Sensing the opportunity to position their products in the lifestyle market, many companies have been all too happy to appear to care about the environment. But given the track-record of environmental damage caused by some companies, the question is open as to who should really be tackling such issues as well as what is to be done about them.
Plastic goods first became widely available during the 1950s, but it has only been over the past two decades that they have really boomed worldwide, resulting in growing problems of plastic waste. Global statistics estimate that “in the 1960s less than one per cent of our refuse was plastic; by 2005 that had increased to 10 per cent,” according to a study published in the US journal Science Advances entitled “Production, use, and fate of all plastics ever made”.
One of the issues that has attracted great public concern over the past few years has been the growing use of single-use plastic items that have become part of our daily routines. Drinking straws have been one focus of that concern since they are distributed in millions of cafés and restaurants worldwide and because, according to scientists, the polypropylene used to manufacture most single-use plastic straws is not biodegradable.
That is, unlike natural materials such as paper, wood, and cotton, organisms such as bacteria cannot break them down by consuming them. “In the US, an estimated 500 million single-use plastic straws are used each day, while in Europe the figure stands at 25.3 billion a year,” according to an article on “Plastic straws and the environment: What is the impact?” on the US website Tembopaper.com.
The growing global concern at the impacts of such plastic waste has inspired movements to ban non-reusable plastic drinking straws in order to adopt environmentally friendly habits as well as to tackle environmental damage and the dangers posed to marine life by human consumption habits.
In the US, policies suggesting the banning of straws at service-based businesses have been upheld since 2018 in states such as California, Washington, and New York. Several cross-continental US corporations have also implemented plastic-straw phase-out plans. In Egypt, one such plan has been implemented in branches of the Starbucks coffee shop franchise recently.
But despite the seemingly worldwide campaign against plastic straws that has been gaining traction over the past five years or so, is it really a meaningful contribution to solving the problems of pollution by plastic? According to Jim Leape, co-director of the Stanford Centre for Ocean Solutions in the US, plastic straws make up “less than one per cent” of plastic waste in the world’s oceans.
“Our oceans are currently swimming with plastic. It is estimated that there are now 150 million metric tons of plastic in the ocean,” Leape said. The implication is clear in that while well-intentioned, such campaigns alone cannot do anything to reduce the other 99 per cent of the 150 metric tons of plastic waste that goes into the world’s oceans every day.
Single-use plastic straws are the focus of strategies tackling plastic pollution
CURRENT STRATEGIES: Over the past five years, US corporations such as Starbucks and McDonalds have announced phase-out plans for plastic straws by 2020, replacing them with straw-less plastic cups or paper straws.
However, given the tiny fraction that plastic straws represent in the overall plastic waste in existence in the oceans today, is the idea simply a way of papering over the cracks, not doing anything to deal with the systemic problem?
Such strategies seemingly aimed at tackling plastic waste give the corporations that adopt them an image boost; however, their effectiveness has been questioned by experts such as Leape and Craig Criddle, a Stanford University professor of civil and environmental engineering in the US.
“The risk is that banning straws may confer ‘moral licence’ — allowing companies and their customers to feel they have done their part,” Leape said. And perhaps it is not wise to trust the big corporations to introduce effective strategies against environmental damage, since many environmental disasters over the last 10 to 15 years have been caused either directly or indirectly by industries related to plastics, such as petroleum companies specialising in the extraction of the oil needed to make them.
The most recent such disaster was the British Petroleum (BP) oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico off the coast of the US in 2010. The spill, from the BP oil rig Deep Water Horizon, was the largest in history, with an estimated 4.9 million barrels of oil seeping into the ocean from leaks on the seabed.
While the well in question has long since been sealed, the environmental effects in the surrounding area have yet to fade more than 10 years later. The spill, which lasted for months unnoticed, caused marine animals such as dolphins to die in record numbers as well as rates of cardiotoxicity to animal life exposed to the spill to rocket, according to a study released in 2014.
In 2011, a White House commission blamed BP for the spill, citing cost-cutting decisions and inadequate safety systems. The spill was a result of “systemic root causes and an absence of significant reforms in both industry practices and government policies”, it said.
BP could have employed more effective social responsibility to prevent the spill. The company was aware of issues with the cement used in the extraction process, but due to reported cost-cutting policies, it never replaced or reinforced it. The company also refused to use a lockdown sleeve, which would have made the well safer to use.
Public outrage forced BP to attempt to “clean up” the oil spilled in the Gulf by using chemicals such as Corexit, a dispersant that breaks the oil up into very small particles that sink under the surface of the water, giving the water the appearance of cleanliness. In reality, this only makes the problem worse, since the oil breaks down into such tiny particles that it becomes virtually impossible to remove from the water.
An analysis by Earthjustice, a US-based NGO, has showed that the dispersant itself possibly also contains cancer-causing agents and other hazardous toxins, adding to the toxicity of the spill. BP has since claimed to have halted the use of the dispersant, but Riki Ott, a US marine toxicologist, has mentioned in an open letter to the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) that Corexist use has continued. A study from Georgia Tech University in the US reported that the dispersant increased the toxicity of the oil 52 times.
Some sources claim that only 25 per cent of the oil has been removed, while around 75 per cent has remained. An ecologist at Florida State University in the US, Markus Huettel, claims that, “while much of BP’s oil was degraded or evaporated, at least 60 per cent remains unaccounted for.”
The irony of the situation is that for years before the spill BP had a reputation for being environmentally friendly. The spill effectively destroyed the company’s brand image in this regard. The company, which had long touted itself as being a friend of the environment, initially downplayed the incident, with CEO Tony Hayward calling the amount of oil and dispersant “relatively tiny” in comparison to a “very big ocean”.
This begs the question of whether corporations sensing the opportunity to brand themselves as environmentally conscious, just as BP did before the Deep Water Horizon disaster, can be trusted on their environmental achievements or whether they are merely patting themselves on the back for taking part in PR stunts.
Perhaps we should look instead to local government for leadership on the environment. The majority of the clean-up process in the US was done by local and environmental NGOs as well as by local and federal government workers, while BP itself not only tried to absolve itself of responsibility and initially hid the spill for months, but also made the problem worse when adding dispersants to it.
A Red Sea clean-up campaign
GOVERNMENT ROLE: “We need to think about what incentives will promote a culture of recycling and innovation with respect to waste streams. Thoughtful laws are needed to control the problem and at the same time encourage innovation,” Criddle commented.
Various local government initiatives have taken place worldwide to tackle the issue of plastic waste, some such, as in Seattle in the US, taking steps to ban plastic utensils from all service-based businesses. Since October 2020, the British government, this time acting on a national level, has banned the sale of plastic straws, cotton buds, and plastic stirrers in an attempt to reduce plastic consumption and has additionally suggested a tax on the production and import of plastic packaging with less than a 30 per cent recycled content.
Governor of California Jerry Brown in the US signed legislation aimed at reducing straw and other plastic waste in 2018.
Other government initiatives have chosen to tackle other causes of plastic waste, such as landfills and dumping. Egypt does not dump industrial levels of plastic into the sea, due to efficient recycling policies adopted in each governorate. Greater Cairo landfills and dumps have also been reduced from some 50 to only two, one of which is in Moqattam.
A 10-day initiative called Ethadar lil-Akhdar, or Live Green, was also launched by Minister of Environment Yasmine Fouad in June last year to clean up the seabed of the Red Sea, successfully collecting and removing around 40 tons of waste from an area spanning the Hurghada, Marsa Alam, and Safaga regions during the period.
“The waste was transferred to a sanitary landfill for safe disposal,” Fouad said. The campaign will see other clean-up events in the future. The Red Sea campaign was implemented in association with the Red Sea governorate along with the Hurghada Environmental Protection and Conservation Association, a NGO.
The initiative will now be extended to other sites, Fouad said, commenting that “the next steps will be applied more broadly and will involve diving sites inside and outside the reserves.” One of the government’s 10-year goals is to reduce solid waste pollution by 50 per cent by 2030, and the ministry is working with civil society and NGOs to raise awareness about the negative effects of plastic waste to the environment.
Independent organisations such as Darb 1718 are working on increasing awareness of the dangers of the widespread use of plastics and the effects these have on the environment, communicating such messages through educational and community activities. The UN World Tourism Organisation has also launched campaigns to raise awareness about environmental pollution.
The Zamalek district of Cairo is set to be the first district in the capital to limit the use of single-use plastic bags, and in January last year the Youth Loves Egypt Foundation, a non-profit, started an initiative aiming to remove waste from the banks of the Nile, claiming that it could remove a total of 1.5 tons of waste a day.
In June 2019, MP Anisa Hassouna submitted a petition to ban the use of plastic bags nationwide, with the head of the parliament’s Industry Committee, Mohamed Farag, announcing his intention to introduce a draft law banning their use across Egypt.
“Now is not like 2010 when there were no alternatives to plastic,” said Ahmed Yassin, a member of Banlastic, an Alexandria-based project focusing on the banning of single-use plastic products.
ALTERNATIVES TO PLASTIC: Many environmental scientists have recommended the use of biodegradable materials as the best alternative to single-use materials.
“In addition to recycling more and reusing materials more, we need new materials that can do the same jobs as current plastics but are biodegradable, nontoxic, and do not concentrate in food chains. Such materials already exist in nature. As it turns out, many micro-organisms make moldable bioplastic polymers that are fully degradable,” Criddle said.
Bioplastic polymers can be stored inside micro-organisms as tiny granules, after which enzymes break the polymer down when it is needed for nourishment. “In effect, nature has designed this plastic for disassembly. We should do likewise,” Criddle added.
Such bio-friendly materials are, however, faced with obstacles when it comes to mass production, where companies find it cheaper to overproduce plastic instead, creating a consumer image of affordability due to the extraction of crude oil rather than the mass production of biodegradable alternatives. “Cost is a huge issue. We need to make biodegradable polymers that are cost-competitive. Fortunately, micro-organisms can also use cheap, renewable substrates such as food waste, biogas methane, carbon dioxide and renewable hydrogen,” Criddle said.
Experts say that the way to ease plastic consumption for now is through government and communal initiatives. “There are two clear imperatives. The first is to invest in better waste collection in the handful of countries that account for most of the plastic flowing into the ocean. The second, more fundamental imperative is to get plastics out of our waste stream,” Leape said, suggesting that as a result of actions already adopted by countries such as Egypt the path to a plastic-free ocean may be a little closer than before.
“Communities and consumers can play vital roles in sparking action. As communities act to ban single-use plastics and individual consumers raise concerns, bigger actors pay attention. Consumer outrage about the plastics crisis is already commanding attention from many governments. That’s a promising start,” Leape said.
The conversation on plastic waste cannot start and finish with plastic straws, as they form less than one per cent of the plastic waste swimming in the world’s oceans. It also cannot be spearheaded by so-called “green-conscious” companies such as BP before the oil-leak disaster or McDonalds, as their impact is too small to make a real difference as opposed to government and civil-society initiatives.
The issue of plastic waste and how to deal with it is a conversation that should be spearheaded by people, especially those who will get impacted the most.
*A version of this article appears in print in the 18 March, 2021 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly