On October 9 and 10, MAP organized a regional meeting on ‘Marine Litter Best Practices’ in Izmir, Turkey. The meeting brought together Mediterranean Governments, experts and NGOs. One of the priority issue discussed was the phasing out of single-use plastic bags. Today, the threats plastic pose are more and more known, and studies show that phasing out plastic bags will not only benefit the environment, but also the economy.
The age of plastic
The benefits of plastic are undeniable. The material is cheap, lightweight and easy to make. These qualities have led to a boom in the production of plastic over the past century. Plastic packaging, which includes plastic bags, is the plastic’s largest application, representing 26% of the total volume at global level. It is estimated that roughly 5 trillion plastic bags are consumed worldwide each year.
In the Mediterranean, plastics are the predominant type of marine litter found on beaches, lying on the seafloor and found afloat, often accounting over 80% of the recorded marine litter. Plastic bags are the 6th most common marine litter item found on Mediterranean beaches:
Top marine litter items in the Mediterranean. Source: International Coastal Clean-Up, ICC, 2014.
Threats to biodiversity and human health
Littered bags pose threats to biodiversity. Marine animals may confuse bags for food leading to ingestion, blocked digestive tracts and eventual death.
In addition, most plastics do not biodegrade. Instead, they slowly break down into smaller fragments known as microplastics and it becomes even more difficult to remove from the ocean. Studies suggest that plastic bags and containers made of expanded polystyrene foam (commonly referred to as “styrofoam”) can take up to thousands of years to decompose, contaminating soil and water.
Microplastics, if ingested by fish, may enter our food chain. They have been found in commercial table salt and studies show that 90 per cent of bottled water and 83 per cent of tap water contain plastic particles. Worryingly, little is known about the impacts of microplastics on human health.
Governments are taking action
Today, the threat plastic pose to environment and human health is more and more know, and many Governments are taking action to tackle them. Around 60 countries have introduced policies to tackle them worldwide:
National-level plastic bag bans and Styrofoam regulations. Source: UNEP/Single-Use Plastics: A roadmap for sustainability
In the Mediterranean, the Regional Plan on the Management of Marine Litter was adopted by the Contracting Parties of the Barcelona Convention in 2013, providing for a set of legally binding measures and implementation timetables. The Regional Plan indicates that the Contracting Parties shall explore and implement to the extent possible prevention measures related to fiscal and economic instruments to promote the reduction of consumption of plastic bags.
Several Mediterranean countries have already adopted measures to reduce the use of plastic bags, such as a levy on suppliers or bans.
MAP Components contribute to these efforts by providing technical assistance to a number of countries and developing regional guidelines. Support is also provided to entrepreneurs promoting alternatives to single-use plastic bags through training and seed funding.
The economic benefits of banning single-use plastic bags
Based on existing studies, a ban on single-use plastic bags would score best against environmental and economic indicators; compared to other options such as ”prevention target” or “retailers voluntary agreement.” In particular, a ban would generate a positive economic impact by reducing the waste management and litter collection, and the costs for retailers. For example, within the EU, a ban on single-use plastic items could save or generate up to 900 million euro per year according to a study conducted for the European Commission.