By HH Mohrmen
The theme of last year’s World Environment Day was, “Only One Earth,” with focus on ‘Living Sustainably in Harmony with Nature.” This year the theme is #BeatPlasticPollution#. Looking back a year later, the question that the world can ask itself is – what have we done to live sustainably with nature? Or have we arrived at a more serious problem today – the problem of plastic, plastic everywhere. So much so the theme this year is just that – Beat Plastic Pollution. Waste, which includes plastic, is a major challenge that the world is facing. Plastic not only constitutes the bulk of waste generated but is also one of the most harmful and challenging constituents to deal with.
Currently, approximately 1.3 billion tons of solid municipal waste is generated each year, and it is expected to grow from 2.24 billion tons in 2020 to nearly 3.88 billion tons by 2050. In 2019, municipal solid waste (MSW) was the third-largest source of human-caused methane emissions in the US (EPA). Around the world, MSW contributes 11% of total methane emissions. The majority of that has to do with food waste, which releases 8% of global greenhouse emissions.
Meanwhile, an estimated 1.6 billion tons of carbon dioxide equivalent (CO2-equivalent) greenhouse gas emissions were generated from solid waste management in 2016. This accounts for about 5% of global emissions. Without improvements in the sector, solid waste-related emissions are anticipated to increase to 2.6 billion tons of CO2-equivalent by 2050 (World Bank document “What a Waste 2.0”).
Unsound waste management has serious economic, environmental, health, and social implications. Sadly, less than 20% of our waste is recycled each year. Moreover, more than 90% of trash in low-income countries is either dumped in the open or burned, posing a threat to the environment, exacerbating climate worries, and making it imperative for countries to tackle the issue immediately (World Bank document “What a Waste 2.0”).
There is no such
thing as “Away”
The general mindset is that if there is waste, one has to throw it away or dump it. But where is the “away”? Very often, by “away,” we mean away from our house, away from our villages or towns, away to where our eyes can’t see, or away into the landfill to be more precise. “Away” can also mean a situation where we think that there is an arrangement that someone or some agency like the Municipal Board is responsible for the garbage that we generated. It can also be a situation similar to when the ‘waste’ bucket is in somebody else’s hand and, since it is not in my hand, it is not my responsibility anymore. “Out of sight, out of mind,” would be the best description of the mindset that we have with the way we dispose of waste. There is no such thing as “away.” As Annie Leonard said, “When you throw something away, it must go somewhere.”
Even when we have a landfill to dump the waste we generated, it is again the same ‘away’ mindset that since it is not in my backyard or not in my town anymore, it is not my responsibility. The reason is when we dump our waste anywhere or even in the landfill, it will not end there; it will flow somewhere and most probably end up in the ocean. Waste accumulated in the landfill will produce harmful gases, and more importantly, it will take ages to decompose. Now single-use plastics are choking our environment, and landfills everywhere turn into mountains of trash that ultimately end up in the seas.
Waste in the Ocean
It is a known fact that rivers and lakes carry plastic waste from deep inland to the sea, making them major contributors to ocean pollution. Despite the efforts made by different countries, it is estimated that 75 to 199 million tons of plastic are currently found in our oceans. The amount of plastic waste entering aquatic ecosystems could nearly triple from 9-14 million tons per year in 2016 to 23-37 million tons per year by 2040 (UNEP). The Great Pacific Garbage Patch is a horrifying collection of floating trash spanning an area three times the size of France, located between California and Hawaii (National Geography). According to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), there are at least two more floating trash patches: one in the South Pacific Ocean and the other in the North Atlantic Ocean.
Plastic: The main culprit
The UNEP website informed that every minute, one million plastic bottles are sold worldwide, and at the same time, five trillion plastic bags are used every year. Single-use plastic constitutes about half of the plastic produced worldwide. From the 1950s to the 1970s, plastic waste was relatively manageable because only a small amount of plastic was produced. In two decades, plastic waste generation more than tripled by 1990. In the beginning of the 2000s, the amount of plastic waste generated rose more in a single decade than it had in the previous 40 years. Today, we produce about 400 million tons of plastic waste every year, and global production of primary plastic is forecasted to reach 1,100 million tons by 2050. Sadly, of the seven billion tons of plastic waste generated globally so far, less than 10 percent has been recycled.
Approximately 36 percent of all plastics produced are used in packaging, including single-use plastic products for food and beverage containers, approximately 85 percent of which end up in landfills or as unregulated waste. The different types of plastic waste include Polyethylene terephthalate (PET), used for making water bottles, dispensing containers, biscuit trays; High-density polyethylene (HDPE), used for making shampoo bottles, milk bottles, freezer bags, ice cream containers; Low-density polyethylene (LDPE), used for making bags, trays, containers, food packaging film; Polypropylene (PP), used for packaging potato chip bags, microwave dishes, ice cream tubs, bottle caps, single-use face masks; Polystyrene (PS), used as cutlery, plates, cups; and Expanded polystyrene (EPS), mostly used for protective packaging, hot drink cups.
The Necessary Evil
While plastic has many valuable uses, and it has become a product we have all been addicted to, single-use plastic products have severe environmental, social, economic, and health consequences. It is also ironic that the same properties that make plastics so useful, which give them durability and resistance to degradation, also make them nearly impossible for nature to completely break own. Plastics, including microplastics, are now part of our natural environment and can be found everywhere.
The sad part is that most plastic items never fully disappear; they just break down into smaller and smaller pieces. Those microplastics can enter the human body through inhalation and absorption and accumulate in organs. Microplastics have been found in human lungs, liver, spleen, and kidneys. A study recently detected microplastics in the placentas of newborn babies (UNEP).
The Way to Beat
The first step to beat plastic pollution is to move from single-use to reusable plastic products and increase the use of recycled plastics. As responsible citizens, individuals can stop using plastic straws and bring their own water bottles. One can also pressure their local authority to properly manage their city’s waste. Take a pledge to adopt new habits to limit your plastic footprint. When shopping, choose food with no plastic packaging, carry a reusable bag, buy local products, and refill containers to reduce plastic waste and its effect on the environment.
We all need to become zero-waste champions and live a zero-waste lifestyle. We need to control single-use plastic intake and bring our own reusable drinking bottles. We must be the change we want to see by advocating for change and by campaigning against using plastic in local supermarkets, restaurants, and local suppliers. We must begin by refuse plastic cutlery and straws, and explain why.
Each year, around 92 million metric tons of textile waste is generated worldwide. The fashion industry produces 20 percent of global wastewater and 10 percent of global carbon emissions. One might as well consider sustainable clothing lines, reuse or second-hand cloth shops, and repair our clothes whenever possible. I hope these are some ways that we can beat plastic pollution. It is only apt that this article is concluded with the adage by a native American Chief named Seattle of Duwamish tribe who said in 1855: “Continue to contaminate your bed, and you will one night suffocate in your own waste.”