In December the United Nations passed a unanimous resolution to address the "crisis" of ocean plastic. China subsequently announced it would no longer import waste to incinerate, placing a greater onus on wealthy countries to sustainably manage their own waste rather than ship it overseas, while the EU launched its first-ever Europe-wide strategy to reduce single-use plastic items and to promote greater recyclability.
Momentum is therefore building to tackle the global plastic epidemic, and this is an area where Ireland has a progressive track record. The plastic bag fee, introduced in 2002, inspired a number of copycat schemes around the world. It has paved the way for addressing the real root of the current crisis – the myth of free plastic.
Last year saw an upswing in scientific and public concern about the impact of plastic waste on the oceans, lakes and rivers. The UN estimates that eight million tonnes of plastic waste end up in the ocean annually. Millions of whales, birds, seals and turtles die because they mistake bags for food, such as jellyfish, or because they become inadvertently ensnared in nets, packing bands and other items.
As a result of the 15 cent fee (raised to 22 cent in 2007), annual bag usage dropped from almost 350 to 14 per person by 2012
According to the British Antarctic Survey, plastic bags are now commonly found floating as far north of the Arctic Circle near Spitzbergen, and as far south as the Falkland Islands. Shocking images of floating plastic islands in far-flung destinations have flashed across TV screens and pop up regularly in our social media feeds. The largest of these is the so-called "Great Pacific Garbage Patch", which has been described as a "diffuse soup of plastic" the size of Texas in the North Pacific Ocean. It is made up of degraded debris-microplastics of less than 5 mm – from "free" plastic items such as bags, cutlery, bottle caps, water bottles and Styrofoam cups.
The resulting micro-fibres eventually enter the food chain. Seafood consumers ingest an average of 11,000 tiny pieces of plastic annually, and if current trends cannot be reversed this will increase dramatically over the coming decades. A recent study found that 74 per cent of Irish tap water is also contaminated, but the implications for human health of direct exposure of plastic-associated chemicals are unknown.
The myth of free plastic is driving this epidemic. Many plastic items are offered for free, but the cost is passed on to consumers through increased grocery, takeaway and coffee prices. This is, no doubt, a brilliant business model for plastic manufacturers, but has devastating implications for our blue planet.
Ireland was among the first countries to face up to this challenge. As a result of the 15 cent fee (raised to 22 cent in 2007), annual bag usage dropped from almost 350 to 14 per person by 2012, and plastic bags now account for only 0.14 per centof total litter compared to 5 per cent in 2002. Revenues flowed to a fund to support waste management, litter prevention and other environmental initiatives.
Small countries can make a difference on big issues. Fees have subsequently been introduced in numerous countries, states and cities around the world, from Hong Kong, South Africa, the UK, Botswana, California, Washington DC, Austin, and Chicago. New York State, which is currently considering approaches to tackle its plastic epidemic, published a report on January 13th that referenced the Irish fee as a successful model.
The hassle factors imagined never materialised, nor was there a political backlash as bags-for-life soon became the norm. Daily routines seamlessly adapted, and the thought of using a bag per day would now be abhorrent to most.
The next target could be disposable coffee cups and lids, two million of which are given out for free every day in Ireland. Each lid and cup costs the local cafe about 20 cent, but this is hidden from the nation’s tea and coffee drinkers, passed on via higher beverage prices. The coffee may only take three minutes to drink, but the lid – formed of plant and animal material that lived 300 million years ago – could take 200 million times longer to biodegrade in landfill. Disposable cups seem somewhat short-sighted from this perspective. Complacent even.
Many cafes are leading the charge by offering discounts to customers who bring their own reusable cups, while Minister for Climate Action and Environment Denis Naughten announced that the Government is considering the introduction of a 15 cent fee. This would be a welcome intervention, and would be the first of its kind anywhere.
But is a one-off salvo sufficient when a broader campaign is perhaps required? Food takeaways generally contain a hodgepodge of plastic cutlery, plastic trays and plastic bags. Many cafes and restaurants offer plastic items free because of the hassle associated with washing dishes, cutlery and cups. At a minimum, these items should be charged for separately so that their true cost is clear and not hidden in higher prices.
Retailers can take the lead: wrapping-free supermarkets or plastic-free aisles can be piloted, and plastics that cannot be recycled must also phased out
The packaging that comes with almost every item we purchase is yet another challenge, and a more intractable one to resolve. Retailers can take the lead: wrapping-free supermarkets or plastic-free aisles can be piloted, and plastics that cannot be recycled must also phased out.
Ireland can be a testing ground for new policies and retailing approaches. Size, or indeed the inaction of others, is no barrier or excuse for hiding from global responsibilities.
Joseph Curtin is a research fellow at University College Cork and the Institute of International and European Affairs, Dublin, and a member of the Government’s Climate Change Advisory Council