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War on plastic leaves manufacturers clutching at straws

For decades, plastic straws have been essential props for cocktail makers, smoothie lovers and fast food addicts. But that may be starting to change, thanks largely to vigorous environmental campaigning.

War on plastic leaves manufacturers clutching at straws
Photo: Depositphotos
Under pressure from activists, the European Union, Britain, India and even fast food giants like McDonald's have all made some headway towards bringing the use of plastic straws to an end.
 
And with public pressure growing on governments, particularly in Europe, to ban single use plastics, manufacturers are feeling the heat.
 
According to peer-reviewed US journal Science magazine, eight million tonnes of plastic are dumped into the Earth's oceans and seas each year — 250 kilogrammes every second.
 
For years, the focus of environmentalists has been on plastic bags. But plastic straws have now come into the spotlight, thanks in part to images that have gone viral on the internet. One online video about the danger posed by seemingly innocuous straws shows a sea turtle rescued off Costa Rica getting one removed from its nostril.
 
Baby steps
 
The British government in April said it planned to ban the sale of single-use plastics including straws. The European Union followed suit in late May.
 
In India's commercial capital Mumbai, Burger King, McDonald's and Starbucks were fined for violating a ban on single use plastics, an official said earlier in June. India's Prime Minister Narendra Modi has pledged to make his country free 
of single use plastic by 2022.
 
Some corporations are also taking steps. In the UK and Ireland, McDonald's has pledged to complete a transition to 
paper straws by 2019. In France, the burger giant is testing alternatives.
 
The Hilton hotel giant in May vowed to remove the offenders from its 650 properties by the end of 2018.
 
“Laid end to end, the straws saved each year in (Europe, the Middle East and Africa) would exceed the length of the River Seine,” the hotel chain said in a statement.
 
Pasta and bamboo sticks
 
There are alternatives to plastic straws, but they are much pricier. The five-star Monte Carlo Palace hotel in Monaco has introduced biodegradable straws. Others are using raw pasta and bamboo sticks.
 
The United States is resisting change while Europe takes the lead with biodegradable plastics made either from fossil fuels or crops such as potatoes and corn.
 
Some 100,000 tonnes of bioplastics were produced in 2016 in the world, according to Germany's specialist Nova-Institute.
 
In 2017, biodegradable plastic production capacity rose to 800,000 tonnes globally, the European Bioplastics industrial group said. And while this may appear to be a step in the right direction, manufacturers are concerned about the impact outright bans would have on their sales.
 
“It's not a very good sign,” said Herve Millet, technical and regulatory affairs manager at PlasticsEurope, the region's leading plastics manufacturers' association. “But … big corporations also have concerns over their image and they must at least try to find a way to respond to society's expectations.”
 
No miracle cure
 
Europe's top plastic straws manufacturer Soyez, which is based in France, is also uncertain about how to make the transition.
 
“The problem isn't new and it's serious, so we obviously need to find alternatives,” the company's director Pierre Soyez said.
 
“We've been working on this for several months,” he said, adding that it was “really complicated” to try to make the shift overnight.
 
Experts, meanwhile, warn that biodegradable plastics may not be a miracle solution anyway.
 
“People think that biodegradable means nothing is dumped in nature. But that's not the case at all,” engineer Virginie Le Ravalec of the French Environment and Energy Management Agency.
 
A separate collection system for bioplastic waste would need to be set up in order for the shift to really work, and that would involve millions in investment from states.
 
Activists fear, however, that biowaste may end up in the oceans — much like plastic has for decades.
 
“Over periods of days, weeks or even months, a bioplastic item could present just as much threat to marine life as a conventional plastic item,” Fiona Nicholls of Greenpeace warned.
 
As such, Nicholls says humanity's only hope is to reduce our use of plastics.
 
“Swapping one plastic for another … is not a fix to the plastic pollution problem that our oceans and waterways face.”
 
 
By AFP's Pierre Donadieu and Marie Heuclin

CLIMATE CRISIS

EXPLAINED: How the climate crisis is hitting Europe hard

From deadly wildfires to catastrophic floods, Europe is seeing the impact of the climate crisis with episodes of extreme weather only likely to increase in the coming years as average temperatures rise.

EXPLAINED: How the climate crisis is hitting Europe hard

Europe endured record extreme weather in 2021, from the hottest day and the warmest summer to deadly wildfires and
flooding, the European Union’s climate monitoring service reported Friday.

While Earth’s surface was nearly 1.2 degrees Celsius warmer than pre-industrial levels last year, Europe saw an average increase of more than two degrees, a threshold beyond which dangerous extreme weather events become
more likely and intense, the Copernicus Climate Change Service (C3S) said.

The warmest summer on record featured a heatwave along the Mediterranean rim lasting weeks and the hottest day ever registered in Europe, a blistering 48.8C (120 degrees Fahrenheit) in Italy’s Sicily.

In Greece, high temperatures fuelled deadly wildfires described by the prime minister as the country’s “greatest ecological disaster in decades”.

Forests and homes across more than 8,000 square kilometres (3,000 square miles) were burned to the ground.

Front loaders work to move branches and uprooted trees near a bridge over the Ahr river in Insul, Ahrweiler district, western Germany, on July 28, 2021, weeks after heavy rain and floods caused major damage in the Ahr region. – At least 180 people died when severe floods pummelled western Germany over two days in mid-July, raising questions about whether enough was done to warn residents ahead of time. (Photo by Sascha Schuermann / AFP)

A slow-moving, low-pressure system over Germany, meanwhile, broke the record in mid-July for the most rain dumped in a single day.

The downpour was nourished by another unprecedented weather extreme, surface water temperatures over part of the Baltic Sea more than 5C above average.

Flooding in Germany and Belgium caused by the heavy rain — made far more likely by climate change, according to peer-reviewed studies — killed scores and caused billions of euros in damage.

As the climate continues to warm, flooding on this scale will become more frequent, the EU climate monitor has warned.

“2021 was a year of extremes including the hottest summer in Europe, heatwaves in the Mediterranean, flooding and wind droughts in western Europe,” C3S director Carlo Buontempo said in a statement.

“This shows that the understanding of weather and climate extremes is becoming increasingly relevant for key sectors of society.”     

A picture taken on July 15, 2021 shows damaged cars on a flooded street in the Belgian city of Verviers, after heavy rains and floods lashed western Europe, killing at least two people in Belgium. (Photo by François WALSCHAERTS / AFP)

‘Running out of time’

The annual report, in its fifth edition, also detailed weather extremes in the Arctic, which has warmed 3C above the 19th-century benchmark — nearly three times the global average.

Carbon emissions from Arctic wildfires, mostly in eastern Siberia, topped 16 million tonnes of CO2, roughly equivalent to the total annual carbon pollution of Bolivia.

Greenland’s ice sheet — which along with the West Antarctic ice sheet has become the main driver of sea level rise — shed some 400 billion tonnes in mass in 2021.

The pace at which the world’s ice sheets are disintegrating has accelerated more than three-fold in the last 30 years.

“Scientific experts like the IPCC have warned us we are running out of time to limit global warming to 1.5C,” said Mauro Facchini, head of Earth observation at the European Commission’s Directorate-General for Defence Industry and Space, referring to the UN’s science advisory panel.

“This report stresses the urgent necessity to act as climate-related extreme events are already occurring.”

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