Image Credit: Joan Bishio
Globally, about 390 million metric tons of plastic are produced yearly, with only about 9% being recycled, the rest end up in the ocean or burned in landfills. When it comes to addressing issues of. plastic pollution, a “one cap fits all approach” cannot be applied, but instead, several approaches through research trials, new and continuous innovations, must be applied until we completely get rid of this menace. The Circular Economy (CE) approach has also been applied in most parts of the world and has proven to reduce the amount of plastic that ends up in the environment.
A major challenge with eliminating plastics properly is the fact that it is the most convenient material used especially when it comes to packaging. About 46% of the plastic waste comes from packaging. It has now become an integral part of our daily lives that we can hardly do without. As much as it is easier to transform it into so many products such as; bottles, trays, straws, plastic shopping bags etc, it has also affected the environment and human health negatively, it has been found in the food chain as microplastics, outnumbering and killing marine life.
According to a report by the United Nations Environmental Programme (UNEP, 2023) — Turning Off the Tap, this report examines the economic and business models needed to address the impacts of the plastics economy. There is an urgent need to shift completely from business-as-usual (BAU), to a systems change scenario by transforming the market through 3 market shifts;
c. Reorient and diversify.
The systems change scenario suggests the application of an upstream (incentives to use recycled plastic), midstream (manufacturing of economically recyclable products) and downstream (investment in increased recycling capacity) approaches through an immediate international global action to support circular plastics economy that would be beneficial to both developing and developed countries to eradicate this problem. This is where a plastic economy circularity approach is applied to curb plastic pollution. The new circular plastics economy is expected to substantially reduce plastic pollution by 80% by the year 2040.
There is an urgent global call to end this menace where there is now a motion towards a legally binding instrument that is inclusive, and transparent for every country to be able to meet up with their targets of plastic pollution. This first started in 2021, when Rwanda and Peru presented a draft resolution aimed at ending plastic pollution. The draft was later adopted at the United Nations Environment Assembly (UNEA) fifth assembly in Nairobi, Kenya, on March 2nd, 2022. At the meeting, the fourteenth (14th) resolution (5/14); End plastic pollution: towards an internationally legally binding instrument was adopted, and the Intergovernmental Negotiating Committee (INC) was established to complete negotiations with member states regarding the treaty by 2024. The first INC meeting (INC-1) was held in Uruguay in 2022, where it considered major key points to address the full life cycle of plastics, objectives and scope of the instrument, and also recognise National Action Plans.
During the second meeting, which took place from 29th May, 2023 to 2nd June, 2023, the secretariat compiled the 243 written submissions by member states and stakeholders, and presented it as a document that was released on the 13th of April, 2023, with details of potential options for elements towards the adoption of an international treaty, that were discussed at the meeting of the INC-2 in Paris. The meeting which ended on the 2nd of June, 2023, saw the election of a bureau — a body that would guide the organization of the INC, member states elected were Georgia, Estonia, Sweden and US, and. has now given the INC chair — H.E Mr. Gustavo Adolfo Meza-Cuadra the mandate with the support of the secretariat to prepare a zero draft of the agreement ahead of the INC-3 due to take place in Nairobi, Kenya, in November.
Plastic producers must now seek to use recyclable materials or other alternatives that decompose easily in the environment. Companies are now taking advantage of advanced technologies, nanotechnology and Artificial Intelligence (AI) to address the issue of plastic waste in the environment. In 2021, Unilever partnered with Alibaba group to introduce China’s first large-scale recycling system powered by AI. Awareness about plastic waste management has made a few companies rethink their business models, and how they can reduce plastics as the packaging option for their products. For instance, Coca-cola company (with the largest plastic footprint on earth) hopes to have a minimum of 25% of all beverages in refillable plastic bottles or containers by 2030. Governments must also put policies and regulations in place to help end-users reduce plastic pollution. Most developed countries are putting infrastructures in place to support proper plastic waste management. After implementing a deposit return scheme on PET plastic bottles, Norway and Japan now have high recycling rates of 97% and 84.8% respectively.
So, back to the question, “Can we truly get rid of plastics?”.
The answer to this question lies with every human using these plastics. It has now become the responsibility of the producers (industries), and consumers (individuals) to become environmentally conscious of their. actions and how their actions can be detrimental to the environment. Individuals must now become deliberate to push policy-makers to create policies that puts the environment first, such as ensuring the use of alternatives and investing in recycling businesses. We must work together, and be involved in the conversations regarding how to make this menace go away for life.
Remember, together we can #BeatPlasticPollution.
Rinret Best is Associate II , Environment and Climate Action at Clean Technology Hub.