OUR planet is drowning in plastic. The practical, cheap and durable nature of plastic has led to its massive production and consumption over the past 70 years. With 9.2 billion tonnes of plastic produced during this period, plastic pollution harms the environment and human health at every stage of its life cycle.
The excessive use of plastic also has an impact on savings. This is evident in the agricultural sector where plastic reduces soil fertility and agricultural production, leading to food insecurity. A recent report, published in March 2022 by the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations, revealed that agricultural land is contaminated with large amounts of plastic pollution, with 12.5 million tonnes of produce in plastic used every year in agricultural value chains, mainly in crop production and livestock. sectors.
An additional 37.7 million tons are used in food packaging. The report notes that Asia is the largest user of plastics in agricultural production, accounting for almost half of global use, and warns that “in the absence of viable alternatives, demand for plastics in the agriculture will only increase”. Appropriate and timely waste management is therefore an obvious requirement for such extensive production and use of plastic products, while environmentally friendly solutions are found.
In 2018, around 291 million tonnes of waste was generated, but only a small part – around 20% – was properly disposed or recycled. Most plastic waste ends up in landfills or, in poor countries, in open dumps, causing large-scale pollution both on land and in the oceans, endangering human health and suffocating wildlife.
The trade in plastic waste has serious consequences for poor countries.
Single-use plastic products, including water bottles, shopping bags and packaging materials, are the most dangerous to the environment as they can take up to 400 years to decompose. Pakistan, like several other countries, has banned plastic shopping bags, but the ban will need to be strictly enforced to be meaningful. Other equally harmful single-use plastic products continue to be used in abundance. The Covid-19 pandemic has increased the demand for single-use plastic around the world through personal protective equipment for healthcare workers and other medical paraphernalia, thus worsening pollution.
National and local actions are proving insufficient and less effective due to the scale and cross-border nature of plastic pollution, which has become a global environmental concern.
The United Nations Environment Program estimates that around 19 to 23 million tonnes of plastic enter rivers, lakes and oceans every year, and that by 2040, “there will be more plastic in oceans than fish” if the trend continues. Worryingly, once discarded plastic breaks down into microplastic, it further contaminates marine life and enters the food chain.
The international trade in plastic waste is another dimension of the problem with serious implications for poor countries. Huge amounts of plastic waste generated in developed countries end up in developing countries where waste management capacities are limited. Pakistan also imports plastic waste for industry and recycling. It spent $11 million importing plastic waste in 2018. While most discarded plastic is traded legally, a large chunk is smuggled into South Asia and Africa, illustrating the scale of plastic waste.
Strengthening international cooperation will help curb the illegal trade in plastic waste and prevent further environmental damage. The UN is supporting these efforts by supporting policy and regulatory measures, awareness campaigns and partnerships to support the shift to broader circularity.
Although the world still lacks a comprehensive plastic management mechanism needed to address this problem, the UN aims to develop a legally binding international agreement on plastic pollution by 2024 to address the full life cycle of plastic. plastic, including its production, design and disposal. .
This could be a mechanism to address the triple planetary crisis of climate change, biodiversity loss, and pollution and waste. However, a lot of earthworks are required. Countries will need to prepare enabling conditions through policy alignments, promoting the search for green alternatives to plastic and mobilizing private finance to invest in a circular economy.
During the preparatory process for the treaty over the next two years, it will be crucial for governments, industry, businesses and other stakeholders to rise to the challenge, to look beyond the short-term convenience of plastic and to focus more on the goal of a balanced and healthy environment. ecosystem. For the sake of present and future generations, this is not a great request. Environmental multilateralism has its task mapped out.
The author is Director of Intergovernmental Affairs, United Nations Environment Programme.
Posted in Dawn, April 24, 2022