The planet is on edge of a global plastic calamity
We urgently need consumers, business and governments to cut consumption of single-use, throwaway plastics, writes the UN Environment chief
Plastic pollution has grabbed the world’s attention, and with good cause.
More than 100 years after its invention, we’re addicted. To pass a day without encountering some form of plastic is nearly impossible. We’ve always been eager to embrace the promise of a product that could make life cheaper, faster, easier. Now, after a century of unchecked production and consumption, convenience has turned to crisis.
Beyond a mere material amenity, today you’ll find plastic where you least expect it, including the foods we eat, the water we drink and the environments in which we live. Once in the environment, it enters our food chain where, increasingly, microplastic particles are turning up in our stomachs, blood and lungs. Scientists are only beginning to study the potential health impacts.
That’s why we urgently need consumers, business and governments to step up with urgent, decisive action to halt this crisis of consumption of single-use, throwaway plastics. If we do that, we’ll also help fight climate change, create a new space for innovation and save some species in the process.
Since we began our love affair with this now ubiquitous material, we’ve produced roughly nine billion tonnes of plastic. About one-third of this has been single-use, providing a momentary convenience before being discarded. The straw in your average drink will be used for just a few minutes, but in the environment, it will last beyond our lifetimes. In your shopping trolley, a plastic bag will be used for less than an hour, but when they find their way to the ocean they kill more than 100,000 marine animals a year. Whales have been washed up in Norway and Spain choked with indigestible shopping bags – part of the 13m tonnes of plastic litter that end up in the ocean each year.
But let there be no doubt: we are on edge of a plastic calamity. Current projections show that global plastic production will skyrocket in the next 10-15 years. This year alone, manufacturers will produce an estimated 360m tonnes. With a booming population driving demand, production is expected to reach 500m by 2025 and a staggering 619m tonnes by 2030. So the next time you see scenes of plastic choking a river or burying a beach, consider double that impact in just over 10 years.
Avoiding the worst of these outcomes requires more than awareness, it demands a movement. A wholesale rethinking of the way we produce, use and manage plastic. That’s why United Nations Environment is now focusing on a simple yet ambitious goal: beat plastic pollution.
First, citizens must act as both responsible consumers and informed citizens; demanding sustainable products and embracing sensible consumption habits into their own lives.
Individuals are increasingly exercising their power as consumers; turning down plastic straws and cutlery, cleaning beaches and coastlines, and rethinking their purchase habits. If this happens enough, retailers will get the message and look for alternatives.
The private sector must then innovate by adopting business models that reflect responsibility for the downstream impact of their products, and bring about scalable alternatives. Ultimately our plastic problem – much like the state of the global economy – is one of design, both in the plastics themselves and the linear economic model that makes throwing things away profitable. Public and private investment in the fields of green design and green chemistry need to be increased and manufacturers must be held to account for the life cycle of their products.
And finally, governments must lead by enacting strong policies that mandate responsible design, production and consumption of plastics. Kenya has banned throwaway plastic bags recently, and the result is that its stunning national parks are even more attractive and city drains are less blocked, helping reduce flooding. Rwanda has done it too, making Kigali one of the world’s cleanest cities and the kind of place people choose to live and do business.
Those who say there are more important environmental crises to tackle are mistaken. In today’s world, protecting our environment is not about choosing one issue above another. The deeply interconnected systems that make up the natural world defy such a narrow-minded approach. Beating plastic pollution will preserve precious ecosystems, mitigate climate change, protect biodiversity, and indeed human health. Confronting this crisis of convenience, is a fundamental battle that must be fought today as part of the broader struggle for a sustainable tomorrow.
Source: The Guardian
Photograph: Legnan Koula/EPA. Plastic bottles floating on the Ebrie lagoon in the city of Abidjan, Ivory Coast.