Soon plastic waste will no longer clog up Costa Rica’s landfills, as that country has announced it will embark on a single-use plastics ban by 2021. Costa Rica wants to become the world’s first country to achieve a comprehensive national strategy to eliminate single-use plastics. A global environmental leader, Costa Rica has already achieved numerous 100% renewable energy periods. The goal to eliminate single-use plastics coincides with Costa Rica’s 2021 goal of being carbon neutral — which was set a decade ago.
The plastics ban initiative is being led by a number of interested constituents: Costa Rica’s Ministries of Health and Environment and Energy, the United Nations Development Programme, local governments, civil society, and various private sector groups.
A joint statement from Environment and Energy Minister Edgar Gutiérrez, Health Minister María Esther Anchía, and UNDP Costa Rica resident representative Alice Shackelford captured the essence of the goals to be free of single-use plastics.
“Single-use plastics are a problem not only for Costa Rica but also for the whole world. It is estimated that if the current consumption pattern continues, by 2050 there will be more plastic in our oceans than fish—measured by weight. For this reason, we began our journey to turn Costa Rica into a single-use plastic-free zone. It’s a win-win for all: Costa Rica, the people, and the planet.”
The announcement about Costa Rica’s upcoming plastics ban came on World Environment Day, June 5, 2017, at a time when 8.3 billion metric tons of plastics had been manufactured to date around the world — most of which have ended up as litter.
What’s the Problem with Plastics, Anyways?
The essential element in plastics is carbon. That carbon typically comes from oil, a fossil fuel product with significant consequences for the environment. During the plastics manufacturing process, carbon and other materials are heated, broken down, and rebuilt as plastic resin. That resin can be molded into nearly any shape. But many types of plastics aren’t biodegradable. Plastic bags, for example, do not biodegrade. Light breaks them down into smaller and smaller particles that contaminate the soil and water and are expensive and difficult to remove.
Sure, some plastics can be recycled, but too many plastics are not recycled. According to the Clean Air Council (CAC), only one-quarter of 1% of the more than 7 billion pounds of discarded polyvinyl chloride (PVC) is recycled each year in the U.S.
Here are some other really unsettling facts from the CAC about plastics.
- The average American office worker uses about 500 disposable cups every year.
- Every year, Americans throw away enough paper and plastic cups, forks, and spoons to circle the equator 300 times.
- During 2009ʼs International Coastal Cleanup, the Ocean Conservancy found that plastic bags were the second-most common kind of waste found, at one out of ten items removed.
- Chlorine production for PVC uses almost as much energy as the annual output of eight medium-sized nuclear power plants each year.
- After Ireland created a 15-cent charge per plastic bag in 2002, bag consumption dropped by 90%. In 2008, the average person in Ireland used 27 plastic bags, while the average person in Britain used 220. The program has raised millions of euros in revenue.
- The state of California spends about 25 million dollars sending plastic bags to landfill each year and another 8.5 million dollars to remove littered bags from streets.
- Every year, Americans use approximately 1 billion shopping bags, creating 300,000 tons of landfill waste.
- Less than 1% of plastic bags are recycled each year. Recycling one ton of plastic bags costs $4,000.
- The city of San Francisco determined that it costs 17 cents for them to handle each discarded bag.
How Plastics Affect Our Planet
“One of the most ubiquitous and long-lasting recent changes to the surface of our planet is the accumulation and fragmentation of plastics,” David Barnes, a researcher for the British Antarctic Survey, argues. Starting in the 1950s, mass production of plastic products has led to discarded plastics in the open ocean, on shorelines, on remote islands, and in the deep sea. Plastics are inexpensive, lightweight, and have durable properties that allow for more single use and disposability than any previous synthetic artifacts. While plastics typically constitute approximately 10% of total discarded waste, they represent a much greater proportion of the debris accumulating on shorelines.
The initial perceived aesthetic problem of plastics has morphed into other realizations, such as the way that plastics cause the choking and entanglement of wildlife, how plastics transport persistent organic pollutants, the fluidity in which plastics move non-indigenous species to new locations, and the distribution of algae associated with red tides.
A specific example of the devastating effects of plastics is what happens when the small particles from photodegraded plastic bags get into the water. First, they are ingested by filter feeding marine animals. Then biotoxins that are in the particles are then passed up the food chain, including to humans.
The durability of plastic ensures that, regardless of type of disposal, it does not just disappear. Even plastics that are disposed of in landfills, including the large proportion used in single-use applications such as packaging, persist over time. Moreover, if plastics in landfill sites are not properly buried, they may later surface to become debris.
In the last half-century, use of plastic has increased 20-fold. There appears to be no place on the planet that is untouched by plastic waste. In a report published last year by the World Economic Forum and the Ellen MacArthur foundation, experts estimate there will be more bits of plastic in the sea than fish by 2050.
Regardless of how we look at plastics disposal, plastics create a problem for the future.
The Plastics Ban in Costa Rica Will Need Everyone’s Help
The statement announcing the Costa Rican plastics ban called on people from all walks of society to contribute to the national effort. The change will require “all sectors — public and private,” women and men, girls and boys, to become leaders if the plastics ban is to be successful. Like any broad shift in social thinking, the plastics ban needs a new cultural disposition in which previously unconsidered actions usher in social change. Five necessary strategic actions were outlined in the statement as necessary overarching components of the plastics ban:
- Municipal incentives
- Policies and institutional guidelines for suppliers
- Replacement of single-use plastic products
- Research and development
- Investment in strategic initiatives
As part of the National Strategy, Costa Rica will implement mechanisms that invite people, companies, and institutions to join together to implement the plastics ban. These groups can register their commitments, voluntary actions, and progress reports through an online platform. The logs of positive action will document how everyday individuals as well as larger organizations replace the consumption of this type of plastic for renewable and water-soluble alternatives: those that biodegrade within six months.
What Will Costa Ricans Do without Plastics?
With recent and significant progress in the development of biodegradable plastics primarily from renewable natural resources, alternatives to single-use plastics are becoming more pervasive. Biodegradable materials with similar functionality to that of oil-based polymers have potential benefits for greenhouse gas balances and other environmental impacts over whole life cycles and in the use of renewable, rather than finite, resources. Biodegradable materials contribute to sustainability and reduction in the environmental impact associated with disposal of oil-based polymers.
Single-use plastics can take hundreds of years to decompose. The Costa Rican National Strategy will create a plastics ban that will eliminate plastics like water bottles, cup lids, coffee stirrers, plastic store bags, straws, containers, and plastic cutlery. But what will replace these ubiquitous single-use plastics in everyday life?
There are many substitutes for single-use plastics. It takes research and development as well as consumer curiosity and inventiveness. In addition to performance and price, biodegradable plastics must offer advantages for waste management systems in order to realize an overall benefit. Many forward-looking individuals are quickly investing in the production of new bio-degradable and water-soluble plastics to serve the growing demand for alternatives to single-use plastics. So, too, have products made of renewable materials such as plant starches started to come into vogue. We’re also seeing a return to reusable, non-plastic containers.
Here are some examples of alternatives to single-use plastics.
- An edible water bottle is being promoted in the U.K. through a crowdfunding campaign with the hope of replacing millions of plastic bottles thrown away every year. More than £500,000 has been raised so far.
- An Indonesian entrepreneur has created a material with plastic-like qualities to be manufactured not from petroleum products but from the remains of the cassava plant.
- An eco-friendly process can create bags using 12 ingredients — potatoes, tapioca, corn, natural starch, vegetable oil, banana, and flower oil. Natural ingredients are liquefied and taken through a six-step process. Even the paints used to print on the bags are all natural and organic.
- Chitosan, an organic compound found in the shells of crustaceans like shrimp, crabs, and other shellfish products, can become a human-made polymer.
- A six-pack beer ring is made from brewing byproducts and results in a composite that marine life can eat as it melts in seawater.
- An explosion of interest in polymers is taking place so that single-use items could be made from renewable resources and biodegrade easily and harmlessly.
- Glass, which is made from sand, is a renewable resource that doesn’t contain chemicals that can leach into food or the human body. It’s easily recycled or repurposed for storing leftovers.
Costa Rica’s Larger Social Justice Mission
The plastics ban is just one component of Costa Rica’s larger social justice mission, which involves movement towards sustainable production and consumption systems that also generate development opportunities. Importantly, such endeavors must include at-risk communities, who often are left to experience the consequences of environmental degradation. Such an approach must include, according to the United Nations Development Programme, “a comprehensive system that cares for people’s health, ensures fair wages and equal opportunities for women and men, while taking care of forests and wetlands.”
The country’s Sustainable Development Goals outline how it is the responsibility of all sectors and people to ensure a balance between the social, economic, and environmental realms. Marginalized people must be incorporated into the process, so that challenges, such as the management of solid waste and its impacts on people, can be overcome by a broad range of constituents. The upcoming plastics ban must find a way for impoverished persons to have daily alternatives to single-use plastics, too, if the initiative is to be egalitarian.
Officials point out in their statement that Costa Rica’s impressive environmental record still has room for improvement.
“Although the country has been an example to the world by reversing deforestation and doubling its forest cover from 26 percent in 1984 to more than 52 percent this year, today one fifth of the 4,000 tonnes of solid waste produced daily is not collected and ends up as part of the Costa Rican landscape, also polluting rivers and beaches,” they explain.
Costa Rica’s officials hope that this plastics ban can become a source of inspiration for the entire world.
US Cities and States and Their Efforts to Implement Plastics Bans
While no plastics bans is imminent in the US or other western nations, many awareness programs are attempting to inform citizens about the impact of plastics on the environment.
- Seattle, Washington, Portland, Oregon, Westchester (NY), Berkeley, and Malibu (CA) have all banned Styrofoam foodware.
- Laguna Beach and Santa Monica (CA) have banned all polystyrene foodware.
- An 84-year-old grandmother led the crusade to ban water bottle in Concord (MA), home to transcendentalist Henry David Thoreau.
- Hawaii was the first U.S. state to ban the bag at checkout and restaurants.
Even a team in the upcoming Volvo Ocean Race will have a mission to increase understanding of the impact of plastics on our oceans.
An action plan, laid out in a new report titled, “The New Plastics Economy: Catalyzing Action,” launched by the World Economic Forum and the Ellen MacArthur Foundation, would see 70% of plastic packaging reused and recycled globally, up from today’s recycling rate of 14%. The remaining 30% of plastic packaging, equivalent to 10 billion garbage bags per year, they say, needs fundamental redesign and innovation.
Costa Rica is taking the lead. But will the U.S., with its current anti-environment executive office agenda, follow Costa Rica into a national plastics ban? Perhaps invested U.S. citizens can follow Costa Rica’s lead to involve constituents across a broad social and economic spectrum to join a voluntary plastics ban, one day at a time.