By The Nation
Convenience and cheap production costs and retail prices have, over the course of seven decades, made the use of plastic products a global habit. Current annual production is estimated to be in
excess of 300 million tonnes.
The price we pay for that convenience and cheapness is no longer hidden, of course. Most plastic goods are designed for temporary use, and sure enough, we throw away about half of all that we acquire. Everywhere you look nowadays, even in rural areas, plastic waste litters the environment. Even in places where few people get to look, like the middle of the oceans, vast islands of plastic refuse are swirling in the currents, maelstroms of garbage deadly to marine life and thus a threat to humanity too.
Over the next two decades, plastic waste that isn’t properly collected and managed or recycled is set to double, from 21 million tonnes per year
currently, due chiefly to relentless
population growth. About eight
million tonnes of the plastic we now discard ends up in the seas, where fish and turtles mistake it for food,
swallow it and either choke to death or die of starvation because what they’ve consumed can’t be digested and they have no room for real food.
A proposal by Marco Lambertini, a scientist and director-general of WWF International, holds some potential. His idea for a global “plastic treaty” to tackle the issue will soon come before the United Nations Environment Programme for consideration. If adopted, it might get governments to act both on their own and in tandem with other countries for better management of plastic products, focusing mainly on single-use and non-recyclable plastic.
Better still would be decisive action on the part of the oil and gas industry, which produces the raw materials for making all forms of plastic.
Countries signing on to the plastic treaty would be required to set
targets for reducing the production and consumption of single-use
plastic – shopping bags, drinking straws, food and beverage containers and packaging. They would agree to work together to standardise the
collection, management and
recycling of plastic waste. At present, less than 15 per cent of all plastic is recycled. All the rest is deemed unsuitable for recycling, usually for lack of technology and a system to do so, and that too has to change.
Governments aligned in the treaty would have to formulate policies to encourage the private sector to invest in creating biodegradable substitutes for plastic. Given the urgency of the problem, tax breaks and other
incentives should feature prominently in these national policies. We
desperately need to reduce the use of existing plastics and develop new materials more friendly to the
environment. What we use and toss aside today contributes massively to climate change.
Efforts to tackle the issue must most urgently find solutions upstream, in the oil and gas industry. Then the focus can move to midstream – the retailers and distributors. Finally, at the downstream level, billions of consumers – especially in regions such as Asia where populations and middle classes are growing fastest – will have to be weaned off an old and life-crippling habit.
Without the political will to make a difference, followed by the cooperation of big business and society as a whole, it will be impossible to end our reliance on single-use plastic.