By Beate Trankmann and Tu Ruihe
Fifty years ago, plastic was not as ubiquitous as it is today — microplastics in soil were not limiting crop growth and the equivalent of a garbage truck's worth was not dumped in our oceans every minute. Fifty years ago, plastic was not found in our food chains, organs, blood or breast milk. Fifty years ago, seabirds had not been diagnosed with a new condition called "plasticosis". Today, this is our reality.
This year marks the 50th anniversary of World Environment Day, calling for awareness and action for a healthy planet. Over the last 50 years, however, humanity has wreaked havoc on the environment, particularly in one highly visible way: our planet is becoming a dumping ground for plastic.
From the shampoo bottle you used this morning, to the packaging your waimai dinner arrived in, we are surrounded by plastic. Its convenience has come at a steep environmental cost. In 2019, greenhouse gas emissions from plastic production and incineration equaled those from 189 coal power plants. This is only set to worsen — in another two decades, this $522 billion industry is expected to double in capacity.
A plastic-free world may seem impossible to imagine but is essential to our survival. Left unchecked, plastic will derail the Sustainable Development Goals. Ecosystem breakdown due to climate change, biodiversity loss and pollution, including plastic, means we are unlikely to meet those critical goals — to end poverty and protect our planet.
Last year, 175 United Nations member states endorsed a historic resolution to end plastic pollution and forge an international, legally binding agreement by the end of 2024. This marks the most significant multilateral environmental deal since the Paris Agreement. It is an insurance policy for this generation and future ones, so they may live with plastic but not be doomed by it.
Translating this ambition into action is a vital and urgent task. Ridding the world of plastic pollution will require a fundamental shift in the way plastics are produced, consumed, and disposed of.
Currently, most efforts focus on downstream interventions, such as recycling. Instead, the focus must shift toward tackling the root causes of plastic pollution, from production to design and waste management.
First, plastic must be eliminated at the source. Governments can develop economic, social and policy incentives at the design stage, to encourage producers to become more responsible for the environmental costs of their products. Supporting large-scale users like supermarkets and their suppliers to eradicate, reduce, replace or reuse plastic packaging, in addition to introducing technical and legal regulations in areas like "Extended Producer Responsibility", can lighten national plastic footprints.
Second, embracing innovation and technology to scale up sustainable alternatives to conventional plastics and business models is key. With UN support in the Philippines, for example, a startup is pioneering coconut husk-based cold storage coolers, replacing the harmful polystyrene used in small-scale seafood trade. Coconut coolers compete with polystyrene in price and performance, while curbing waste and emissions from burning husks.
Third, improving existing waste management systems can help stem the plastic waste leaking into nature. Studies show that humans already ingest 5 grams of plastic each week on average, about the weight of a credit card.Collaboration between the UN, China and the Republic of Korea in the Yellow Sea have already shown progress in cleaning up marine litter, namely plastic debris. Beach litter in the area has lessened following port cleanups, buy-back programs for litter recovered during fishing operations have been put in place, and styrofoam buoys are replaced with biodegradable ones.
Engaging municipal governments, communities and the informal waste sector can help to better understand and change behaviors to plastic disposal and improve waste management. For example, in India, the UN works with 38 cities and supports 5,200 informal waste pickers, to process 83,900 tons of plastic waste each year.
We should also ensure that all plastics become and remain part of the circular economy. By embedding this approach at the start of the manufacturing stage, we can encourage sustainable product designs, with materials that can be viably reused and recycled.
In China, where the amount of plastic tape used by the courier industry in 2018 alone could circle the world 1,000 times, the fight to curb plastic may seem overwhelming. But action is already being taken. China's recent national plan aims to phase out all single-use and non-biodegradable plastic in urban and rural areas by 2025. This has become even more crucial due to the surge in plastic use during COVID-19 globally, as more people shifted to takeout meals and online shopping.
Recent steps to combat marine plastic in China are off to a promising start. For example, in partnership with local businesses, Zhejiang's provincial authority launched a digital platform for controlling marine plastic pollution, applying the internet of things and blockchain technologies.
A range of stakeholders participated across the entire lifecycle of recycling marine plastics, which are collected by local fishing and commercial vessels along with hundreds of local coastal residents, then transported to centralized plastic firms which process and transform waste plastics into plastic particles, such as PVC and PP, as raw materials for reuse.
The initiative's success depends on three factors: digital technology provides traceability and certification for plastic waste; certified particles made from marine plastics are high-value raw materials internationally, and the economic benefits of selling particles are shared with marine waste collectors by a "Blue Common Wealth Fund", established by a coalition of plastic waste stakeholders.
Our individual actions and consumer choices such as refusing disposable cutlery and straws, and using reusable bags for shopping can also make an important contribution. By reducing demand for single-use plastic we can all send a powerful message and shape markets. At UN offices in Beijing, for example, water is no longer purchased in plastic bottles, and caterers relying on plastic packaging are not used.
As the world's biggest producer and consumer of plastic, China's governance measures play a critical role in the fight against plastic. The UN Development Programme and the UN Environment Programme stand ready to offer our technical and convening support, to accelerate these actions.
We are all responsible for the plastic crisis — governments, producers and consumers alike. But by acting now, we can prevent another 50 years of plastic piling up, poisoning our planet and ourselves. Together, we can forge a more sustainable future — and end the plastic scourge.
Beate Trankmann is UNDP resident representative in China; and Tu Ruihe is head of UNEP China Office.