Beating plastic pollution requires purposeful action
ed by the United Nations Environment Programme, the World Environment Day has been celebrated on June 5 since 1973. This year’s World Environment Day is hosted by Côte d’Ivoire and supported by the Netherlands. The theme this year focuses on the issue of plastic pollution and the possible best ways to beat it.
According to Statista, China was the biggest plastic producer in the year 2021, accounting for 32 percent of the global plastic production followed by North America 18 percent, Asia 17 percent, and Europe 15 percent. It is estimated that plastic use would continue to increase to 1.2 billion metric tonnes by 2060. According to the UNEP, one million plastic bottles are purchased every minute and approximately five trillion bags are used every year globally. According to research, out of 1 trillion bags, only 5 percent are recycled.
Plastic impacts humans, animals, and birds as well as marine life. Animals and birds often eat plastic bags mistakenly. Single-use plastic bags take 600 to 1,000 years to breakdown into harmless materials. Marine life ends up consuming plastic. This poses serious threat to their health and life. It also enters human food chain. Grocery bags are used daily, when in contact with warm food, they release chemicals that can alter the function and structure of human cells.
Plastic waste is also a serious threat in terms of global warming. According to the OECD, greenhouse gas emissions from plastic will increase to 4.3 Gt CO2e. Plastic interferes with the carbon absorption capacity of the oceans, which in turn affects marine life. According to the UN Environment Programme estimates, greenhouse gas emissions from plastic production, use and disposal could account for 19 percent of the total global carbon budget by 2040.
An approach to minimise plastic pollution is “3 Rs”. The first is to “refuse” the use of plastic. There are very easy and simple ways to do it. We can refuse grocery bags which we purchase on a daily basis. One can use a simple tote bag. These can be prepared at home from an unused jeans or T-shirts. This also offers a business opportunity to start home-based alternatives for bags. Such bags can be used repeatedly. There are a lot of beauty products which use micro plastics. While doing careful research before purchasing we can refuse to buy those products. Instead of buying sodas in small bottles we can purchase big bottles. One should also refuse to throw plastic waste into the landfills, water ways, rivers and sea.
According to the UNEP, one million plastic bottles are purchased every minute and approximately five trillion bags are used every year globally. According to research, out of 1 trillion bags, only 5 percent are recycled
The second is “reuse”. Grocery bags should be re-used. Plastic products used in the kitchen and home should be re-used. Plastic bottles once used should be re-used for carrying water after re-filling it. There are some innovative ways to re-use plastic bottles at home for the use of juice or water jugs or to water a plant. Plastic can also be used in road and building construction. One such road has been built in Islamabad. Nargis Latif’s work from Karachi is an example of effective re-use of plastic.
The third is “re-cycle”. A circular economy in industry and businesses could reduce a lot of plastic pollution. According to the UNEP’s new report, Turning Off the Tap, shifting to a circular economy for plastic could save $4.5 trillion by 2040. A very small fraction of plastic is being recycled globally. More efforts are required to recycle plastic.
In Pakistan, there is a policy in place to reduce single-use plastic bags, but it is only implemented at market level. There is no mechanism to reduce plastic waste in the sea, rivers and waterways. Strong strategy is needed to deal with plastic waste in terms of collection, treatment, and disposal. Cleaning activities for waterways and rivers are needed. There is also a need for introducing checks to ensure the safety of workers in the plastic industry.
At the individual level a lot needs to be done. We need to stop meeting fast fashion demands. We need to go back to our roots and unlearn what we have learned so far related to plastic use. The solution lies in our past when our grandparents used to re-use cloth bags for groceries and would re-use their clothes and furniture for years.
The writer is an environmental expert based in the US. She is also a visiting senior research associate with the Sustainable Development Policy Institute (SDPI), Islamabad