Since its inception in 1974, World Environment Day falls on the 5th of June every year, and it has grown into one of the largest global platforms for public outreach, celebrated in well over 100 countries. It is the ‘People’s Day’ for doing something positive for the environment. Every World Environment Day has a different host country where the official celebrations take place. The focus on the host country helps highlight the environmental challenges this country faces, and it supports the effort to address them. This year, with India as host, World Environment Day is calling on people across the world to Beat Plastic Pollution.
Plastic pollution has become one of the greatest threats to our planet’s ecosystems today. Half of all plastic that is produced is single-use or disposable. Over the past century there has been a boom in the production of plastic, due to its undeniable benefits. But most of the plastic that is produced is designed to be thrown away after only use, and due to its non-biodegradable nature, only 9% of a total of nine billion tonnes of plastic has been recycled. The rest of plastic waste ends up in the landfills, dumps, or in the environment.
The most common single-use plastics found in the environment are, in order of magnitude; cigarette butts, plastic drinking bottles, plastic bottle caps, food wrappers, plastic grocery bags, plastic lids, straws and stirrers, other type of plastic bags, and foam take-away containers.
Plastic waste has a disastrous impact on the environment. Plastic bags can block waterways and aggravate natural disasters, increase the transmission of vector borne diseases like malaria, and provide breeding grounds for mosquitoes and pests. High concentrations of plastic materials have been found blocking the airways and stomachs of hundreds of species, especially turtles and dolphins who mistake them for food. There is evidence that the toxic chemicals added during the manufacture of plastic transfer to animal tissue and eventually enter the human food chain.
The harm from plastic pollution does not only limit itself to health and environmental damages but also causes immense economic losses. Plastic litter in the Asia-Pacific region alone caused its tourism, fishing, and shipping industries to decline. In Europe, cleaning plastic waste from coasts and beaches costs about €630 million per year.
Governments must enforce plastic bag bans and push for a more sustainable production of plastics in order to effectively counter plastic overuse. To transform plastic waste from a curse into a resource, governments need to improve waste management systems and introduce financial incentives to change the habits of consumers, retailers, and manufacturers. It is also important to invest money into the research and development of alternative materials and to raise awareness among consumers.
The private sector must innovate, adopting business models that reflect responsibility for the downstream impact of their products. Manufacturers and retailers must have a responsibility to inform consumers about their products and make them aware of the plastic content of a product and its harmful additives, as well as its recyclability, enabling their customers to make informed choices.
Individuals are increasingly exercising their power as consumers. People are turning down plastic straws and cutlery, cleaning beaches, and second guessing their purchase habits in day to day lives.
Findings in litter research have shown that people litter less and use the bin more in places that are kept clean; hence keeping one’s neighborhoods clean can have a profound impact, not just by helping to keep the environment clean but also by creating awareness and educating people about plastic waste.
By following the simple guideline of ‘refuse what you can’t reuse’, each of us has the power to change the way we use and dispose of plastics, thus making a significant contribution to beating plastic pollution.
Here are a few of the things that we can all do to reduce plastic waste, recycle more, and pressure businesses and manufacturers to design better products: