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World Environment Day – Solutions for Plastic Pollution

Columns 2023-06-07, 12:20pm

every-year-an-estimated-19-23-million-tons-of-plastic-make-its-way-into-lakes-rivers-and-seas-5152400fba2d0d33d8a700a3f36d92bd1686118855.jpg

Every year, an estimated 19-23 million tons of plastic make its way into lakes, rivers, and seas. Credit. Athar Parvaiz-IPS



By Lara Van Lith and Akilah Davitt

TEMPE, Arizona, US, Jun 5 2023 (IPS) - It’s time to get together and celebrate the environment! June 5th is the 50th World Environment Day, where each year, the significance of transformative action from across the world is crucial to help people and the planet. This year’s World Environment Day is being hosted by Côte d’Ivoire in partnership with the Netherlands with a theme of ‘Finding Solutions for Plastic Pollution.

We as youth activists and part of the Arizona State University Sustain Earth project see plastic pollution everywhere, but just how big is this problem?

To put it in perspective, more than 400 million tons of plastic are manufactured annually, with over half of it designed for single-use purposes. Shockingly, less than 10% of this plastic is recycled, which creates a colossal issue for our environment and human health.

Every year, an estimated 19-23 million tons of plastic make its way into lakes, rivers, and seas. Along with visible plastic waste, microplastics are becoming a bigger issue despite being invisible to the naked eye. Microplastics infiltrate food systems, waterways, and are even found in the air we breathe. According to the UN, each person consumes over 50,000 plastic particles annually. For more information on the life cycle of plastic, check out this Sustainable Explainable.

However, amid these troubling statistics, a glimmer of hope emerges- a shift towards a circular economy holds the key to reducing the volume of plastics entering our natural environment by more than 80% by 2040. The benefits of embracing this circular approach extend beyond preserving our precious ecosystems. By reducing virgin plastic production by 55%, governments stand to save $70 billion by 2040, while simultaneously slashing greenhouse gas emissions by 25%. Additionally, this transition can create 700,000 new jobs, predominately in the global south, fostering economic growth while tackling the plastic crisis head-on.

The Intergovernmental Negotiating Committee on Plastic Pollution

The second session of the UN Intergovernmental Negotiating Committee (INC-2) on plastic pollution convened earlier this month. This fully in-person event, taking place in Paris, France, covers a variety of discussions including marine environments, trade measures, circular economy, microplastics, and human rights. These sessions come as a response to last year’s United Nations Environmental Assembly resolution to create a global treaty to end plastic pollution with negotiations estimated to finalize at the end of 2024.

The first session (INC-1) took place in Uruguay at the end of 2022 and built the foundation of knowledge for constituents in preparation for the second session and allowed for the start of negotiations, though no policy-based decisions were made then. To ensure that a wide variety of voices were hers, members invited and present included youth groups, Indigenous coalitions, and frontline communities.

PlasticsFuture 2023

Stakeholders are utilizing the move towards a legally negotiated convention to bring their ideas of solutions to the table. In a couple of weeks “Revolution Plastics” (June 20 – June 22) is hosting a conference with the mission to discuss global research in hopes of finding new, innovative solutions to the plastic problem. The conference is taking place at the University of Portsmouth, United Kingdom, and will be split into five sessions covering microplastics, fashion and textiles, the history of plastics, art-based research methods, and the global treaty to end plastic pollution (from discussions at INC-2). Hands-on workshops will also be present, ranging from creating fashion items from plastic waste to verbatim theater. We all need to be part of this solutions driven approach. 

So what can we do?

The easiest option is to avoid single-use plastics. If we think about the number of times that single-use plastics are offered to us throughout the day, we may be surprised. On a regular day, an individual may get two plastic bags to carry their groceries home in, a plastic cup from their favorite coffee shop, a plastic fork, knife, and spoon with their take out… multiply this every day and every person who uses single-use plastic daily, and the amount of plastic waste humans are generating is tremendous. Effectively avoiding single-use plastic may take some forethought and planning. Here are some ideas on how we can be part of the solution and can cut out single-use plastic items out of our lives today:

Swap out all the single-use plastic. Keep a reusable bottle, reusable cutlery, and reusable grocery bag in your car or bag to make it easier to make the switch. Soon enough, you’ll be shocked by how much plastic you used to use once and throw away!

Be a sustainable host. When hosting events, consider using your own plates and silverware rather than plastic versions.

Going out to eat? Consider bringing a container if you suspect you’ll have leftovers. It’s a win-win-win situation because you’ll cut down on food waste, avoid using plastic take-out containers from the restaurant, and have some tasty leftovers for tomorrow!

We understand how difficult it is to avoid plastic, so we took a plastic-free for-a-week challenge! See how that went here. We hope this gives you some ideas.

It’s also important to remember each individual action underpins the systemic change required to transition to a less plastic-dependent economy. Here’s what you can do to influence change on a larger scale.

Use your voice. If you see a company using unnecessary plastic or lacks a recycling system for customers, call them out! Using social media or contacting the company directly lets them know that consumers care about their plastic footprint and are serious about making changes for the environment.

Vote with your wallet. Similarly, to what we highlighted above, it’s important to trade out the usual plastic-covered purchases for more sustainable alternatives. If more people are buying sustainable products that avoid plastic waste, we can use our wallets to vote for a more circular and sustainable market.

Share solutions. If you come across a business or product that does a great job of cutting down plastic waste, let your community know! Oftentimes, people want to help in the battle against plastic pollution but don’t know where to start. Help your community of conscious consumers to make a bigger difference.

Turn the pressure up! Consumer action will force companies, investors, lawmakers, and government to take real action. Consumers have a huge impact on the economy, so our voices will affect the important decisions they make behind the scenes.

Want to learn more about the plastic problem and how you, your business, your organization, and local community can make a difference? The UN Environment Programme and the Republic of Côte d’Ivoire partnered to create the Beat Plastic Pollution Practical Guide to help scale the problem and give solutions. Do your part this World Environment Day to make a more Sustainable Earth!

Lara Van Lith is a a member of Arizona State University Sustain Earth project. She is also recent Conservation Biology graduate and currently pursuing a Master of Public Administration from Arizona State University. She is passionate about environmental education for people of all ages and sustainability communication.

Akilah Davitt, is Arizona State University Sustain Earth and is a recent Masters of Sustainability Solutions graduate at Arizona State University with interests in corporate sustainability and biodiversity conservation. Her experience includes working with Central Arizona-Phoenix Long-Term Ecological Research to understand peoples’ perceptions towards wildlife and climate-related issues.