better alternatives to those that prevailed in the market then, which were paper and cloth bags. Less than a century after its accidental creation in 1933, we are reverting to paper and cloth bags as the better alternatives to single-use plastics.

In its timeline of the plastic shopping bag, the United Nations Environment Program (UNEP) presented how the plastic bag became so in demand, and how we are now trying to overcome our single-use plastic “addiction.”

It was in 1933 when polyethylene, the most commonly used plastic, was created by accident at a chemical plant in Northwich, England. It was initially used in secret by the British military during World War II. But it was not until 1965 when the one-piece polyethylene shopping bag was patented by the Swedish company Celloplast.

In 1979, plastic bags already controlled 80 percent of the bag market in Europe and was starting to spread in the US and in other parts of the world. By the end of the 80s, disposable plastic bags have almost entirely replaced paper bags globally.

In the next decade, by 1997, sailor and researcher Charles Moore discovered the Great Pacific Garbage Patch. According to UNEP, this is the largest of several gyres in the world’s oceans where immense amounts of plastic waste have accumulated. It was enough evidence to realize the immense negative impact of single-use plastics on marine life.

Over the years, we have discovered the harmful effects of single-use plastics on our oceans, our ecosystems, and in our own health. Aside from that, a study has found that plastic is also a great contributor to greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions.

According to the Center for International Environmental Law’s (CIEL) 2019 study, Plastic & Climate: The Hidden Costs of a Plastic Planet, plastic contributes to GHG from its production all the way up to how it is being managed as a waste product.

The study revealed that if plastic production and use grow as currently planned, by 2030, GHG emissions from plastics could reach 1.34 gigatons per year, which is equivalent to the emissions released by more than 295 new 500-megawatt coal-fired power plants.

It also said that there is a small but growing body of research which suggests that plastic discarded in the environment may be disrupting the ocean’s natural ability to absorb and sequester carbon dioxide.

Abating single-use plastics

In 2002, Bangladesh became the first country to implement a ban on thin plastic bags. In 2019, the European Union’s (EU) Directive on the reduction of the impact of certain plastic products on the environment took effect. In 2020, China committed to strengthening national plastic pollution control, ushering in an era of single-use plastic reduction. There are several other countries initiating efforts to reduce the use of disposable plastics and the like.

In the Philippines, while there are a few local ordinances regulating the use of disposable plastic, the product is still very much visible everywhere.

There are proposed measures pending in Congress that seek to impose a tax on single-use plastics, but they have yet to prosper.

For a product that is so convenient, it could really be a challenge to avoid or stop the use of disposable plastics. But we can take it one less plastic at a time. After all, it has not been a century since the world began embracing single-use plastics. If the generation before that was able to live without it, certainly we can too, especially if we really want to make this planet still livable in the decades to come.

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