The Threat of Microplastics: Why Banning Plastic Bags is Not Enough

By Lucia Mollea, GLOBUS Correspondent

In March 2019, the European Commission approved a ban on ten of the most common single-use plastic items – a list which included cutlery, plates, straws, and sticks for balloons and cotton buds to name a few (European Commission Website, 2019). This is undoubtedly a step in the right direction for international regulations in terms of trying to achieve higher levels of environmental sustainability. However, there are multiple reasons why this ban might be insufficient to solve the problem. First and foremost, the regulations do not take into consideration microplastics, a novel entity which is being increasingly spread all over our planet and has been classified as a global pollutant (Wang et al, 2018). Evidence of microplastics (pieces of plastic that measure less than 5 millimetres long) has been found not only in far offshore marine areas, such as the Great Pacific garbage patch (Science Alert, 2017), but also in freshwater, especially in riverine beaches, and in sediments of lakes, rivers and reservoirs (Lambert and Wagner, 2017). Moreover, a very recent study found that microplastics are even in snow precipitation in the Arctic (Harrabin, 2019), evidence that plastics have entered the water cycle and are now present in the majority – if not all – of planetary water sources. The situation is even more worrying if one considers that around 8 million tons of plastics are released every year into the ocean (Jambeck et al, 2015) and that it is predicted that by 2050, the quantity of plastics into the ocean will outweigh that of fish (Conkle, 2017). It is clear that banning single-use plastics cannot be the only solution to the problem. 

Firstly, in order to comprehensively tackle the planetary scale of the problem, agreements such as those banning plastics need to become global (Abreu and Pedrotti, 2019). These could either be country specific obligations for every nation, or comprehensive supranational decisions, such as an EU treaty or UN resolution. However, despite the need for global collaboration, an important role is played by the biggest and most populated countries – for example, the US, China and India. But, these countries still lack specific bans for plastic and significantly contribute to the overall global plastics dispersion. For example, in the US, only New York, California and Hawaii have agreed to ban plastic straws (Locker, 2018). Provisions such as this are to be recognised as improvements, however, their geographic and product-related limitations slow down or prevent an effective and comprehensive solution to the problem. 

Secondly, the current European ban on single-use plastics is too specific. Even though approximately half of all microplastics come from the degradation of larger items (Conkle et al, 2017) which are predominantly single-use (Wang et al, 2018) such as straws and single-use bags, they are not the only source of this globally concerning novel entity. For example, other products containing microplastics include cosmetics, textile fibres and primary plastic pellets (Conkle et al, 2017 and Wang et al, 2018). The ban on single use plastics can be considered as a partial improvement of the current situation. However, a strong and radical change that tackles all forms of microplastics and attacks the problem at its source is necessary to attack the contemporary systems of waste disposal and production (Abreu and Pedrotti, 2019). 

Thirdly, a key main obstacle in the reduction of the amount of plastics we produce is the unique cost-effectiveness of the material. Its functions are necessary for a wide range of contemporary production processes and businesses. Thus, further research is sorely needed to find environmentally friendly materials able to substitute polymers. If we fail to find an alternative and equally cost-effective material the issue cannot be solved, mainly for two reasons. Firstly, if the substitute materials are more expensive, this could cause a rise in the costs of industrial production, bringing either a loss of profit for the companies or an increase in cost for customers. Secondly, plastics might continue to being used in an illegal way despite the ban- this correspondent has experienced a ban being routinely ignored in first person in their home country of Italy. People do not want to resign to the slightly higher inconvenience of having to carry their own reusable bags in every shop or swap to using paper straws, and it is still common for the shop- and bar-owners to offer plastic items to their customers despite this being outlawed. In the long run, if there is not a change in the attitude of the individual, these plastics items could potentially turn into products of an unprecedented illegal marketplace, which may disproportionately impact the sustainable development of developing nations, who are more vulnerable to illegal, underground markets (Duverge, 2016).

In conclusion, the current provisions taken by the European Commission (European Commission website, 2019) can be considered as an improvement which brings hope for possible future advances leading to more environmentally friendly systems of production and consumption. However, they are insufficient and  cannot provide a comprehensive solution to the problem, which can only be reached through deeper, globally oriented policies. Moreover, the concerning phaenomenon of microplastics is only partially linked to single-use plastics. It is an issue that requires more attention and specific provisions in order to be efficiently tackled. Thus, although improvements have been made, it is important that researchers and policy-makers keep cooperating in order to comprehensively put an end to this critical situation which is far from solved. 

Header Image by Brian Yurasits via Unsplash

REFERENCES: 

Abreu, A., Pedrotti, M. L. 2019. “Microplastics in the oceans: the solutions lie on hand”. Field Actions Science Reports, 2019, 19, pp. 62-67.  

Conkle, J. L., Báez Del Valle, C. D., Turner, J. W. 2017. “Are We Underestimating Microplastics Contamination in Aquatic Environments?”. Environmental Management, 2018, 61(1), pp. 1-8. 

Duverge, G. 2016. ‘’The New Black Market: Understanding the Underground Economy’’ [Online] Available at: https://online.pointpark.edu/criminal-justice/underground-economy/

European Commission, 2019. “Circular Economy: Commission welcomes European Parliament adoption of new rules on single-use plastics to reduce marine litter”. [Online] Available at: European Commission Website. 

Futurism, 2017. ”There’s Another Huge Plastic Garbage Patch in The Pacific Ocean” [Online] Available at: https://futurism.com/theres-another-huge-plastic-garbage-patch-in-the-pacific-ocean

Harrabin, R. 2019. “Plastic particles falling out of sky with snow in Arctic”. [Online] Available at: https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/science-environment-49295051

Lambert, S., Wagner, M. 2017. “Microplastics Are Contaminants of Emerging Concern in Freshwater Environments: An Overview”. In: M. Wagner and S. Lambert (eds), “Freshwater Microplastics – Emerging Environmental Contaminants?”, 2017, Springer, pp. 1-23. 

Locker, M. 2018. “Here are the U.S. cities that have banned plastic straws so far”[Online] Available at: https://www.fastcompany.com/40580132/here-are-the-u-s-cities-that-have-banned-plastic-straws-so-far

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