Approaches to the Plastic Pollution Problem

Sarah Lynn Bowser

There is no denying that the world has a plastic pollution problem. Each year, more than 8 million tons of plastic ends up in our oceans and causes at least $8 billion in damages to marine ecosystems. Plastic bags are routinely one of the top five items found during beach and river cleanups. The harm to wildlife has been well-documented, with plastic bags being consumed whole by sea turtles, dolphins, whales, and in some African countries, cattle and elephants. 

On land, plastic pollution contributes to flooding during heavy rains by clogging drains and waterways while also providing an ideal breeding ground for disease vectors, like mosquitoes. In recent years, scientists have found evidence that illustrates the dangers of microplastics within marine ecosystems, that later enter into the human food chain. 

In 2015, plastic packaging accounted for 47% of the plastic waste generated globally, with about half of that originating from Asia. While China is the largest worldwide generator of plastic packaging waste, the United States is the largest generator of plastic packaging waste per capita. The production of plastic is heavily reliant on fossil hydrocarbons, and plastic bags have been described as the world’s most popular consumer item. If this rate of plastic production continues, by 2050 the plastic industry will account for 20% of the world’s total oil consumption. 

As plastic pollution gains heightened global attention as an environmental problem, political leaders have begun to act. According to a report published by the United Nations Environment Program, as of July 2018, 127 out of 192 countries reviewed (about 66%) have adopted some form of legislation to regulate plastic bags. A total of 27 countries have enacted legislation banning either specific products (such as plates, cups, straws, or packaging), materials, or production levels. While 27 countries have initiated taxes on the manufacturing and production of plastic bags, 30 countries charge consumer fees. In 2002, Bangladesh was the first country in the world to ban plastic bags after their role in obstructing drainage systems during devastating floods was discovered. The African continent now leads the world in bag regulations, with 34 countries having adopted legislation.

In Kenya, the world’s harshest ban is enforced. Anyone found manufacturing, importing, or selling a plastic carrier bag can potentially be fined up to $40,000 or face up to a four-year prison sentence. Simply possessing and using a plastic bag carries a fine between $500 and $1,500. Thus far, 300 people have received fines for possession of plastic bags, and in 2018, 18 people pled guilty in court and were fined $300 or sentenced to eight months in jail for using the bags. A manufacturer of plastic bags was sentenced to a jail term of one year, without the option of a fine. 

While the ban in Kenya has been considered a success, the plastic bags have not completely disappeared. There are signs that plastic bags are being smuggled into the country from its neighbors, Uganda and Somalia. The smuggling of plastic bags is also a problem in Rwanda, where it is illegal to import, produce, use or sell plastic bags and plastic packaging, unless within specific industries like hospitals. Here, traffickers who are caught with the illegal plastic are vulnerable to fines, jail sentences, or can be forced to make public confessions and issue apologies. Smugglers can be sentenced to serve six months in jail, while the executives of the companies that produce the plastic bags can be imprisoned for up to a year. 

China, the largest producer of plastic packaging waste, instituted a ban in 2008 that prevents all supermarkets, department stores, and shops from giving out free plastic bags. Stores were instructed to clearly mark the cost of plastic shopping bags, and were prohibited from folding that price in with additional products. China urged its consumers to return to the use of baskets and cloth bags. 

Members of the European Union have also made efforts to mitigate plastic waste, with France passing legislation to be the first country in the world to ban plastic plates and cutlery. This ban took effect in 2020, with exceptions being made for products that are made of compostable materials. This policy is a part of the country’s Energy Transition for Green Growth Act, which also outlawed plastic bags in grocery stores in July 2016. 

Italy introduced legislation in January 2018 that banned plastic bags for fruit, vegetables, and baked goods in favor of eco-friendly alternatives. The law requires that consumers pay a few cents extra for these alternatives, and that the failure to charge consumers would result in a fine for the retailer. Other countries such as Germany, Austria, and Switzerland have also banned plastic bags in favor of reusable mesh alternatives. The UK also introduced a tax on plastic bags in 2015, which resulted in 9 billion fewer plastic bags in circulation. 

As for the United States, the largest generator of plastic packaging waste per capita, there has been no national legislation implemented to address the dangers of plastic pollution. Some individual cities and states, however, have taken it upon themselves to implement regulations. Seattle was the first major U.S. city to ban plastic straws in July 2018, where failure to comply can result in a $250 fine. The ban was tested in September 2017 with a city-wide “Strawless in Seattle” campaign, which involved 150 businesses and was estimated to have removed 2.3 million plastic straws from the city. 

The most ambitious law in the U.S. has been proposed in California and would phase out most single-use packaging, while committing to a 75% reduction in plastic waste by 2030. If passed into law, the bill would require manufacturers to ensure that all single-use plastic packaging produced, sold, and distributed in California be fully recyclable or compostable by 2030. Any companies that fail to comply with the law could be subjected to $50,000 a day in fines. New York became the second state, after California, to ban plastic bags. Hawaii has a defacto statewide ban on plastic bags, since every county in Hawaii has banned them. The mayor of Honolulu signed a bill that went into effect on July 1st, 2018 that requires businesses to charge a 15-cent fee for each reusable, compostable plastic, or recyclable paper bag. As regulations banning single use plastics continue to increase throughout the world, individuals can do their part to make conscious choices regarding products they buy, use, and dispose of. Reusable options are readily available and even small changes can result in large impacts on the surrounding wildlife and ecosystems. 

Sources: BBC News, National Geographic, The Guardian, The New York Times, The United Nations Environment Program, The Washington Post