More and more we are talking about the need to reduce our reliance on plastic. Each day another horror story emerges, about the ways that plastics are literally strangling our world. Alongside this, are so many fantastic innovations and ideas for how we can reduce our use of plastic and particularly, single use plastic. You have the power in your hands to make a difference and each person who makes swaps from single use plastics, has an impact. The scale of the challenge to stop our use of plastic is daunting however and businesses, governments and policy makers must make changes too.
Since the 1950s, the production of plastic has moved faster than nearly every other material we have created. Most of the plastic we produce is designed to be thrown away after being used only once. As a result, plastic packaging accounts for about half of the plastic waste in the world. Most of this waste is generated in Asia while America, Japan and the European Union are the world’s largest producers of plastic packaging waste per capita.
Our ability to cope with plastic waste is already overwhelmed. Only nine per cent of the nine billion tonnes of plastic the world has ever produced has been recycled.
World Environment Day is the UN’s most important day for encouraging worldwide awareness and action for the protection of our environment. Since it began in 1974, it has grown to become a global platform for public outreach that is widely celebrated in over 100 countries. This year the theme is “Beat Plastic Pollution”.
This is a call to action for all of us to come together to combat one of the great environmental challenges of our time. The theme invites us all to consider how we can make changes in our everyday lives to reduce the heavy burden of plastic pollution on our natural places, our wildlife – and our own health. While plastic has many valuable uses, we have become over reliant on single-use or disposable plastic – with severe environmental consequences.
World Environment Day 2018 Key Areas
- Reducing Single-Use Plastics
- Improving Waste Management
- Phasing Out Microplastics
- Promoting Research into Alternatives
Most of our plastic ends up in landfills, dumps or in the environment. If we continue to use plastic at our current rates, and our current waste management practices continue, then by 2050 there will be around 12 billion tonnes of plastic litter in landfills and the environment. By this time, if the growth in plastic production continues at its current rate, then the plastics industry may account for 20 per cent of the world’s total oil consumption.
Some Frightening Plastic Facts
- Most plastics do not biodegrade. Instead, they slowly break down into smaller fragments known as microplastics. When plastic breaks down it becomes even more difficult to remove from the ocean.
- Studies suggest that plastic bags and containers made of expanded polystyrene foam (commonly referred to as “styrofoam”) can take up to thousands of years to decompose, contaminating soil and water.
- Microplastics, if ingested by fish, can enter our food chain. They have been found in commercial table salt and studies show that 90 per cent of bottled water and 83 per cent of tap water contain plastic particles. Worryingly, little is known about the impacts of microplastics on human health.
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 types of plastic bags and foam take-away containers.
These are the waste products of a throwaway culture that treats plastic as a disposable material rather than a valuable resource to be harnessed.
Global Plastic Pollution by the Numbers
• Up to 5 trillion plastic bags used each year
• 13 million tonnes of plastic leak into the ocean each year
• 17 million barrels of oil used on plastic production each year
• 1 million plastic bottles bought every minute
• 100,000 marine animals killed by plastics each year
• 100 years for plastic to degrade in the environment
• 90% of bottled water found to contain plastic particles
• 83% of tap water found to contain plastic particles
• 50% of consumer plastics are single use
• 10% of all human-generated waste is plastic
How can we change?
To beat plastic pollution, we need to entirely rethink our approach to designing, producing and using plastic products. This World Environment Day, the goal is to inspire the kind of solutions that lead to sustainable behaviour change upstream.
“We’ll build on the global momentum to beat plastic pollution and use World Environment Day as a turning point to inspire innovators, activists and leaders worldwide to do more than just clean up existing plastics, but also focus our action upstream. Our goal is to foster the dialogue that leads to new models for plastic production and consumption. Individuals, the private sector and policymakers all have critical roles to play” says the UN.
• Plastic pollution is a defining environmental challenge for our time.
• In the next 10-15 years global plastic production isprojected to nearly double.
• Avoiding the worst of these outcomes demands a complete rethinking of the way we produce, use and manage plastic.
• People are increasingly exercising our power as consumers. This includes saying no to plastic straws and cutlery, cleaning beaches and coastlines, and reconsidering your purchase habits in supermarket aisles. If this happens enough, retailers will quickly get the message to ask their suppliers to do better.
While these steps are a cause for celebration, the reality is that individual action alone cannot solve the problem. Even if every one of us does what we can to reduce our plastic footprint – and of course we must – we must also address the problem at its source.
Consumers must not only be actors, but drivers for the behaviour change that must also happen upstream. Ultimately, our plastic problem is one of design. Our manufacturing, distribution, consumption and trade systems for plastic – indeed our global economy –need to change. The linear model of planned obsolescence, in which items are designed to be thrown away immediately after use, sometimes after just seconds, must end.
This is where the continued message of the need for extended producer responsibility comes in – where manufacturers must be held to account for the entire life-cycle of their consumer products. At the same time, those companies actively embracing their social responsibility should be rewarded for moving to a more circular model of design and production, further incentivizing other companies to do the same.
Changes to consumer and business practice must be supported and in some cases driven by policy. Policymakers and governments worldwide must safeguard precious environmental resources and indeed public health by encouraging sustainable production and consumption through legislation.
To stem the rising tide of single-use plastics, we need government leadership and in some cases strong intervention.
Many countries have already taken important steps in this direction and in Australia we are seeing slow change. The plastic bag bans in place in more than nearly 100 countries prove just how powerful direct government action on plastics can be. To be impactful these must be true bans, not one in which you can still purchase a “bio” version of a single use plastic bag.
Changing to more environmentally suitable alternatives to conventional plastics will take time. In the meantime, we can increase circular thinking in our economies and waste management systems. The use of alternatives must be part of a broader strategy towards more sustainable production, particularly of packaging and other single-use items. This will mean redesigning products, reducing waste and improving recycling.
We need to balance the aim of reducing plastic packaging waste with reducing food waste, another enormous issue. Scaling up potential solutions to support a mass market remains a big barrier. Addressing issues like the supply of raw material, the availability of appropriate skills, access to financing, infrastructure and the level of current technology will be key.
Businesses must take a close look at how their products are designed and disposed of as they seek to develop environmentally friendly products that are easier to recycle. They must be held to account for the impact their products have on the environment, and we must all take steps to refuse, reuse and recycle.
Get involved, not just on 5th June, but every day of your life – more on the World Environment Day website here
What will you swap out in your life to beat plastic?