Earth Chat

Plastic-Free Future: A Call to Action on World Environment Day

June 5 marks World Environment Day, a day where we raise awareness and encourage action for environmental protection. This year’s theme is to find solutions to plastic pollution. What makes it such a huge problem?

Plastics are considered as one of the most important modern inventions. They have revolutionised our society but have also changed the environment for the worse. We can find plastic debris littered almost everywhere today—from forests and coastlines to even the Arctic and the deepest point in the ocean, the Mariana Trench.[1][2]

Plastic debris items observed in different ocean depth range (Image Source: Sanae Chiba et al.)

The toll that plastic pollution has on the wildlife is not small. Animals are harmed when they mistakenly ingest plastic debris as food or are entangled by them. Plastic pollution also affects us when it finds its way back as microplastics in our food, drinking water, and even the air we breathe in.[3]A 2019 study revealed that we are ingesting around five grams of plastics—the weight of a credit card—every week.[4]What can be done to tackle plastic pollution to reduce its impact on human and the environment?

A plastic ring on a dolphin (Image Source: The Guardian)

The projection of microplastics abundance in Eastern Tropical Pacific (Image Source: IAEA)

Stopping plastic waste from entering into the environment in the first place is an obvious step; 22 percent of the plastic waste we generate is estimated to be mismanaged—meaning they are either disposed of in uncontrolled landfills, burned in open pits, or simply dumped into the environment. One such local example would be rubbish tip at the Wailingding Island, just south of Lantau and Lamma.

The massive rubbish tip on Weilingding Island (Image Source: SCMP)

Plastic leakage often comes from regions without good waste management infrastructure and practices. This is confirmed by a 2021 study that found 1000 rivers being responsible for 80% of plastic emissions, with the top polluters largely originating in Asia like the Philippines, India and Malaysia.[5]

Simply improving plastic waste management is not enough to be a long-term solution however. More recycling might be another thing that comes to mind for many, but currently, not even 10 percent of the hundreds of million tonnes of plastic waste that is generated every year gets recycled.[6]Many plastic products, particularly single-use plastics, are just not designed to be recycled after use. For example, plastic packaging that has been contaminated with food waste (food containers, cling wraps) or composite plastic packaging made with different materials that are difficult to process conventionally (toothpaste tubes, chip bags).

Share of plastics treated by waste management category (Image Source: OECD)

In addition to make plastic recycling work, some countries and cities are proposing or imposing bans on problematic single-use plastic items. China for instance has prohibited non-degradable plastic bags and utensils from being given out.[7]Over in the European Union, single-use plastic plates, cutlery, straws, balloon sticks, and cotton buds, as well as expanded polystyrene food and beverage containers and oxo-degradable plastic products have been banned since July 2021.[8]Even Hong Kong has started to make a move on plastics, aiming to ban single-use plastic tableware by this year hopefully.[9]

EU bans single-use plastics (Image Source: European Commission)

Globally, 175 countries came together last year to endorse a historic resolution to end plastic pollution[10]The Intergovernmental Negotiating Committee is currently in its second meeting with the goal of finalising negotiations and establishing a global, legally binding plastics treaty by the end of 2024.

The passing of the resolution to end plastic pollution (Image Source: United Nations)

One thing for sure, ending plastic pollution will require more than just nudging individuals towards better alternatives. Governments and businesses need to create the necessary environment to accommodate systemic sustainable behavioural change, whether it is through writing legislations, investing in new infrastructure, changing business models, developing sustainable product designs, or more. Only then do we have a chance to beating plastic pollution.

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