Invisible plastic: Why banning plastic bags will never be enough

Invisible plastic: Why banning plastic bags will never be enough

This week, the fourth round of treaty talks by the Intergovernmental Negotiating Committee on Plastic Pollution concluded in Ottawa, Canada. A major bone of contention between negotiators from 175 countries is whether or not to limit the production of plastic, most of which is made from fossil fuels and chemicals and which causes pollution after use, as it does not fully or easily biodegrade.

Despite several rounds of talks, the pervasive plastic problem remains unresolved. A final round of talks is scheduled to be held in South Korea at the end of this year.

“Invisible plastics are everywhere,” Tony Walker, a professor at the School for Resource and Environmental Studies at Dalhousie University in Canada who also belongs to the Scientists’ Coalition for an Effective Plastics Treaty, said.

Single-use items containing plastic should be the focus, he added. These are adding to the “tonnes of plastic that are sitting in our landfills”, he said, often leaching harmful microplastics into the environment.

Microplastics are tiny particles of plastic which can even make their way into our food – for example by first being broken down and ingested by fish when they get into the sea. Walker added that even so-called “biodegradable plastic”, which is advertised as being able to break down naturally once disposed of, can contain microplastics.

Some other everyday items which surprisingly contain plastic are:

  • Chewing gum: A key ingredient used in making chewing gum – “gum base” – actually contains polyvinyl acetate, a plastic which does not biodegrade once the gum is disposed of.
  • Tea bags: To retain their shape while they are in hot water, most tea bags are lined with a plastic called polypropylene. The same applies to many coffee filters.
  • Sunscreen: Several brands of sunscreen use microplastics as an ingredient in their formula.
  • Aluminium cans: Many aluminium cans that contain soda have a lining of plastic to prevent the acid from the soda from reacting with the metal of the can.
  • Receipts: Many receipts are printed on thermal paper, which is coated with a layer of plastic to give it a shiny finish, making most paper receipts non-recyclable.
  • Toiletries and laundry products: Some toothpaste brands contain tiny beads or micro-beads of plastic which act as exfoliants. These do not degrade or dissolve in water. Micro-beads can also be found in facial scrubs, makeup products and laundry detergent powders.

Plastic production continues to rise around the world and the annual production of fossil fuel-based plastic is projected by the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) to triple by 2060 if nothing changes.

“Current global production [of plastic] is over 400 million metric tons [tonnes] annually,” said Walker. “However, we’re recycling on average as a planet, only 9 percent. That leaves 91 percent of 400 million metric tons as waste.”