Plastic has invaded our modern lives, making it literally impossible to avoid. Plastics are used to package the food we eat, the beverages we consume and to make the various products we buy. While plastics have many valuable uses, the profusion of single-use plastics is particularly problematic given their abundance and deleterious impact on the natural environment as well as on humans.
The amount of plastic the world has started producing over the past few decades is staggering. According to the United Nations Environment Programme, approximately one million plastic bottles are sold worldwide every minute. About five trillion plastic bags are used worldwide every year.
Around half of all plastic produced is currently for single use. It is used once, then discarded; single-use plastic doesn’t magically disintegrate. Instead, single-use plastic products can take years to break down. Plastic straws, for example, are estimated to take up to 200 years to decompose. Also, single-use plastics do not break down completely. Instead, they begin to turn into microplastics as they begin to disintegrate, and these microplastics spill into the surrounding environment and begin to work their way further out to contaminate freshwater supplies and the oceans. . They are also ingested by animals and marine life, which in turn are eaten by humans. Scientists have even found micro-plastics in the human placenta, which are passed on to unborn babies.
The world needs to seriously rethink its reliance on plastics, especially single-use plastics. Cigarette butts are an unsuspected but major source of single-use plastics. Cigarette butts contain tiny plastic fibers, which begin to release toxic chemicals into the natural environment right after a cigarette has been crushed and become waste. Estimates of cigarette butts discarded each year run into the trillions. Cigarette butts can take ten years to degrade. Meanwhile, each of those discarded butts releases over 7,000 toxic chemicals into the natural environment. Thus, it is not only smokers and second-hand or passive smokers whose health is damaged by cigarettes. Cigarette butts also wreak havoc on the environment.
The tobacco industry tries to promote vaping as a safer and cleaner alternative to smoking. Beyond the debates on the relative safety of these new tobacco products, the production of these alternatives obviously creates new forms of pollution, for example through the use of minerals used in the composition of the batteries of vapers. In countries like Pakistan and India, chewing tobacco like gutka and naswar, which are often sold in small plastic pouches, is becoming another major source of plastic pollution.
Given this growing problem of plastic pollution, it is encouraging to see that the United Nations system has finally developed a plastics treaty, which aims to provide a global mechanism to address the problem of plastic pollution. Many countries around the world are trying to establish policies to reduce or even ban the use of single-use plastics with varying degrees of success. It is essential that plastic pollution efforts also focus on the plastic waste generated by cigarette butts and other tobacco and nicotine products.
Governments around the world must force the tobacco industry to clean up the waste and pay for the environmental damage caused by their products. Over the past few decades, we have witnessed increasing regulation of the tobacco industry and a concerted public awareness campaign, which has succeeded in convincing large segments of the population not to smoke for health reasons. Today, a similar effort must be made to shine a light on the damage the tobacco industry is doing to an already strained natural environment.
Published in The Express Tribune, August 6e2022.
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