OPINION: Planet vs Plastics — A multi-stakeholder approach to clean up the Earth

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OPINION: Planet vs Plastics — A multi-stakeholder approach to clean up the Earth
April 22 is celebrated as World Earth Day and the theme for the day this year is Planet Vs Plastics.
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The world produces around 350 million tonnes of plastic waste every year. Approximately 12% is burned and less than 10% is recycled, while the remaining accumulates in landfills, chokes our water bodies, and ends up in the oceans. Plastics take more than 400 years to degrade, which means the menace created due to unsustainable production and consumption practices is here to stay on this planet for a very long time.

Life cycle assessment of plastic reveals that petroleum-based plastics can be recycled three to four times — with product quality deteriorating with each cycle — finally finding its way to landfills. Rapid growth in global plastic production didn’t happen until the 1950s. In the next 70 years, annual production of plastics increased nearly 230-fold to 460 million tonnes by 2019. In 2016, the World Economic Forum had estimated that plastic production could triple by 2050, if the businesses continue as usual. Such a trend in plastic production and usage is expected to result in rapid accumulation of plastic waste in landfills, reaching 12 billion tons by the middle of the 21st century.

Although the plastic waste produced per person is higher in rich countries, mismanaged waste has been reported to be much higher in low- to middle-income countries due to a lack of awareness and inadequate infrastructure for recycling the waste. As per the Annual Report 2019-20 on the implementation of Plastic Waste Management (PWM Rules 2016), by the Central Pollution Control Board (CPCB) under the Ministry of Environment, Government of India, the quantum of plastic waste generated in India had been recorded at 3.47 million tons per year (roughly 9,857 tons per day) and India ranked the fifth largest generator of plastic waste.

The mismanaged waste is finding its way into rivers, lakes, and the oceans at a frightening rate. The problem of marine plastic pollution today is a major cause of economic, social and environmental concern. Coastal regions suffer from the harmful health impacts of plastic pollution and waste brought in by the tides, while the livelihood of the locals is inextricably linked to the fishing and tourism industry. According to conservative forecasts made in March 2020, the direct harm to the blue economy of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations was expected to be $2.1 billion per year, a significant financial cost to be borne due to marine plastic pollution.

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Almost 70% of the plastic in the oceans comes from land-based sources through rivers and coastlines. The other estimated 30% comes from marine sources such as fishing nets, lines, ropes, and abandoned vessels. The ‘All Goa Small Scale Responsible Fisheries Union’, in a recent representation to the Environment Ministry, highlighted the detrimental impact of plastic waste on fishing activities and the overall health of the local rivers and the Arabian Sea, and an urgent need to ban plastic in the region. Riverbeds covered with plastics disrupt fish spawning activities. These concerns need to be addressed with actions which have immediate and long-term impacts to prevent plastics and other waste from polluting the rivers and oceans, as well as ways to clean up the existing waste.

What can be done?


Mobilising global attention to solving the problem of marine plastic has been attempted through the UN Sustainable Development Goals (SDG). In particular, SDG 14, advocating for conservation and sustainable use of the oceans, seas and marine resources, is driving an integrated approach towards solving the problem of marine plastic pollution. Similarly, SDG 11, to make cities inclusive, safe, resilient, and sustainable; and SDG 12 to ensure sustainable consumption and production patterns, are advocating a collective attempt towards better waste management to end plastic pollution.

Multi-stakeholder collaboration will be crucial for an effective policy, backed by responsible actions from the corporate and non-governmental organizations. The ‘Closing the loop’ project of the UN’s Economic and Social Commission for Asia and the Pacific (ESCAP) assists cities in measuring and monitoring plastic waste using innovative technologies like artificial intelligence, satellite imaging, drones, citizen science and waste flow modelling, pinpointing the 'source to sea' movement of how plastic leaks into the marine environment from cities. Identifying hotspots for plastic leakage can assist governments and organisations in developing effective policies backed by actions that address the plastic problem directly.

Producer extended responsibility is a necessity at the business level, where producers are responsible for collecting and recycling products which they launch onto the market. Product designing needs to focus on the use of non-plastic, recyclable, or biodegradable materials to replace single-use plastics. There is a strong need to embrace circular and sustainable economic practices throughout the plastics value chain to accomplish this. Price structures should also reflect the adverse impacts of plastic consumption and promote alternative materials or reused and recycled plastics. Plastics are inexpensive because they are made with substantially subsidised oil, with fewer economic incentives to employ recycled plastics.

Encouraging individual action to control plastic pollution is equally critical to reduce plastic waste each year. Promoting a plastic-free workplace will encourage the replacement of single-use plastic products with reusable items or more sustainable single-use alternatives. Public awareness campaigns explaining how people’s actions contribute to marine plastic pollution, or how they may contribute towards beach and river clean-ups; encouraging the use of disposable plastic bags etc., can accelerate the collective efforts towards a plastic-free environment.

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Most importantly improving waste management strategies is crucial to ending plastic pollution. It is a solvable problem, and making a difference in plastic waste management would do much more to reduce the nuisance. Even if the world used half as much, there will be significant amounts of plastic flowing into the rivers and oceans. The need of the hour is to embrace circularity in plastic waste management with multi-stakeholder engagement and an understanding of the linkages for integrated solutions. Circular economy is a way of creating value through extending product lifespan and relocating the waste from the end of the supply chain to the beginning. To ensure sustainability of resources it is important to switch from linear to circular economy. This helps use resources more efficiently and more than once by reuse or recycling.

Sonu Goyal is Dean - Academics at the International Management Institute, New Delhi.

Disclaimer: The opinions expressed by the author/interviewee do not necessarily reflect the views of Business Insider India. The article has been partly edited for length and clarity.
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