Plastic bag ban might not save our oceans after all

Shoppers in the West are struggling to see how stopping their use of plastic bags is going to make a difference — and it’s even harder when there are studies to support that view.

One of those studies shows that plastic debris is primarily carried into the sea by large rivers — and the top 10 worst culprits aren’t in the United States.

With debate raging amid the cessation of free, single-use plastic bags at major supermarkets in Australia, the latest Western country to tackle the issue, researchers are also working to quantify the environmental impact of plastic.

Researchers in Germany said that in order to take practical measures to reduce plastic input, it was necessary to answer these initial questions: “Where does all the plastic come from anyhow? And how does it get into the sea?”

In October, Dr. Christian Schmidt and his team at the Helmholtz Center for Environmental Research (UFZ) addressed these questions in a report and found that the 10 river systems with the highest plastic loads — eight of them in Asia and two in Africa — were responsible for about 90 percent of the global input of plastic into the sea.

In these countries, the problem often is the plastic is not disposed of properly in the respective river catchment area.

“Halving the plastic input from the catchment areas of these rivers would already be a major success,” the hydrogeologist said.

“To achieve this, it will be necessary to improve the waste management and raise public awareness for the issue.”

“We hope that our study will make a contribution to a positive development so that the plastic problem in our oceans can be curbed in the long run,” Schmidt said.

But experts have said the key issue to note in the study and Schmidt’s comments was public awareness.

The plastic bag ban has been implemented by all state governments across Australia except for New South Wales — where the major supermarkets have taken it upon themselves to remove the bags from their stores — in response to the fact that the single-use bags cause major environmental problems.

In the United States, meanwhile, plastic bag bans are being implemented on a state-by-state basis. California, for example, banned single-use plastic bags in 2016, according to the Sierra Club, while Governor Andrew Cuomo recently introduced a plastic ban bill in New York.

Professor Sankar Bhattacharya, a chemical engineering at Monash University in Australia, said that, like brushing your teeth after a meal, reducing, recycling and reusing was “just the right thing to do.”

“Research suggests grocery bags could take anywhere from 500 to 1,000 years to degrade — not exactly a shining legacy to leave for future generations,” he said.

“Now that China has stopped taking our trash, we’re scrambling to figure out how to keep all those good intentions out of the landfill.”

“Time is of the essence. The Chinese embargo means that everything we sold to them has to find another home — and right now, that’s the landfill. Once plastic is there, it’s there to stay.”

Thavamani Palanisami, an environmental researcher at the University of Newcastle in Australia, said banning all single-use plastic was a crucial measure that needed to be taken for our planet’s wellbeing, but there was also a vital next step.

“All the present tags used for plastic such as ‘biodegradable,’ ‘bio-based,’ ‘100 percent degradable’ etc only confuse the public, making them assume that they are doing the right thing by using these bags,” he said.

“The lack of awareness about plastic and its behavior in the environment is another issue.”

Professor Stephen Smith, director of the National Marine Science Center at Southern Cross University, said Australia had an opportunity to be a regional leader in the eradication of plastic waste.

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