Strategic solutions to deal with global deluge of plastic pollution
By the year 2050, there will be more plastic in the oceans than fish, according to some estimates. That point was driven home again in recent days after a dead sperm whale washed ashore in Indonesia. Just a few months after a pilot whale died off Thailand after injesting 80 plastic bags, the 9.5-metre sperm whale had nearly six kilograms of plastic in its stomach.
Plastic pollution has reached an all-time high. With a global plastic production amounting to about 300 million tons a year – and an estimated 9.1 billion tons produced to date – 8 million tons is dumped into the oceans every year. Due to the nature of our throw-away society, almost half of the plastic we use is disposed of after being used only once. A plastic bag, for example, has an average working life of 15 minutes but can remain in the ocean for up to 20 years. Other plastics need hundreds of years to fully decompose.
The grisly finds involving dead cetaceans is only a warning sign of far larger problem. Many marine organisms are consuming plastics, mistaking it for food, leading to plastic entering the human food chain through the consumption of fish and other seafood. In the Asia-Pacific, the problem is particularly acute with the majority of plastic waste that ends up in the ocean coming from the region.
Recognizing the urgency of this problem, and marking World Science Day for Peace and Development, UNESCO in partnership with the Asian Institute of Technology (AIT), Thailand’s National Science and Technology Development Agency (NSTDA) and the Ministry of Science and Technology (MOST) hosted two events at UNESCO Bangkok’s office and the AIT campus on 12 and 13 November to confront and find solutions to the global issue of plastic pollution, with a particular emphasis on engaging a new generation of students.
‘In the last two days, we all have been alerted about the emergency of addressing plastic waste, including marine plastic waste. No doubt, my country is partly responsible for it. And Viet Nam is truly working on dealing with it,’ said An Nguyen Hue, from Viet Nam’s Department of Science, Technology and International Cooperation. ‘We are ready to tackle this issue together with other Asian countries and to engage with all stakeholders.’
There are clear models worldwide for reducing waste, as presentations from speakers from China, Germany, India and Rwanda illustrated at the two events. Representatives from Cambodia, Laos, Myanmar and Singapore also reiterated the regional challenges. As the deaths of the two whales in Indonesia and Thailand have occupied global headlines, there is a growing understanding in the general public about the threat posed by plastic pollution not only to the environment but to human health as well.
'In the last two days, we all have been alerted about the emergency of addressing plastic waste, including marine plastic waste. No doubt, my country is partly responsible for it. And Viet Nam is truly working on dealing with it. We are ready to tackle this issue together with other Asian countries and to engage with all stakeholders.'
An Nguyen Hue, from Viet Nam’s Department of Science,
Technology and International Cooperation
‘Raising awareness is a key combating the global plastic problem,’ said Henning Schwarze, a German entrepreneur and tourism professional who spoke at the event. ‘Nonetheless regulations needs to be implemented, to reduce plastic consumption in additional sectors and economies, eg, in the construction industry.’
Consumer and retail patterns are also under the microscope, with recent news in Thailand focusing on the prevalence of single-use plastics in the name of ‘convenience’. An individual snack portion, for example, is already packaged in plastic and then typically placed in another plastic bag, along with a disposable spoon, again in its own plastic wrapping. The sheer volume of plastic detritus distributed over the counter every day is staggering – and unnecessary.
The European Parliament recently approved a union-wide ban on single-use plastics, including items such as cutlery, cotton buds and straws, since there are already alternatives available. The ban is meant to be achieved by 2021, with a further goal that 90% of plastic bottles will be collected for recycling by 2025. Rwanda has already banned plastic bags completely since 2008, and the capital, Kigali, has since been recognized as the cleanest city in Africa and quite possible in the world. Among the displays at the World Science Day events was the NSTDA’s biodegradable packaging as an alternative to plastic, as countries in this region consider similar measures.
‘There is currently a global consensus of the problem of plastic pollution,’ said Remy Norbert Duhuze, Director of the Environmental Regulation and Pollution Control, Rwanda Environment Management Authority. ‘We are calling for global formal agreement in a form of a convention or a similar multilateral agreement.’
As the soft launch of UNESCO’s Plastic Initiative to gather ideas for plastic waste management, particularly by engaging youth, and testing projects in the 152 UNESCO Biosphere Reserves, the recent events marked a new commitment to a comprehensive, strategic approach to a worldwide problem. Young people from across the Asia-Pacific region are encouraged to participate and bring innovative ideas to the table, with project viability evaluated by a young people and professionals, and crowdfunding conducted over the course of coming years.
Do not wait until 2050, when our oceans will have become veritable rubbish bins. A commitment to combating plastic pollution requires strategic solutions and the participation of every one of us.
Presentations from the Meeting