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Opinion: Plastic bag bans won't save the environment

The EU has declared war on plastic bags. But it will take more than symbolic gestures to save the environment. DW's Fabian Schmidt calls on emerging economies to bring outdated waste management into the 21st century.

Plastic waste poses a threat not just to the environment but to humanity. Each year, hundreds of thousands of birds, sea turtles, fish and marine mammals die from ingestion or entanglement in plastic debris. As tons of microplastics pass through the food chain, much of it eventually ends up on our plates.

But introducing plastic bag taxes, or even full-out bans, will do little to tackle this huge problem, as long as developing nations fail to follow suit. This is because the threat doesn't come from developed countries with well-functioning waste disposal systems, such as Germany or Singapore, where plastic debris poses little to no risk to rivers and waterways.

Increasing environmental awareness

In many of these countries, there is often a strong sense of public responsibility to protect the environment. And because everyone cares, anyone using nature as their own private wastebasket can expect to be reported to the police and face a stinging penalty.

DW's Fabian Schmidt

DW's Fabian Schmidt

The reality often looks jarringly different in emerging economies like India, or even parts of southern Europe such as Greece or Italy, where rivers repeatedly double as illegal garbage dumps - out of sight, out of mind!

While banning plastic bags in these areas would surely soothe the environmental pain, it would not cure the underlying illness of plastic waste. Bags or no bags, man-made debris would continue to flood the oceans.

The only viable solution is to develop a highly functional waste management plan - which leaves no way around modern waste incineration plants. Such plants are the only clean, eco-friendly and cost-efficient alternative to recycling. And they do more than just solve the problem of keeping our oceans plastic-free.

An end to toxic fumes

One of the key benefits of professional waste incineration is that it produces practically no hazardous fumes. A modern facility processing more than half a million tons of waste annually emits less dioxins and furans - some of the most toxic chemicals known to science - than just one burning dumpster. In many developing nations, such dumpsters can be found almost everywhere.

And unlike landfill sites, modern incinerations plants are also the only way to guarantee that toxins don't seep into the ground water.

However, to ban or limit the use of plastic bags in countries that already boast state-of-the-art waste management systems amount to no more than a symbolic gesture - similar to requiring water-saving shower heads in areas with heavy precipitation: ineffective and missing the point.

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