Plastic generation

Change can begin with small actions.

Plastic pollution (photo credit: REUTERS)
Plastic pollution
(photo credit: REUTERS)
Let’s start off with some wonderful news: last week the Ministry of Environmental Protection reported a remarkable 80% drop in the consumption of plastic bags from large grocery chains in the first six months of 2017. Bags that are no longer handed out for free and the small fee of 10 agorot is designated to a fund for environmental projects.
After many years of civil society organizations propelling the government to restrict the free distribution of single-use lightweight plastic bags, the minister of environmental protection in 2013-14, Amir Peretz, adopted a plan to ban that practice, which came into effect in January this year.
The reduction of more than 350 million plastic bags in consumption means 1,800 tons of plastic that are not spread each year across the country’s beautiful landscapes and national parks. It means grocery chains saved some NIS 30 million in six months. At the same time, it helped Israeli consumers be more economical by encouraging them to plan how many bags to bring from home before leaving to the nearby supermarket. With that law, Israel is finally starting to catch up with a global trend, though it still has a long way to go to reach the level of Kenya, Morocco, Rwanda, and the 37 other countries worldwide that have banned lightweight plastic bags altogether.
The law is already paying off for our coastline, which had 50% less plastic waste this summer, as PhD candidate Haifa University Galia Pasternak reported and as every beachgoer can happily confirm.
Nevertheless, this law – for all the grueling efforts that were involved in passing it (overcoming pressures from plastic manufacturers and small parties in the coalition and the red-tape of getting government to implement any change) is just a small drop in an ocean of plastic.
Plastic is everywhere. It shouldn’t matter only to the tree-huggers who cry over Facebook videos of wild animals or birds entangled and drowning in plastic bags. The United Nations Environment reports that 12.7 million tons of plastic enter the world’s oceans every year. It should not come as a surprise then that plastic is served on the dinner table too: plastic is found in growing quantities in the fish we eat. Last month The Guardian reported new studies that found plastic pollution in sea salt from the US, Europe and China. Tiny particles are also found in tap water, sugar, honey and beer. Microplastics are even in the air we breathe.
Because it is everywhere, the possible implications on our health and our children’s health should be clear to all: tiny plastic particles and the chemicals or pathogens they can harbor are more likely to cause cancer than to improve the nutritional value of our fish fillet.
If we were to wage a decisive war against plastic, we would lose. Plastic is too important to dispose of entirely. On the other hand, the data above clearly show that we must aggressively work to limit the use and disposal of plastic.
This will require big policy changes, including municipal decisions, national laws and international treaties. A cause for optimism is that unlike certain criminal behavior that has been common since the start of our civilization, the wide spread of plastic is only as old as the current generation. We are the plastic generation. Most of the plastic on the planet was produced in the last 30 years. Another cause for optimism is that new policies – as simple as charging 10 agorot for a plastic bag in the grocery store – have dramatic results.
Policymakers, however, need the public to signal its readiness for change. This is especially true in a democracy like Israel. That doesn’t have to be signing a Greenpeace petition, joining a street rally or writing letters to the Minister of Environmental Protection to do more against plastic waste (although such activism would be welcome).
Change can begin with small actions. We Israeli typically drink three coffee cups a day, and we often drink these in single-use plastic cups (which some still mistake to be made of paper). Every day, I see people requesting to be served in such cups, even when they don’t plan to take the coffee to go! This is my office’s contribution to the billions of non-recyclable cups that are buried in the earth and dumped to the sea worldwide on an annual basis. If you also prefer plastic to porcelain or glass, I encourage you, just as I encourage our guests, to reconsider. And if you get your cappuccino from a coffee shop, why not take your daily dose of caffeine in a stylish coffee travel mug instead of those plastic cups? A major Israeli coffee chain even gives a one-shekel discount for people who bring their own travel mug.
I know from experience that such micro-decisions of ordinary citizens end up having an impact on the macro-decisions that are made in government. The trend of plastic is reversible, but we – the plastic generation – are the ones who need to make that happen.
The author is a member of the Israeli Labor Party Convention and a PhD candidate