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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

Europe’s temperatures rising more than twice global average, UN warns

Temperatures in Europe have increased at more than twice the global average over the past three decades, showing the fastest rise of any continent on earth, the UN said Wednesday.

Europe's temperatures rising more than twice global average, UN warns

The European region has on average seen temperatures rise 0.5 degrees Celsius each decade since 1991, the UN’s World Meteorological Organization and the European Union’s Copernicus Climate Change Service found in a joint report.

As a result, Alpine glaciers lost 30 metres (just under 100 feet) in ice thickness between 1997 and 2021, while the Greenland ice sheet is swiftly melting and contributing to accelerating sea level rise.

Last year, Greenland experienced melting and the first-ever recorded rainfall at its highest point. And the report cautioned that regardless of future levels of global warming, temperatures would likely continue to rise across Europe at a rate exceeding global mean temperature changes.

“Europe presents a live picture of a warming world and reminds us that even well-prepared societies are not safe from impacts of extreme weather events,” WMO chief Petteri Taalas said in a statement.

WMO splits the world into six regions, with the European region covering 50 countries and including half of the swiftly warming Arctic, which is not a continent in its own right.

Within Antarctica — which is a continent but falls outside the six WMO-defined regions –only the West Antarctic Peninsula part is seeing rapid warming.

‘Vulnerable’

The new report, released ahead of the UN’s 27th conference on climate set to open in Egypt on Sunday, examined the situation in Europe up to and including 2021.

It found that last year, high-impact weather and climate events — mainly floods and storms — led to hundreds of deaths, directly affected more than half a million people and caused economic damage across Europe exceeding $50 billion.

At the same time, the report highlighted some positives, including the success of many European countries in slashing greenhouse gas emissions. Across the EU, such emissions decreased by nearly a third between 1990 and 2020, and the bloc has set a net 55-percent reduction target for 2030.

Europe is also one of the most advanced regions when it comes to cross-border cooperation towards climate change adaptation, the report said. It also hailed Europe’s world-leading deployment of early warning systems, providing protection for about 75 percent of the population, and said its heat-health action plans had saved many lives.

“European society is vulnerable to climate variability and change,” said Carlo Buontempo, head of Copernicus’s European Centre of Medium-range Weather Forecasts (ECMWF). “But Europe is also at the forefront of the international effort to mitigate climate change and to develop innovative solutions to adapt to the new climate Europeans will have to live with.”

Health concerns

Yet, the continent is facing formidable challenges.

“This year, like 2021, large parts of Europe have been affected by extensive heatwaves and drought, fuelling wildfires,” Taalas said, also decrying “death and devastation” from last year’s “exceptional floods”.

And going forward, the report cautioned that regardless of the greenhouse gas emissions scenario, “the frequency and intensity of hot extremes… are projected to keep increasing.”

This is concerning, the report warned, given that the deadliest extreme climate events in Europe are heatwaves, especially in the west and south of the continent.

“The combination of climate change, urbanisation and population ageing in the region creates, and will further exacerbate, vulnerability to heat,” the report said.

The shifting climate is also spurring other health concerns. It has already begun altering the production and distribution of pollens and spores, which appear to be leading to increases in various allergies.

While more than 24 percent of adults living in the European region suffer from such allergies, including severe asthma, the proportion among children is 30-40 percent and rising, it said.

The warming climate is also causing more vector-borne diseases, with ticks moving into new areas bringing Lyme disease and tick-borne encephalitis. Asian tiger mosquitos are also moving further north, carrying the risk of Zika, dengue and chikungunya, the report said.

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