19 October, 2019

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Single-Use Plastic Problem: Convenience Over Consequences?

By Maleesha Gunawardana

Maleesha Gunawardana

India, the neighbouring nation that mother Sri Lanka shares a maritime border with, is making an eco-friendly stride by setting to launch a campaign with a ban on up to six single-use plastics on the 2nd of October 2019, the birth anniversary of Mahatma Gandhi. The ban covers some of the most popular plastic items such as bags, cups, plates, bottles, straws and certain types of sachets. Meanwhile, the Pearl of the Indian Ocean continues to take a backseat on the ride to plastic-free tides.

From recent studies on microplastic particles that fall out of the sky with snow to scientists who remain concerned about the human health impacts of nano plastics that contaminate seafood, the everlasting plastic waste problem is more perceptible than ever before. With no adequate legislation and regulations in place to avert single-use, it is indispensable for concerned citizens to pledge for a reusable tomorrow.

Skip the straw 

The non-recyclable plastic straws are probably the most prevalent type of plastic that sits on the once pristine beaches of Paradise Isle. Once the wind blows these lightweight and inexpensive human essentials into the ocean, they become silent killers of marine life. Back in August 2015, one of the many victims made headlines all over the world when marine biologist Christine Figgener filmed her team removing a plastic straw stuck in a sea turtle’s nose. Whether the waves of eco-friendly vows that followed still resonate to this day is highly debatable since most restaurants in Sri Lanka do not hesitate to serve beverages with turtle killers stuck in them. While corporate accomplices must make more green choices, the power lies with the citizens to show them how it’s done. This could be achieved by simply settling to sip by skipping a straw when ordering a drink. At times when a straw is much-needed, investing in one of the many alternatives to single-use plastics can save the life of a sea turtle. Reusable alternatives range from stainless steel straws, bamboo straws, paper straws, silicone straws, plant-based straws and even pasta straws. 

Bags and wraps 

The plastic bags that patiently wait on cash counters to be handed over to customers are destined to end up in landfills by the millions. Useful for minutes, but here to stay for centuries, they keep finding their way into the stomachs of the largest animals that exist. Marine biologist and environmentalist Darrell Blatchley found around 40 kilograms of rice sacks, grocery bags, banana plantation bags and general plastic bags in the stomach of a young whale carcass this year. It is indeed a traumatic matter that the culture of convenience in the human world is responsible for the death of such magnificent gentle giants whose size fails to stop them from nearing the brink of extinction. This begs the question; would the future generations get to witness these denizens in the deep? 

Fortunately, it may still not be too late. Choosing anything among cloth bags, paper grocery bags, mesh produce bags and an array of other reusable bags to carry groceries prevails more and more of the otherwise choking hazards from reaching vulnerable marine ecosystems. 

Perhaps, a Sri Lankan habit that is much more difficult to break is the famous rice packet wrapped up in a polythene “lunch sheet”.  Employees much rather prefer to carry their lunch this way because it saves much of the trouble of emptying the remaining food and washing the lunch box. Much like plastic bags, they end up where they should not and sit for decades in landfills along with many other non-biodegradable items that are bound to collapse onto homes, taking human lives. Sri Lanka has already experienced agonizing consequences such as the Meethotamulla man-made catastrophe that cut many lives short.

Water bottles 

Plastic, a creation of man, does not easily turn to dust like the rest. A single-use plastic bottle has a lifespan of about 450 years.  Even when the plastic bottle finally takes its last breath via photodegradation, it still leaves micro bits of plastic that would continue to create macro problems. The Pacific trash vortex is notably one such macro matter. Marine food chains are under great threat by such vast accumulations of tiny pieces of plastic as they block the sunlight needed for the photoautotrophs that go on to feed the other levels up until the endangered top predators. Coupled with that, the harmful colourants and chemicals released by microplastics poison the food webs. 

According to the Ocean Conservancy, 8 million metric tons of plastics enter the ocean annually, on top of the estimated 150 million metric tons that already exist. Recycling may remain an option for the existing masses, yet rather challenging as the five ocean garbage patches spread across millions of square kilometers. It would take many years and dollars to patch up the patches. Accordingly, there is no justifiable reason to keep producing, selling and buying more. Hence, when it comes to water bottles, reusable is the conscious way to go.  Out of the many options, new inventions such as the leak-proof bamboo bottle that made headlines for its organic nature are highly recommended. 

Sachet packets

Given the dire economic conditions that majority of Sri Lankans continue to battle with, sachets have provided access to their daily necessities such as toothpaste, compared to the rather expensive packaged bottles and containers. However, the use of ketchup sachet packets readily available at even the high-end restaurants and used sachets of shampoo that swim with their irresponsible travellers in scenic waterfalls and rivers cannot be overlooked. 

It is rather convenient to get detached from the devastation caused to the marine environment since the ripple effect on life on land is yet to come through. At the same time, those who are compassionate and concerned about the life below water are left feeling powerless as the powerful keep failing to make strong attempts to maintain plastic-free deals. Nonetheless, it is important to remember that a large part of the sustainability of laws is in the hands of the citizens. Therefore, there is no greater time than now for each individual to “be the change that you wish to see in the world.”

*Maleesha Gunawardana is an L.L.B. undergraduate at the University of London (International Programmes)

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Latest comments

  • 2
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    Single-use plastics? I wish we had single-use Presidents. Like plastic it is very difficult to get rid of these buggers.

    • 1
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      Bawa, who the hell are you?
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      Most of your supposed jokes are in very bad taste.
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      They prevent serious discussion of any subject.

      • 1
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        Dear Sinhala_Man cool down, think of your heart. There is room for humour in any subject, besides I was making a serious point. It IS very difficult to get rid of the Executive Presidency isn’t it?

        • 0
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          Getting rid of the Executive Presidency: the problem is that the fellow occupying that position cannot be held accountable for anything that he does. He/ she habitually indulges in intrigues and maneuverings which directly allow all Parliamentarians, and so many other politicians, to be corrupt.
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          Yes, it should be one of our main concerns for us to ensure that all politicians must be controlled by us. The man who is clearest on this matter is Nagananda, who is a totally sincere man.
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          However, it is also true that Nagananda is far too earnest in this, and never relaxes. Not a fault, but a real sense of humour would help. It is possible that I, too, ought to relax more.
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          All that being said, please see the comment by Dionysus. This subject of the environment is far too important for us to joke about. Had your comment followed those by many others which encouraged the author to persist with her efforts, it would have been all right.
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          Also, you have adopted a pseudonym that suggests that you are a Muslim. You probably had some other handle before that since you now make so many comments. Given the racial tension that now prevails, Islam is not something that we should joke about. Muslims are more touchy about jokes than all of us put together.
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          By the way, I hope that you are doing something tangible to rid us of politicians. Why not add to that all the religious humbugs? There I will be with you.
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          But then, some have faulted me for my own handle. I’m male, and only bilingual. So, my handle is factual, and is meant to tell people that there are many “Sinhalese” (what our genes are is a different matter) who’d like to leave behind for future generations a world in which life forms could survive. My name is no secret: Panini Edirisinhe.

          • 0
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            Sinhala_Man, thank you.

  • 1
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    Thanks, Maleesha Gunawardana, excellently written.
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    However, saying it once won’t do. The use of plastics is increasing exponentially. In 2015, My3 was talking so much about the problem, now nobody in government is.
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    Water bottles especially can be done without; I mean, have your own re-usable food-grade water bottle. Glass bottles for aerated water have almost disappeared – well no: I find expensive chilled tea, etc in glass bottles which are NOT re-used. They are just dumped in to garbage in Super-markets. Not many yet, but it is ominous. That old habit of collecting and re-using glass bottles has disappeared. They used to pay us about 10 rupees for returned bottles.
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    Also, isn’t yoghurt being packed into bottles whos thick plastic adds up toa volume almost as great as the contents?

  • 4
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    Do the lack of comments on this article display the priority CT readers attribute to environmental subjects? Or is it ignorance on the subject altogether? Compare the number of responses an article on politics gets with responses to more serious articles. But again, the large number of responses to any article comes from individuals who are unable to think or write straight. Just nonsense or abuse. Typical Maradana hoisting of the sarong crotch-high and yelled out kunu-harapa.

    • 0
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      Hi

      Most of those who write those stuff I suspect are not even Sri Lankans. I think this is the same mafia responsible for our children to die for their geo political/personal ventures and the same Mafia who makes cold calls around the world frauding innocent people as we speak.

      No Sri Lankan after all that we have lost/suffered will ever have the heart to abuse the other and would have learned the lessons by now what not to do……….that is not to sell your Nation to foreign agendas and respect fellow countryman.

  • 0
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    Dear Ms Gunawardana
    Thank you for the most relevant topic to our Nation and her healthier future. I think we are 40 years behind in addressing this issue as we were too busy killing each other.
    It is also noted with joy that India is taking her carbon/pollution foot print seriously as even if we were successful in dealing with waste we can not cope with what India can dispose into the Sea and Air as we literally share the immediate space/sea etc.
    I have recently(July 2019) attended a seminar organised by the Institute of Mechanical Engineers in London titled “Closing the Plastic Cycle – Review of the current best practice around the whole cycle”. We had Academic institutions and their Research and Development work/Bodies that represent the Plastic and Rubber industry in the UK/Private recycling sectors involved in the running of facilities for the Councils through our the Nations/People who manufacture materials from non recyclable plastics/people who are pioneering in vehicle recycles etc were all represented.
    The problem was not always with the governments and the respective institutions but the end users “we the public’ who can not even segregate waste as advised/requested by the Councils. It was he5art wrenching to learn we in UK were only recycling 30% when other Scandinavian countries were unto 90% ++. If this is scenario in a developed country you could possible imaging the task ahead for Nations like ours a Developing nation just out of the war yet stated prioritising matters as to what is more important in life for the next generations to come.
    I remember the days drinking water from the wells in the middle of the Passy fields in Karainagar a paradise of an Island located in the Northern tip of our land.

  • 0
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    Continued
    My village Karainagar was A 100% organic space with no plastic nor any landfill sites polluting the water tables with their toxic leachate. We recycled everything and life was sustainable then……..without any technology and scientific knowledge we were living and leading a diverse life the world is waking unto today.

    Our focus now should be about writing this historical facts the way we survived the kings and the colonial times to lead a life we now demand from all the world population so the environment can continue to sustain us I the future. It is this we need to teach our children not ‘war and constitutional assemblies’ that will unit us for a brighter future specially for the next generation of Mother Lankan children.

    I hope CT will invest their coloumns on this historical facts and Science Technology that is required to fix the problems will combine the heritage to the future of out Nation of people. This is the peace and reconciliation we need with the Nature and then only we can connect..she the Mother Nature is the catalysts for our future Nation Building. We have an opportunity to plan and execute a development plan based on Organic life and sustainable future that will not only liberate us but the world too. We should focus on selling our Nation as the most diverse natural sustainable developing Nation and should only attract industries who has a vision for greener world/all out infrastructure work should reflect this/a Nation wide waste management strategy and implementation should will speak for our values and will lay a great foundation in an amazing direction breaking boundaries that politics could not solve. Mother Lanka has something to say to us that is to teach all our children the best of all Science from day one encompassing this ideal.

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