|Vietnam suffers some of the highest amounts of plastic waste reaching the sea Photo: Le Toan |
Panu Hendolin, chief technology officer of Finland’s Sulapac Ltd., handed over a collection of straws which looked as if they were made of plastic like any other type of straws found anywhere in the world.
“These straws are very special as they are environmentally friendly. After being disposed of, they will self-degrade in a very short amount of time,” Hendolin said.
The company has innovated this new type of material which has the benefits of plastic but without the waste problem. The patent-pending marine biodegradable straw is made from sustainably-sourced, renewable raw materials – wood and natural binders.
“It is expected that one day these straws, now sold widely in the Finnish market, will be exported to Vietnam,” Hendolin said. “We know that Vietnam is faced to problems around plastic waste, with a small volume of the discharged products recycled and the remainder being buried or burnt, or simply thrown into the sea, which harms the environment.”
“It is necessary to change the mindset of everyone in using plastic products,” he stressed.
In fact, plastics has many important qualities, as it is affordable, light, durable, protective, and adaptable. Over the past 50 years, the global use of plastics has grown 20-fold, and it has been estimated to at least double in the following 20 years.
Despite the fact that an increasing share of plastics are made from bio-based materials, the World Economic Forum has estimated that in 2050, the plastics industry will use one-fifth of the world’s oil production.
However, plastics also cause problems to which there are no easy solutions. Among the topics widely discussed in the media, and in the EU and across other international forums, is marine litter. For example, Strawless Ocean, an environmental organisation that discourages the use of plastic straws, estimated that more than one million sea birds, 100,000 marine mammals, and countless fish are killed by plastic pollution each year.
Straws are one of the top 10 contributors to sea pollution. In fact, a turtle was once found with over 1,000 pieces of plastic in its stomach.
Strawless Ocean explained that as most plastic straws are too lightweight to make it through the mechanical recycling sorter, they drop through sorting screens and mix with other materials that are too small to separate, contaminating recycling loads or being disposed as garbage. Unable to biodegrade quickly, they then wind up in the ocean.
According to a recent report by the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) headquartered in Switzerland, currently more than 80 per cent of marine waste in the world comes from the mainland annually; the rest is plastics that is discharged directly into the sea.
Meanwhile in Vietnam, the country produces around 1.2 kilogrammes of waste per day, and 16 per cent of that is plastic. Vietnamese people are generating nearly 18,000 tonnes of plastic waste every single day.
Moreover, Vietnam ranks fourth globally in polluted plastic waste reaching the sea. The volume of plastic waste from the country to the waters ranges from 0.28-0.73 million tonnes per year, equivalent to 6 per cent of total plastic waste to the sea in the world, according to the IUCN.
Plastic accounts for 50-80 per cent of marine waste and this is expected to continue to increase in the near future.
“All this can cause environmental pollution, having a negative impact on the marine ecosystem. Many discharged plastic products can be found on canals and in sewers causing floods, bad odour, vermin, and other disease vectors. Furthermore, plastic pollution can cause methane emissions which are quite harmful to human health,” the IUCN said.
Strawless Ocean states that 71 per cent of seabirds and 30 per cent of turtles have been found with plastic in their stomachs. Plastic can remain in the environment for over 2,000 years without degrading.
Riina Antikainen, director of the Programme for a Sustainable Circular Economy under the Finnish Environment Institute, told VIR that not only Vietnam, but also all other nations in the world need to reduce the use of plastic products, and boost research and development to create alternative products which are environmentally friendly.
“Plastics do not belong to nature. The amount of plastic litter and waste can be reduced by influencing people’s attitudes and changing the ways we act. Sustainable consumer habits, recycling, and anti-littering can be cool,” she said.
Many countries have already reacted to the harm caused by plastics. China, which used to be the main recipient of plastics from Europe, has imposed a total ban on the import of plastic waste, and the stream of this waste has now moved to other, less developed Southeast Asian countries.
Finland has launched its Plastics Roadmap which sets out a number of actions by which the government can reduce the harm caused by plastics, avoid unnecessary consumption, improve recycling, and find alternative solutions to replace plastic.
Many supermarkets of Helsinki, the Finnish capital, ceased the use of nylon bags years ago, instead replacing them with biodegradable bags.
“These bags are environmental friendly and can degrade in a short period of time, unlike normal nylon bags which can take several hundreds of years to decompose,” a saleswoman from a LIDL supermarket in the centre of Helsinki told VIR.
International negotiations are underway on the possibility of introducing stricter transfer procedures for plastic waste. Many countries have already imposed prohibitions and restrictions on the use of plastics.
Chile has prohibited the sale of single-use plastic bags in over a hundred coastal villages and towns. Kenya introduced a law that slaps a fine on anyone who manufactures, sells, or even carries a plastic bag. Scotland also recently announced plans to ban the manufacture and sale of plastic-stemmed cotton buds.
Meanwhile, a comprehensive European strategy for plastics has been prepared with the aim of taking joint action to steer the use of plastic towards a sustainable circular economy.
The European Commission has proposed a new financial contribution by member states to the EU budget, which would be directly proportional to the amount of non-recycled plastic packaging waste in member states.
Financial instruments needed?
According to Finland’s Ministry of the Environment (MoE), there are tools at their disposal that can be utilised to limit the use of plastic products.
For instance, financial instruments can also be used as target-oriented means to influence the use of plastics, thus reducing the harm they cause, including littering. In the broad sense, financially-steered instruments may be understood to include producer responsibility systems, mixing obligations relating to recycled materials, and the pricing of products using different kinds of deposits, fees, or taxes.
Specifically, the efficient recycling of plastic bottles in Finland is based on a deposit-refund system. By joining the system, the companies that place beverage packages on the market avoid the packing tax on beverage containers and fulfill their producer responsibility obligations. The recycling of car tyres also works efficiently based on producer responsibility.
“A tax imposed on single-use plastic products could reduce the use of these items, while at the same time increase demand for more sustainable solutions to replace these,” said an MoE report on the plastic roadmap for Finland.
The UK government is about to introduce a tax on several disposable plastic products such as bottles and takeaway packages, with an aim to boost the transition from traditional fossil plastics to recycled and replacing materials.
A tax targeted at certain plastic products could serve as an alternative to expanding the producer responsibility system, as proposed by the European Commission.
“Financial incentives can also be used to improve conditions for the recycling of plastics by adjusting the relative prices of raw materials and recycled plastics,” said the report.
However, it noted that when considering the use of taxes and other financial steering instruments, careful and thorough consideration is required as to what the objectives are, what are the most feasible and cost-effective means to reach them, and what kind of impact they will have. Overlapping measures and regulations should be avoided.
For Finnish companies like Sulapac Ltd., responsibility to the environment is always taken into account in business. And the aforesaid financial instruments are also needed to encourage companies to do business as well as curb environmental pollution.
“The attitude of businesses and consumers is finally playing a very important role in the protection of our environment,” said Antikainen from the Finnish Environment Institute.