By Sharon Atieno

Plastics have been a source of concern over the years with complaints ranging from environmental pollution, blockage of water ways, death of animals, sewer clogging and lately microplastics. A study carried out in the last quarter of 2018 revealed the presence of microplastics in human stool.

This is after a series of studies led to the discovery of microplastics in salt, tap water, fish, insects, beer and oceans. The latest discovery was that of its presence in soft drinks according to an investigation in Italy. Microplastics are tiny particles of plastics that are created to be added to products such as cosmetics (microbeads) or that are produced when large particles breakdown as a result of exposure to the sun or physical wear.

The study findings indicate that all participants were exposed to plastics by consuming food wrapped in plastic or drinking from plastic bottles, with polypropylene and polyethylene terephthalate being commonly detected. This is an indication of the danger that lurks as a result of increased plastic use.

Single use plastics such as plastic bags, water bottles, straws and stirrers -are to blame for most of the pollution-accounting for half of the plastic produced every year. Annually, it is estimated that around 8 million tons of plastic waste are deposited into the ocean floor globally, majority being single use plastics. This has resulted to the discovery of microplastics in more than 114 aquatic species.

Though scientists still know little about the effects of microplastics on human health, there are claims that the smallest microplastic particles are capable of entering the bloodstream, the lymphatic system and may even reach the liver. As such, scientists urge for the need to reduce use of plastics and emphasize on recycling as well as improving disposal.

According to a paper published by Science Advances by Roland Geyer and his colleagues, out of the 9 billion tonnes of plastic that the world has ever produced, 79 percent of the plastic waste ever produced now sits in landfills, dumps or in the environment, while about 12 percent has been incinerated and only 9 percent has been recycled.

With the reality of microplastics sinking in, there is need to reduce the amount of plastic being produced. More than 60 countries have introduced policies to curb plastic pollution. In Kenya, Burundi, Benin, Cameroon, Ivory Coast, Chad, Morocco and Rwanda have placed a ban on single plastic bags. South Africa is considering placing a ban on microbeads for cosmetics companies. Outside Africa several countries have banned the use of microbeads in their cosmetic products: Canada, United States of America (USA), United Kingdom, France, Sweden, Taiwan and South Korea among others.

The introduction of extended producer responsibility (EPR) laws, which require plastic producers to fund and manage recycling and disposal of their products, will support the fight against plastic pollution. Similar laws are already in use in the USA for electronic phones, televisions and batteries that contain lead, mercury and cadmium.

There is also need for governments to improve waste management systems. This can be done through segregating waste into different groups for example, paper, organic metals, plastic, after which effective collection of the segregated waste, transport and safe storage is carried out. This process is followed by recycling at affordable prices thus leading to less landfilling and dumping on the environment. Another option involves investing in incineration plants in order to get rid of biodegradable plastics.

 “Governments need to improve waste management systems and introduce financial incentives to change the habits of consumers, retailers and manufacturers. They must pump more money into the research and development of alternative materials, raise awareness among consumers, fund innovation, ensure plastic products are properly labelled and carefully weigh possible solutions to the current crisis,” states the World Environment Day outlook 2018.

Moreover, in a bid to limit plastics and their impacts on the environment, the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) came up with a 10-step roadmap for governments to curb single-use plastics and their impacts basing on the experience of 60 countries globally.

The fact that it take around 1000 years for plastic to decompose, is enough to show the damage it can cause if caution is left to the wind, thus, there is need for countries to take serious measures in regulating its production, use and disposal.