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Sustainable solutions to plastics

Sep 15,2023 - Last updated at Sep 15,2023

Aside the scale of environmental hazards plastics cause in nature, the plastics industry contributes to greenhouse gas emissions. Plastics are primarily derived from fossil fuels and their production and disposal processes release carbon dioxide and other pollutants into the atmosphere, exacerbating climate change. Therefore, plastic pollution not only harms humans, wildlife, ecosystems and deepens the impact of climate change but also negatively impacts tourism and local economies, particularly in areas where natural beauty, wildlife and human health are of significant concern.

In natural environments, plastics can persist for hundreds to thousands of years, slowly breaking down into smaller and smaller particles, known as micro-plastics. Micro-plastics can persist in the environment indefinitely and enter the food chain. Adversely, paper is made from natural cellulose fibers, typically sourced from trees or other plant materials and can break down in a matter of weeks to few months. So, how can we approach this crisis that plastics have instigated?

Efforts to remove existing plastic pollution from the environment include cleanup initiatives in oceans, rivers and on land, as well as developing technologies to capture and recycle plastic waste from natural habitats, increasing public awareness campaigns, informing people about the consequences of plastic pollution and encouraging responsible disposal and recycling, as well as focusing on wildlife conservation work to protect and rehabilitate animals affected by plastic pollution.

Countries should work together to set standards, share best practices and develop common strategies for reducing plastic pollution, such as signing a Global Plastic Pollution Treaty that sets standards, monitors, and creates reinforcements mechanism related to limiting funds to those who violate standards. Strict action is vital to reduce single-use plastics and encourage recycling, proper waste management, improving recycling rates, promoting a circular economy, sponsoring research into alternative materials, encouraging biodegradable plastics, improving waste management technologies that aim to reduce plastic production and advocating for changes in human behaviour. Individuals can reduce their plastic footprint by choosing reusable items, supporting eco-friendly products, and properly disposing of plastic waste.

Biodegradable plastics are designed to break down more quickly than traditional plastics, typically through natural processes. Some examples include polylactic acid (PLA) and polyhydroxyalkanoates (PHA). These are often used for single-use items like food packaging and disposable cutlery. Materials like cotton, jute, hemp, and bamboo can be used to make textiles, bags and even some biodegradable food packaging.

Reusable cloth bags, stainless steel containers and glass jars can replace single-use plastic bags and containers for shopping and food storage. Packaging made from plant-based materials like cornstarch, sugarcane, or potato starch can be used for food containers and utensils. Some companies are developing hybrid materials that combine the strengths of plastics with more sustainable elements, like natural fibers or biodegradable components.

Silicone is a flexible and durable material often used as an alternative to plastic in bake ware, kitchen utensils and baby products. It is heat-resistant and does not leach harmful chemicals. Some innovative solutions involve creating edible packaging from materials like seaweed, rice, or potatoes. These can be used for items like food wraps and packaging for single-serving products.

As a transitional approach to solutions, especially in underdeveloped countries, using recycled plastics in manufacturing reduces the demand for new raw plastic production. Reducing packaging altogether through promoting package-free shopping, and encouraging consumers to bring their own containers can also significantly reduce plastic usage. This should be supported by charging for the cost of plastic bags, for example, as such a measure would encourage consumers to bring their own reusable bags.

Many countries have passed laws and regulations to curb plastic pollution. Some notable examples include Rwanda which implemented a complete ban on plastic bags in 2008, becoming one of the first countries to do so. France passed a law in 2016 banning single-use plastic bags and promoting the use of biodegradable bags. Kenya enacted one of the world's toughest plastic bag bans in 2017, with heavy fines and even imprisonment for those caught using or manufacturing plastic bags. India introduced a nationwide ban on single-use plastic bags in 2019 and has taken various measures to reduce plastic waste. Several provinces and municipalities in Canada have implemented bans or restrictions on single-use plastics. The EU passed a law in 2019 banning single-use plastic items like straws, cutlery and cotton buds by 2021. Various states and cities in the US have implemented bans on single-use plastic bags and straws. Additionally, some states have introduced legislation to reduce plastic waste.

In Jordan, reusable bags were distributed in limited numbers and green bag campaigns initiated. However positive these gestures may have been, yet this is not considered a sustainable approach to a serious environmental crisis. Although regulations by the Ministry of Environment prohibited the use of plastic bags in 2017, we still see plastic bags everywhere, even at bakeries, where putting hot loafs of bread in thin plastic bags can be a health hazard.

In conclusion, the plastic industry should be redirected towards producing biodegradable, paper and cloth bags in order to avoid harming the income of the people working in them and at the same time saving our local sheep from chewing on them. This is where NGO`s, both local and international, can fit in. However, the choice of alternative materials depends on the specific application, desired properties, local materials available and cultural-environmental considerations. Transitioning into these alternatives, combined with improved recycling and waste management practices, can help reduce plastic pollution and its impact on the environment and climate change, thus paving the way to a more sustainable future.


Ayoub Abu Dayyeh is an energy and green building consultant

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