plastic pollution
Greenpeace volunteers collect plastic on a beach in Mull. Greenpeace has brought its ship the Beluga II on an expedition of scientific research around Scotland, sampling seawater for microplastics and documenting the impact of ocean plastic on some of the UK’s most precious marine life.

This month, the Tremiti Islands off Italy’s eastern coast became the first part of the country to ban single-use plastic in almost any form, setting up hefty fines for rule breakers and further signaling Italy’s leadership in combating the use of such materials.

When it comes to environmental policies — whether reducing greenhouse gas emissions, recycling waste, the use of low-impact public transportation, or air quality — Italy is rarely among Europe’s leaders. But that is not the case in terms of phasing out mono-use plastic.

Italy’s efforts to phase out single-use plastic began a dozen years ago, with the passage of rules that led to a requirement: grocers and most retailers use plastic that would break down in the environment.
Those requirements will become stricter over time, and in 2020 the use of micro-plastics (tiny plastic beads used in many defoliants and some kinds of toothpaste) will be prohibited nationally.

According to Stefano Ciafani, the newly-elected president of the Italian environmental group Legambiente, the pace and effectiveness of the reforms have helped make Italy one of Europe’s leaders in this area.

“Other countries are copying what Italy is doing,” Ciafani told Xinhua. “France, for example, has modeled its policies on single use plastic on what Italy did.”

Ciafani said the problem of non-biodegradable, single-use plastic was the second most important environmental challenge in the world, behind climate change.

According to the environmental group Plastic Oceans, the world produces nearly 300 million tons of plastic each year — about half of it single-use plastic. More than 8 million tons of it is dumped in the oceans every year, severely impacting plant and animal life.

Why has Italy been unusually effective in confronting this problem? According to Luigi Pellizzoni, a professor of environmental sociology at the University of Pisa, there are a combination of factors involved.

“It’s a relatively easy problem to confront via legislation: just regulate the supply of plastic bags,” Pellizzoni said in an interview.

“I also think the producers of the biodegradable bags were effective in lobbying for change. Plus, I think it’s a kind of problem where the impacts are easy to see.”

That is the case with the Tremiti Islands, where the average amount of plastic in the water is 2.2 pieces per cubic meter, most of it polyethylene — the type of plastic used in packaging and for plastic bags. That compares to 0.52 pieces per cubic meter of water in Italy as a whole. The islands are located in a marine reserve.

Those high levels are what promoted the Tremiti Islands’ mayor, Antonio Fentini, to pass tough laws blocking the use of most kinds of plastic on the islands, with fines ranging from 50 to 500 euros for rule breakers. The only major exception will be for plastic water bottles, which could be phased out at a later date.

A study by the environmental group Greenpeace showed that much of the plastic in the sea around the Tremiti Islands probably drifts in from elsewhere, pushed by currents. To reverse the trend, Fentini said he hopes other communities will follow his lead.

“Every day, we are seeing human activity kill our sea and we have to do something immediately,” the mayor said. “I am calling on the mayors of all islands and coastal areas to follow suit and take similar action for the good of the planet.” Enditem

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