This story is part of Planet or Plastic?—our multiyear effort to raise awareness about the global plastic waste crisis. Learn what you can do to reduce your own single-use plastics, and take your pledge.
The world has a plastic pollution problem and it’s snowballing—but so is public awareness and action.
Each year, an estimated 8.16 billion pounds of plastic waste enters the world’s ocean from coastal regions. That’s about equivalent to five grocery bags of plastic trash piled up on every foot of coastline on the planet. All that plastic is causing harm to the creatures that live in the ocean, from coral reefs smothered in bags, to turtles gagging on straws, to whales and seabirds that starve because their bellies are so jammed with bits of plastic that there’s no room for real food.
New research is emerging apace about the possible long-term impacts of tiny pieces of plastic on the marine food chain—raising fresh questions about how it might ultimately impact human health and food security.
About 40 percent of all plastic produced is used in packaging, and much of that is used only once and then discarded. Less than a fifth of all plastic is recycled, though many countries and businesses are trying innovative solutions to increase that number.
National Geographic magazine devoted a special cover package to plastic in June 2018, and since then, the issue has received more attention from the media, public, and politicians the world over. Here, we track some of the developments around this important issue. We will update this article periodically as news develops.
CHILE’S BAN ON RETAIL PLASTIC BAGS STANDS
July 6, 2018
Chile’s Constitutional Court ratified a bill that bans retail use of plastic bags across the country on July 6, ruling against an appeal that had been filed by the plastics industry. In June, Chile’s Congress had unanimously approved the new ban, citing concerns of plastic pollution in the ocean and on land.
The country’s Association of Industrial Plastics had sued to block the new law on constitutional grounds. But the court rejected their arguments.
Large retailers will have six months to phase out single-use plastic bags, while small businesses will have up to two years. The ban builds on a law passed under the previous president that had called for a prohibition on plastic bags along the country’s 6437-kilometres coastline.
In announcing the new ban, Marcela Cubillos, Chile’s environment minister, told the New York Times, “We are convinced that our coast imposes an obligation to be leaders in cleaning up our oceans.”
Chile’s ban is the first country-wide one in the Americas. Similar bans have been passed in China, Kenya, France, and elsewhere. Many regional and local areas have bans or other restrictions, including taxes or fees aimed at discouraging the use of single-use plastic bags.
SEATTLE BECOMES FIRST U.S. CITY TO BAN PLASTIC STRAWS AND UTENSILS
July 1, 2018
In an attempt to reduce the amount of plastic waste polluting the land and water, Seattle banned the use of plastic straws and utensils in bars and restaurants starting July 1.
The roughly 5,000 eateries in the city are being encouraged to eschew providing straws or disposable utensils, or at least to switch to paper alternatives. A less green but still legal option, according to the city, is compostable plastic straws or utensils.
"Plastic pollution is surpassing crisis levels in the world's oceans, and I'm proud Seattle is leading the way and setting an example for the nation by enacting a plastic straw ban," Seattle Public Utilities General Manager Mami Hara said in a statement.
A similar ban that was proposed for Hawaii was defeated by opposition from industry. Other proposed bans are being debated in San Francisco, New York, and Washington, D.C., among other places.
Some advocates for the disabled have warned that straw bans need to take into account special needs. (Learn more about the history of plastic straws)
PHOTOS OF ANIMALS AND PLASTIC
EU, UK, AND INDIA PROPOSE PLASTIC BANS
May 28, 2018
In draft rules released May 28, the European Commission proposed a ban on 10 common items that it says make up about 70 percent of the litter in EU waters. This includes plastic straws, drink stirrers, plates, and more.
The rules would still need approval from member states and the European Parliament to move forward. They would likely not go into effect for several years.
The proposed law would also mandate that EU countries collect and recycle 90 percent of plastic bottles by 2025. Plastic producers would be on the hook for most of the expense of waste management and cleanup efforts.
In April, British Prime Minister Theresa May announced her intent to establish a ban in her country on sales of single-use plastics, including straws and cotton swab handles.
Calling plastic waste “one of the greatest environmental challenges facing the world,” May said she would work with industry to develop alternatives. An estimated 8.5 billion plastic straws are tossed out in the U.K. every year.
On June 5, Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi announced his intent to eliminate all single-use plastic in the country by 2022. With a fast-growing economy and population of 1.3 billion, India struggles to manage its vast waste stream, and is a significant contributor to global ocean plastic.
“Let us all join together to beat plastic pollution and make this planet a better place to live,” Modi said.
Experts caution that Modi’s goal is far from being realized, and would likely take significant changes and investment from industry and the public. Already, industry lobbyists have taken aim at the efforts. The state of Maharashtra, home to megacity Mumbai, eased a ban on single-use plastic just a week after it unveiled the plan this summer. The state is working on a number of exemptions, for plastic of a certain thickness, products of a certain size, medical equipment, and other uses.
LEAD IMAGE: Plastic bottles fill the famous Cibeles Fountain in Madrid during an exhibit that called attention to the environmental impact of disposable plastics. PHOTOGRAPH BY RANDY OLSON, NATIONAL GEOGRAPHIC