Like styrofoam, expanded polystyrene (EPS) is loved by food vendors — it’s cheap, lightweight, and durable.
And like styrofoam, it’s a menace to the environment, taking up to a million years to decompose and covering the environment with grubby plastic pebbles in the meantime.
Since there are so many alternatives, Zimbabwe’s environmental ministry decided to ban the plastic once and for all last week, after first announcing that a ban would come into effect in 2012.
In Zimbabwe, the environmental threat of EPS has other dimensions beyond the inability to decompose. Trash is frequently burned in the country as a way to get rid of it, and when this substance, which is structurally similar to styrofoam, is burned, it emits a toxic chemical.
Further, EPS is regularly littered throughout the country and often clogs drainpipes, which raises the likelihood of flooding.
Some food vendors are frustrated that the ban forces them to get rid of their remaining stock of EPS, according to Voice of America.
But the government says that ample time was given — five years to be exact — to become compliant, so no exceptions will be made.
“There is no going back,” Steady Kangata, the spokesman of the Environmental Management Agency, told VOA. “What they should be doing is looking at alternatives, because alternatives are there and are so many and diverse.”
Those caught violating the ban will have to pay a fine between $30 and $500.
Environmentalists in the country hope that this ban will spur a chain reaction of similar bans on other forms of plastic in the years ahead.
Countries around the world are taking a harsh approach to plastic, recognizing that the convenience it affords is rarely worth the environmental harm it causes.
Many plastic proponents argue that sweeping bans come with their own environmental costs because they increase the demand for paper products, which can lead to deforestation.
But the consequences of plastic can’t be ignored — leaching toxins into the atmosphere, entering the food chain when consumed by animals, and littering ecosystems.
Those problems are acutely felt in Zimbabwe.
“Plastics, when they get into the environment, especially in the food chain, are dangerous to animals,” Christopher Magadza, a professor of environmental studies at the University of Zimbabwe, told VOA. “And the thing is, people say some plastics are biodegradable. There is no biodegradable plastic. It just breaks up into smaller and smaller bits. … And when plastic catches fire, we breathe it and [it] spoils the air.”
It seems like the best long-term approach is to encourage the use of reusable items, from water bottles to food containers.
That would be a heavier lift for everyday people going about their lives, but it’s a lifestyle change that would make a big difference for planet Earth.