UN seeks curbs on single-use plastic items

Report urges govts to use bans or levies to stem tide of pollution

A block of compressed plastic bottles at a plastic waste centre on the outskirts of Beijing on May 16, 2018.

OSLO • Less than a 10th of all the plastic ever made has been recycled, and governments should consider banning or taxing single-use bags or food containers to stem a tide of pollution, a United Nations report said yesterday on World Environment Day.

The study, billed as the most comprehensive review of government action to curb single-use plastics, said up to five trillion plastic bags were used worldwide each year.

Spread out side by side, they would cover an area twice the size of France. At current levels, the Earth could be awash in 12 billion tonnes of plastic trash by the middle of the century, the report warned.

"The scourge of plastic has reached every corner of the Earth," Mr Erik Solheim, head of UN Environment, wrote in the report, which was launched along with the slogan "If you can't reuse it, refuse it".

"In cities around the world, plastic waste clogs drains... breeding disease. Consumed by livestock, it also finds its way into the food chain." Most of this plastic garbage clogging waterways and landfill is single-use items such as straws, bags and cutlery.

"Only 9 per cent of the nine billion tonnes of plastic the world has ever produced has been recycled," the report said. Only a little more - 12 percent - has been incinerated.

This leaves only landfill, oceans and waterways as the resting place for the world's plastic trash, where it takes thousands of years to decompose.

China is the biggest source of plastic packaging waste, ahead of the European Union and United States. But per capita, the US produces most, ahead of Japan and the EU.

However, there are signs of action to limit plastic pollution, which harms life in the oceans, contaminates soils and releases toxic chemicals when burnt.

"Targeted levies and bans - where properly planned and enforced - have been among the most effective strategies to limit overuse of disposable plastic products," the report said.

Ms Elisa Tonda, who leads UN Environment's sustainable lifestyle programme, said more than 60 countries had bans or charges on single-use plastics such as bags or polystyrene containers.

Thirty per cent of countries found sharp drops in plastic bag consumption in the first year after imposing restrictions, while 20 per cent saw little or no change. But in half of the cases, governments failed to gauge the effects of restrictions, the report said.

Among its recommendations, the report called for better sorting of waste and recycling, economic incentives to promote eco-friendly alternatives to plastics, education of consumers and promotion of reusable products.

The UN report was compiled with the Indian government, which has committed to create litter-free zones around 100 major monuments in the country.

The state of Tamil Nadu said yesterday that it would ban plastic items from next year. The Indian city of Hyderabad has also announced it is going single-use-plastic-free by 2022.



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A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on June 06, 2018, with the headline UN seeks curbs on single-use plastic items. Subscribe