I looked up the etymology of the word ‘plastic’. It is interesting how in the 1630s the word meant ‘able to be molded’, in the 1830s it was used in surgery to mean ‘remedying a deficiency of structure’. The modern meaning largely refers to ‘synthetic product made from oil derivatives’. In the 1960s however, it started to be used as a slang meaning ‘false and superficial’. What strikes me is how something that started off as something impermanent, ‘not the real thing’ and even superficial has today for better for for worse, acquired the status of permanence. Modern human beings today cannot seem to live without plastic. Whether it is sturdier plastic used for kettles, bowls, bins and more or the kind meant for one-time use such as plastic bags, water bottles, disposable cutlery, packaging, plastic has pervaded every minute corner of our lives. Ironically, nothing seems more real and permanent than plastic today, both in super developed economies and emerging economies.
In my previous organization, the eco-groups tried valiantly to ensure all campuses were ‘plastic-free’ zones. The initiative was announced on earth day amidst much fanfare by a board member himself , and when it is a board member of an organization that employs over one hundred thousand people, you know the position holds tremendous clout. Yet the initiative failed to take off. Why you ask? Well, because people resisted the idea. Regular employees raised a hue and cry about it. Their main question was “What is the alternative for us to carry our lunch boxes in, especially during the rains?” The eco-groups tried selling cloth bags, yet it sold only a few hundred. Vendors on the campus were asked to stop dishing out plastic bags. The supermarkets on campus started giving out paper bags instead. Don’t think it was a wise alternative and as you can guess, those were really not popular because they often ripped with the slightest weight. A particular vendor went so far as to force the manufacturer to print “This plastic bag is eco-friendly” on bags that were dished out on campus. Since the bags were “eco-friendly”, the purchase department could see no reason in stopping their sale on campus. I have written about greenwash and how shortsighted it is. There is today an entire island of floating plastic debris in the pacific ocean. Read the post here.
This post is definitely a call to ban single-use plastic. But I’d like to present what’s happening in various countries across the globe in terms of solutions to this menace.
“Despite criticism from Italian plastic trade groups, Italy was the first EU country to ban plastic bags (implemented at the beginning of this year), and now countries around the world are giving consideration to similar legislation.
France, which has been slow in adopting consumer plastic reduction measures, has now given the go-ahead for a ‘plastic tax’ (EUR10 per kilogram of plastic bags) to take effect in 2014, and the African countries of Togo and Kenya have this week announced forthcoming plastic bag bans.
In the United States (US), Hawaii has become the latest state to pass plastic bag restrictions, outlawing bags for customers of merchants in Hawaii’s Kaua’i and Maui counties. Unlike the 2007 landmark ban in San Francisco, the new Maui mandate prohibits both compostable and non-compostable bags, due to the dangers bags in general present to marine life.” Read more here.
Italy’s ban is very significant because apparently “Italians use 25% of the disposable plastic bags produced annually in all of the European Union”. Read more here. Another country we love to call out in terms of pollution has made great strides too.
“In 2008, China instated a law that made it illegal for stores to give out plastic bags for free. Instead, shop owners were required to charge for the bags, and allowed to keep any profit they made for themselves. The results? After two years, the poorly-enforced law has nonetheless dropped plastic bag consumption by a whopping 50% — keeping an estimated 100 billion plastic bags out of the landfills.” Read more here.
In India, several states have experimented with using plastic bags in road construction. Read more here and here. But here is a piece that really struck me. “In Rwanda plastic bags have been illegal for over 10 years and it shows. There is no trash on the streets or in the environment. If a country that had a massive genocide only 16 years ago can successfully outlaw plastic bags so can anyone. There is no excuse for any developed country.” Couldn’t agree more with that penultimate statement. Read the original work here.
While solutions are great at the policy level. They are incomplete if they are not met halfway with bottom-up creativity. It is time to change our lifestyles. We only have to think back to the times when it was possible to live without plastic. The cost of convenience is too high for us, animals and the planet! We might need to go back to planning our purchases better instead of shopping on impulse. If that’s not entirely possible, a simple solution would be to carry around fold-able compact tote bag. That can’t be so terrible now. Can it? If current events of Tunisia and Egypt can teach us anything it is to never, ever underestimate the power of the people. Ordinary people CAN topple an entire regime no matter how entrenched it is. I’ll end with this catchy song :