The plastic bag levy was introduced in Ireland in 2002 and was an overnight success. Consumption of plastic bags fell by 90% when we were forced to pay 15c for a bag.
We stopped using 1 billion plastic bags annually and the reusable bag became a household mainstay, stuffed into a bulging kitchen cupboard of them.
Unfortunately, it’s not just plastic bags that are the problem. Throughout our daily routine, plastics are central. A morning shower — plastic shampoo bottles. A morning cuppa — microplastics in teabags. A lunchtime sandwich — packed in unrecyclable plastic. And so on.
It’s just over 100 years since the first completely synthetic plastic was developed. In a relatively short space of time, it has made its way into all of our lives. But while plastic has many advantages, its inability to break down naturally over time is creating big problems. It doesn’t go away.
According to a 2018 scientific study, since the mass production of plastics began about 60 years ago, we have produced 8.3 billion metric tons of it — 6.3 billion metric tons has become plastic waste with only 9% of that waste recycled — most of that plastic waste is piling up in landfills or degrading into nature. Half of all plastic manufactured becomes rubbish in less than a year!
It was five years ago when I first heard the term ‘microplastic’. I was filming a report for RTÉ’s 10 Things To Know About, interviewing GMIT scientists about microplastics in Irish coastal waters.
Microplastics are small pieces of plastic generally up to 5mm in size. They come from all types of plastic —anywhere where the shape and size of the plastic has been manipulated, e.g. from cutting plastic in industry, from macerating it in recycling, or simply from throwing a plastic bottle on the ground where weather and friction will damage and batter it, releasing tiny particles.
One big source of plastic pollution is from washing clothes that are made from plastic fibres like polyester. For example, fleece material is often made from recycled plastic bottles, and when the fleece is washed it can release up to 2,000 plastic fibres from it. They can accumulate and build up in the environment, particularly our seas.
The GMIT researchers found microplastics everywhere they looked. From coastal waters in the north-east Atlantic as far up as the Arctic.
An EPA report in 2017 highlighted that microplastic pollution is also in our freshwater systems and many fish, shellfish and birds are at risk.
Microplastics have been found in whales that have been beached on Irish shores and there is evidence that fish that feed on the water surface bring microplastics back down to the sea floor where they can be ingested by plankton.
Microplastics can cause physical blockages, leaching of chemicals and accumulation of chemicals within organisms’ tissues.
Whether the plastics remain long enough in the fish or mammal’s systems to cause damage is a question being researched by scientists.
Microplastics have been found in shellfish in supermarkets in Europe and research regarding the implications for human health is relatively new and ongoing.
However, I suspect consuming a man-made product derived from crude oil is probably not brilliant for our health!
And still 320 million tonnes of plastic is produced each year and every day approximately eight million pieces of plastic pollution find their way into our oceans.
The only way to tackle the problem is to turn off the source. In the same way we need to break up with fossil fuels, we need to break up with plastic.
We’ve made some small changes in our house — bamboo toothbrushes instead of plastic ones (the U.S. alone dumps one billion toothbrushes every year), bars of soap instead of shower gels and liquid soaps, paper lunch bags instead of plastic ones, reusable containers instead of cling film, reusable water bottles and coffee cups (Covid-19 concerns have stymied the welcome influx of Keep Cups and Stojos). We refill our laundry detergent bottles and some other cleaning products in the Quay Coop.
However, the environmentally friendly way is not always the cheapest or most convenient and that’s where things need to change.
‘Guilt’ is not a good or mass motivator. In general, people aren’t going to choose the more expensive/less good option just because it is ‘eco-friendly’. We need the ‘green’ consumer choice to be the more pleasant, equally priced (or cheaper) option.
It is good to see some supermarket chains committing to cutting plastic and packaging. They need to do more. In the absence of commerce leading the way, government has to poke businesses and consumers to do the right thing.
The Programme for Government document is littered with ideas to reduce plastic waste — introduce a deposit and return scheme for plastic bottles and aluminium cans, provide drinking water fountains nationwide to reduce plastic bottle litter, work with European Union member states to continue the phasing out of single use plastics, and expand the Clean Oceans Initiative to collect, reduce and reuse marine litter and clean up the marine environment.
Taxes are proven motivators to change consumer behaviour. The plastic bag levy was an easy change — simply bring a reusable bag when you go shopping or accept the paper bag offered.
Government and businesses need to make the ‘green’ alternative cheap, simple and straightforward so we can all get on board.