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Simply refusing a straw with your cocktail isn't going to do much to reduce the world's plastic consumption

A ban on single-use plastics in Ireland won’t make a dent in ocean plastic pollution, while just five developing nations are the source of most of the pollution, writes Barry Dunning.

Barry Dunning

2018 WILL GO down in history as the year the world finally woke up to the catastrophe of plastic pollution in our oceans.

David Attenborough’s Blue Planet 2 series set the tone, with a series of shocking images and a heartfelt plea from the great man to take action.

This was followed by an avalanche of news stories over the year – from the Pacific Garbage Patch (which is larger than France, Germany and Spain combined) to the swamping of previously pristine tourist beaches with tonnes of plastic waste – as public opinion shifted and the media began to take notice.

Responding to this sudden change in public opinion, businesses and governments have been scrambling to keep up.

Plastic straws have been labelled enemy number one – you could call this #StrawShaming – and many businesses have moved to ban the offending items in response to public pressure.

Plastic bag bans – something that Ireland has been a pioneer in – are being enacted across the world and the move towards eco-packaging has finally gone mainstream.

Just before the end of the year, the Taoiseach announced that the Irish government would shortly introduce a ban on unnecessary single-use plastics across government departments, state agencies, hospitals and schools.

And of course, all of this action from individuals, businesses and government in Ireland and elsewhere is to be welcomed.

Frankly, we could and should be doing more – particularly when it comes to demanding real action from major corporations like Coca Cola, Starbucks and others.

But the reality is that if every country in the EU instituted a ban on single-use plastics tomorrow, it wouldn’t really make a dent on this global problem.

That’s because the overwhelming majority of plastic in our oceans comes from a handful of large, developing nations.

Five Asian countries

According to research conducted by Ocean Conservancy in 2017, just five developing countries – China, Indonesia, the Philippines, Thailand, and Vietnam – are dumping more plastic into the oceans than the rest of the world combined.

Some of these countries have huge population density, but there are other structural problems including poverty, a lack of waste facilities, and the fact that you can’t drink the tap water, which all contribute greatly to this problem. 

I believe that anyone who really wants to stop the flow of plastic into the world’s oceans should focus on their efforts on addressing those problems – rather than on implementing straw bans in Ireland. 

Water, waste and sachets

To start with, the fact that you can’t drink tap water in many developing countries is a massive contributory factor to plastic pollution.

I’m living in Indonesia at the moment, so let’s look at that for an example.

Indonesia has a population of 260 million people.

When almost everyone – from the richest 0.01% (drinking Fiji Water) to the poorest rural farmer or urban dweller – has to rely on plastic packaged water, it makes for an incredible amount of plastic related to the most basic of human needs.

Secondly, while all of these major polluter countries have fast-growing middle classes, the majority of the population still lives in significant poverty.

This poverty means that most cannot afford to purchase large quantities of anything, resulting in the proliferation of single-use plastic sachets.

Here in Jakarta, these sachets are absolutely everywhere and almost anything you can think of – coffee, shampoo, sugar, instant noodles – can all be purchased in single-use sachets.

The lack of functioning waste services means that people don’t think twice about dumping rubbish into the nearest water source, or if they are feeling more energetic, burning all their plastic waste.

Of course, this is also an ecological disaster, but when people don’t have a functioning waste system it is hard to expect an individual to do any different.

Here in Indonesia, education, as well as improved infrastructure, are urgently needed to stop this increasing plastic pollution. 

So what can we do?

Of course it’s great if places like Ireland, where we are lucky enough to have fresh drinking water and functioning waste systems, take action to demonstrate how things can be done in a more environmentally sustainable way.

But if we expect the 736 million people living on less than US$2 a day, who have no access to clean water, to change their behaviour because a café in Sligo or a Hostel in Dublin has switched to non-plastic straws then you are truly deluded

We need to realise that developing countries are ground zero for global action on plastic waste.

That means supporting these countries financially, to rapidly increase access to drinkable tap water and improved waste services.

It means using the EU, the UN and other global bodies to support these countries to make rapid political, economic and social change on this issue.

That, in turn, means supporting poverty alleviation programs (like demanding major brands and celebrities pay people a living wage) so that fewer people have to live sachet to sachet.

It also means holding major companies – who trumpet their commitment to sustainability, while ratcheting up their investments in plastics – to account.

This may be asking a lot of people in Ireland, many of whom are still feeling the effects of the recession, ten years on. But if we want to take meaningful action to stop the destruction of the world’s oceans, this is where we need to start.

Just refusing a straw in your cocktail or buying a long life water bottle isn’t going to save the world’s oceans – if only it were so simple!

Barry Dunning is a writer from Kildare living in Jakarta, Indonesia.

You can find him on Twitter here.

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