The Irish Times view on plastics: living dangerously

Bales of recycled materials at Republic Services, one of the largest waste managers in the US, in Seattle. Photograph: Wiqan Ang/The New York Times

Bales of recycled materials at Republic Services, one of the largest waste managers in the US, in Seattle. Photograph: Wiqan Ang/The New York Times

 

Two images graphically demonstrate the grim impacts of plastic waste on our environment, at different scales.

One shows the digestive tract of a dead albatross, a bird we associate with the most remote and pristine ocean landscapes. Its gut is clogged, from end to end, with plastic fragments ingested with the fish it eats. The other shows vast “garbage patches” of plastic, forming dense islands in the Pacific Ocean.

Plastics pollution is one of the most visible signs that we have long been living unsustainably. If the image of the albatross, with its implication of slow and agonising death, does not move our hearts, the image of the “garbage patches” should ring alarm bells in our brains.

These vast accumulations will continue to threaten the entire food web of the oceans for countless generations to come, because plastic does not biodegrade. And with human populations still rising, and pressure on terrestrial food sources becoming critical, we can ill-afford to dispense with the bounty of the seas. Moreover, since plastics are made from fossil fuels, their production also accelerates the threats from climate change. The success of the Sick of Plastic day organised by Friends of the Earth and Voice, and a call by the Restaurant Association of Ireland to its members to end use of single-use plastic utensils, suggests high public awareness of this issue here.

But each one of us is probably guilty of occasionally buying a plastic cup of coffee when we could easily have brought our own mug. We sometimes need a nudge from the law to change our behaviour. And nudges from the law can be very effective, as we have seen with the plastic bag levy, which has significantly reduced our plastic pollution from this source. So we must welcome the new EU proposal, though it is both belated and inadequate, to ban single-use plastics where alternatives are available and affordable. The real question we need to address, however, is what we mean by “affordable”. There is a strong argument that we can no longer afford to produce single use plastics, full stop.

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