Colombo Telegraph

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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