World Environment Day, which is celebrated on 5 June in over 100 countries, encourages worldwide awareness and action for the protection of the environment. This year marks the 50th anniversary of World Environment Day, which will focus on solutions to plastic pollution. It is a reminder that people’s actions on plastic pollution matter. Since its first celebration in 1973, World Environment Day has been an occasion to raise awareness of environmental problems and to call for collaborative action across actors around the world. Fifty years later, the problem of plastic pollution has become a major contributor to the triple planetary crisis of climate change, biodiversity loss and pollution. With more than 430 million tonnes of plastic produced every year worldwide and predictions of annual production reaching up to 1,100 million tonnes by 2050, bold solutions are necessary as currently only a fraction of these is recycled or reused.
Humans are exposed to a large variety of toxic chemicals and microplastics through inhalation, ingestion, and direct skin contact, all along the plastic lifecycle. Scientific results, to date, do indicate that the toxic chemical additives and pollutants found in plastics threaten human health on a global scale. Scientifically-proven health effects include causing cancer or changing hormone activity (known as endocrine disruption), which can lead to reproductive, growth, and cognitive impairment. Many of the toxic chemical additives have several other known health impacts. Research also revealed that microplastics can harm our health, and act as vessels for pathogens to enter our system, increasing the spread of diseases.
With rapid growth and urbanisation, Bangladesh faced a sharp increase in both plastic use and pollution. According to the World Bank, in the last 15 years, Bangladesh’s annual per capita plastic consumption in urban areas tripled to 9.0 kg in 2020 from 3.0 kg in 2005. Consumption of LDPE packaging materials (plastic bags, etc.) increased fivefold in 2020 from 2005. Of the 977,000 tons of plastic consumed in 2020, only 31% were recycled. Most mismanaged plastic waste was single-use plastics like shopping bags, packs and wrappers. Dhaka’s annual per capita plastic consumption is more than three times the national average for urban areas and stands at 22.25 kg. About 646 tons of plastic waste is collected daily in Dhaka, which is 10% of all waste generated in Bangladesh. Only 37.2% of the plastic waste in Dhaka is recycled. The average per capita plastic consumption in European countries is more than 100 kg – much higher than in Bangladesh. But Bangladesh is one of the top plastic-polluted countries due to mismanagement of plastic waste.
More than 430 million tonnes of plastic is produced every year worldwide, half of which is designed to be used only once. Of that, less than 10% is recycled. An estimated 19-23 million tonnes end up in lakes, rivers and seas annually. Microplastics – tiny plastic particles up to 5mm in diameter – find their way into food, water and air. It is estimated that each person on the planet consumes more than 50,000 plastic particles per year (many more if inhalation is considered). Discarded or burnt single-use plastic harms human health and biodiversity and pollutes every ecosystem from mountain tops to the ocean floor.
More than 8.3 billion tonnes of plastic have been produced since the early 1950s worldwide. This large amount of plastic production and the increase in single-use plastics have made plastic waste management a vital issue. While reducing the generation of plastic waste in the first place is essential, environmentally sound management of existing plastic waste is crucial to protect the environment and people’s health. Recycling is often discussed as a solution to improve the situation; however, only 14% of plastic waste is currently being collected for recycling. Critics also point out the limitations of recycling methods, the importance of addressing toxic chemicals in recycling processes and the importance of not relying solely on recycling to solve the plastic crisis.
Plastics are embedded in global and complex value chains. Each stage of the life cycle bears consequences for people and the environment. Although most public attention has been drawn to plastic waste and action to prevent leakage of microplastics and chemicals into the environment from inadequate disposal, addressing the end-of-life of plastic products will not be enough to solve this global crisis. We need to tackle the cross-cutting impacts of plastics and chemical additives throughout the extraction, manufacturing, use and disposal. Plastic pollution means more than just the plastic particles; it is also all the chemicals that are added to plastics, many of which are known to be harmful to people and the environment. When assessing the impacts of plastics, it is important to consider plastic debris, micro- and nano-plastics, as well as chemical additives.
At the end of life, the huge ever-growing pile of plastic waste causes serious concerns for our environment, including agricultural farmlands, groundwater quality, marine and land ecosystems, food toxicity and human health hazards. Lack of proper infrastructure, financial backup, and technological advancement turn this hazardous waste plastic management into a serious threat to developing countries, especially Bangladesh. Mismanaged plastic waste is polluting cities, countryside, rivers and canals. They clog drains, causing urban flooding. Plastic is a material that degrades slowly and into tiny particles (called microplastics), posing a significant risk to humans, marine life, and the ecosystems of the country.
Bangladesh progressively took steps in curbing plastic pollution, with varied outcomes: in 2002, Bangladesh was the world’s first country to ban plastic shopping bags. But, after some time, plastic use and mismanagement increased again. The Jute Packaging Act 2010 for six essential items (paddy, rice, wheat, maize, fertilizer, sugar) promoted an alternative to plastic packaging. In 2020, a High Court directed concerned authorities to ban Single-Use Plastic in coastal areas and in all hotels and motels across the country.
Managing plastic pollution will be important for attaining Bangladesh’s vision of becoming an upper-middle-income country by 2031. For this, the country needs pragmatic action plans to beat plastic pollution and become a pioneer in green growth. To this end, the National Action Plan for Sustainable Plastic Management sets a target of recycling 50% of plastics by 2025, phasing out targeted single-use plastic by 90% by 2026, and reducing plastic waste generation by 30% by 2030 from the 2020/21 baseline. A close and coordinated approach will be important to attain the targets, and for which, it will be critical to identify policy and regulatory reforms, economic instruments, technology and infrastructure, and capacity building. So will be awareness generation and behavioural change communication.
Plastic pollution and its detrimental impacts on health, the economy and the environment cannot be ignored. Urgent action is required. At the same time, we need true, effective and robust solutions. With available science and solutions to tackle the problem, governments, companies and other stakeholders must scale up and speed up actions to solve this crisis. This underscores the importance of this World Environment Day in mobilising transformative action from every corner of the world.
(The writer is a Climate Change & Public Health Researcher)
Source: Sun Editorial