Wednesday, June 19, 2024

How governments can advance plastic pollution cleanup through innovative solutions and initiatives


According to the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP), plastic serves numerous essential purposes, yet our reliance on single-use plastic items has led to profound environmental, social, economic, and health repercussions. Globally, the consumption of single-use plastic products is staggering: an astonishing one million plastic bottles are bought every minute, and up to five trillion plastic bags are utilized annually. Shockingly, half of the world’s plastic output is earmarked for single-use applications, implying that these items are discarded after just one use. 

Plastic waste accounts for a whopping 80% of marine contamination, with 8 to 10 million metric tons of plastic entering the ocean each year. Currently, the ocean contains an astonishing 50-75 trillion particles of plastic and microplastics. Despite the growth in plastic manufacture and usage, recycling rates are bleak: only around 10% of the plastic produced is being recycled. The bulk is either burnt, leading to air pollution, or it enters our oceans and environment, compounding environmental degradation. 

“From the 1950s to the 1970s, only a small amount of plastic was produced, and as a result, plastic waste was manageable. Today, we produce about 400 million Tonnes of plastic waste every year.” UNEP 

Related: Breaking the Cycle: Embracing Sustainability as Africa’s Solution to Single-Use Plastic Menace.

Roughly 80% of marine plastic pollution originates from activities on land. Improper waste disposal practices, including littering and inadequate landfill management, contribute significantly to this issue. Plastic waste finds its way into oceans via rivers, wind, and tidal currents. Microplastics enter ecosystems through various pathways such as wastewater, storm runoff, and natural disasters, introducing a range of pollutants into marine environments. Emerging technologies are focused on preventing plastic from entering waterways and enhancing the collection of existing plastic pollution to address these challenges. 

The persistence of plastic is concerning; rather than disappearing, most plastic items degrade into increasingly smaller fragments known as microplastics. These tiny particles pose a risk to human health as they can be inhaled or absorbed, accumulating in vital organs such as the lungs, liver, spleen, and kidneys. Alarmingly, a recent study even detected microplastics in the placentas of newborn babies, highlighting the pervasive nature of this issue. 

Governments play a critical role in the plastics value chain and have the capacity to enact meaningful change through various avenues. They can lead by example by implementing bans or restrictions on unnecessary plastic products, thereby reducing overall plastic consumption and waste generation. In Kenya NEMA implemented and banned the use of single use plastics which has somehow assisted in the reduction of plastic waste finding its ways into rivers.   

Not only governments but non-governmental organizations, societies and even local groups can incentivize and support innovation in plastic production and design to ensure that the plastics deemed necessary are developed with reuse and recyclability in mind. This can involve funding research and development initiatives and fostering partnerships between industry and academia. 

The government has a bigger part to play in plastic pollution mitigation. They can implement policies that promote a circular economy for plastics, where resources are used efficiently, and materials are kept in circulation for as long as possible. This can include initiatives such as extended producer responsibility programs, incentives for recycling and reuse, and support for the development of infrastructure for plastic recycling and recovery. 

Governments may help transition to a more environmentally responsible and resilient plastics value chain by taking aggressive actions to eliminate plastic pollution and promote sustainable practices. As an individual, you can take a variety of activities, such as pushing restaurants to remove plastic straws, bringing your own coffee mug to work, and campaigning for improved waste management methods with local authorities. 

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