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Asian economies join the anti-plastic crusade

Growing concerns about microparticles in the oceans prompt action

SYDNEY -- Countries and regions in Asia-Pacific are joining the fight to reduce plastic waste amid mounting concerns about the dire consequences of microplastic pollution in the oceans.

New Zealand has announced a plan to phase in a ban on single-use plastic shopping bags over the next year. Taiwan has said it will impose a blanket ban on single-use plastic products by 2030.

These moves reflect a growing wave of awareness about the potentially disastrous environmental effects of plastic waste that ends up in the oceans. With many maritime countries, Asia-Pacific has strong cause to promote the anti-plastic crusade.

In announcing the plan to ban plastic bags on Aug. 10, New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern pointed to the urgency and magnitude of the problem. "Every year in New Zealand we use hundreds of millions of single-use plastic bags," she said. "A mountain of bags, many of which end up polluting our precious coastal and marine environments and cause serious harm to all kinds of marine life, and all of this when there are viable alternatives for consumers and business."

She invited people to share their views and opinions about the date for starting the process of phasing out the use of plastic bags and the need to allow certain exemptions. The New Zealand government will decide on details of the plan including the transition period after consulting with the public.

Taiwan's plastic ban will also be phased in over time. By 2030, a flat-out ban will be imposed on single-use plastic shopping bags, cups, saucers and straws. Consumers will be charged for using these products, starting in 2025.

In Australia, the states of Queensland and Western Australia introduced a ban on single-use plastic bags in July. The state of Victoria, where the city of Melbourne is located, has announced plans to take the same step in 2019.

The rush to restrict the use of disposable plastics has been prompted by heightened warnings about microplastics -- tiny particles created by the breakdown of larger plastic items that have entered the oceans.

Plastic waste dumped on land is carried into rivers by winds and rains and then flow into the sea. Pieces of plastic are worn down into tiny fragments, smaller than 5 millimeters, that can end up in shellfish and fish. In addition to harming aquatic ecosystems, these plastic particles can pose a serious health hazard to humans who consume fish and other marine animals.

According to the United Nations Environment Program, at least 67 countries and areas in the world have introduced regulatory restrictions on the use of plastics, such as bans or levies on single-use plastic bags and Styrofoam products.

A large majority of these countries and areas are located in Africa, where 25 nations have adopted restrictions on plastics, and Europe, where the figure is 22. Only eight Asian countries and five in Oceania have joined the list.

Asia was a front-runner in tackling plastic pollution. In 2002, Bangladesh became the first country in the world to ban plastic bags, which were the main culprit in clogging drainage systems during flooding disasters in 1988 and 1998. But according to UNEP, after some years, use of plastic bags began to increase in Bangladesh due to enforcement problems and a lack of cost-effective alternatives.

In 2008, China banned plastic shopping bags except for those made of biodegradable materials. India introduced similar regulatory measures in 2016. In June, Prime Minister Narendra Modi announced a plan to eliminate all single-use plastics by 2022.

Despite governments taking action, little headway has been made. China, for example, in 2015 created more plastic waste than any other country. In Asia, "the enforcement of regulations has often been poor, and single-use plastic bags continue to be widely used and mismanaged," the UNEP said in its report, "Single-Use Plastics: A Roadmap for Sustainability."

In industrial nations, efforts to recycle plastics have made progress, but nearly 80% of the plastic waste ever produced in the world has now been left in landfill, dumps or out in the environment, while about 12% has been incinerated. Just 9% has been recycled, according to recent estimates.

Asian countries including China, Indonesia and Vietnam are some of the biggest generators of plastic waste.

The amount of plastic waste these countries emit could keep growing in the coming years if their economies continue to grow strongly.

Every year, 8 million tons of plastic end up in the ocean, according to the World Economic Forum. If no effective steps are taken to reduce the amount of plastic entering the water, by 2050 there will be more plastic than fish in the oceans by weight.

Once it is in the water, plastic -- which is made to last and does not biodegrade -- can travel great distances, carried by ocean currents.

Since there is no easy and effective way to remove plastic from the sea, there is clearly a very urgent need to cut back on its daily use.

A growing number of countries and international organizations are beginning to tackle the challenge. In May, the European Commission proposed new European Union-wide rules to curb the use of 10 common types of single-use plastic products.

However, unless such efforts by individual countries and international bodies grow into a serious global campaign based on international cooperation and agreements on specific targets, the environmental threat posed by plastic waste will only get worse.

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