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POLLUTION

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
For members

TECH

What you need to know about the EU’s plan for a uniform phone charger

The European Union has approved a new regulation that would force tech companies to use a standard charger for mobile phones and electronic devices. What does this mean?

What you need to know about the EU's plan for a uniform phone charger

The European Parliament has approved an agreement establishing a single charging solution for frequently used small and medium-sized portable electronic devices. The law will make it mandatory for specific devices that are rechargeable via a wired cable to be equipped with a USB Type-C port.

The rules have been debated for a while, and the announcement of the agreement has caused controversy, especially among tech companies and enthusiasts. US giant Apple has repeatedly lobbied against the standardisation, saying it halts innovation.

The EU says that the new rules will lead to more re-use of chargers and “help consumers save up to €250 million a year on unnecessary charger purchases”. Disposed of and unused chargers are estimated to represent about 11,000 tonnes of e-waste annually, the bloc says.

So, what exactly are the changes?

Which products will be affected?

According to the European Parliament, the new rules are valid for small and medium-sized portable electronic devices. This includes mobile phones, tablets, e-readers, earbuds, digital cameras, headphones and headsets, handheld videogame consoles and portable speakers that are rechargeable via a wired cable.

Laptops will also have to be adapted, the EU says.

Those devices will have to be equipped with a USB Type-C port regardless of their manufacturer.

When will the changes come?

For most devices, the changes are set to come by autumn of 2024. However, the date is not yet set because the regulations need to go to other proceedings within the EU bureaucracy.

After the summer recess, The EU’s Parliament and Council need to formally approve the agreement before publication in the EU Official Journal. It enters into force 20 days after publication, and its provisions start to apply after 24 months, hence the “autumn 2024” expectation.

Rules for laptops are a bit different, and manufacturers will have to adapt their products to the requirements by 40 months after the entry into force of the laws.

Where are the rules valid?

The rules will be valid for products sold or produced in the European Union and its 27 member countries. But, of course, they will likely affect manufacturers and promote more considerable scale changes.

The USB-C cable, with the rounded edges, will be the standard for charging in the EU (Photo by مشعال بن الذاهد on Unsplash)

Why the uniform USB Type-C?

The bloc said the uniform charger is part of a broader EU effort to make products more sustainable, reduce electronic waste, and make consumers’ lives easier.

“European consumers were frustrated long with multiple chargers piling up with every new device”, EU Parliament’s rapporteur Alex Agius Saliba said.

USB Type-C is a standard of charging that has been around for a while but still is one of the best options currently in the market. Also known as USB-C, it allows for reliable, inexpensive, and fast charging. A USB-C port can also be input or output, meaning that it can both send and receive charges and data.

Unlike other ports, it can be the same on both ends of the wire (making it easier and more universal in its use). It can also power devices and sends data much faster.

USB-C can also be used for video and audio connections, so some external monitors can charge your laptop and show your screen simultaneously with the same cable.

What criticism is there?

The project is not without criticism, most vocally from US tech giant Apple, a company that famously has its own charging standard, the “lightning” connection.

Apple claims that forcing a standardisation will prevent innovation, holding all companies to the same technology instead of allowing for experimentation. Still, Apple itself has been swapping to USB-C. Its iPads have already dropped the lightning standard. Its newer laptops can now be charged with the MagSafe proprietary connector and USB-C.

Apple iPhones are still charged with the company’s lightning ports – or wirelessly (Photo by Brandon Romanchuk on Unsplash)

The company’s popular earbuds and peripherals (including keyboards and mice) all charge with lightning. And, of course, the iPhone, Apple’s smartphone, also uses the company’s connection for charging.

While there have been rumours that Apple is working on new iPhones with USB-C connection (though definitely not for the next launch this year’s), the company could go away with wired charging altogether. Instead, like many tech manufacturers, Apple is improving its wireless charging solutions, even creating products dedicated to its MagSafe charging.

It won’t be completely free from the EU regulation if it does that, though. This is because the rules approved by the EU also allow the European Commission to develop so-called “delegated acts” concerning wireless charging. The delegated acts are faster processes that can be applied directly without being put to the vote.

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