June 04, 2018

World Environment Day: Beat Plastic Pollution!

By Marcela Torres

Ending plastic pollution is the aim of the activities of two important international days celebrated this week: World Environment Day, tomorrow June 5, and World Oceans Day, on June 8.

“#BeatPlasticPollution” is a call to action for all of us to come together to combat one of the great environmental challenges of our time. The theme invites us all to consider how we can make changes in our everyday lives to reduce the heavy burden of plastic pollution on our natural places, our wildlife – and our own health. While plastic has many valuable uses, we have become over reliant on single-use or disposable plastic – with severe environmental consequences.

Although I’ve written before about plastic pollution and consumption patterns in the tourism industry, the problem persists, and it is necessary to insist on its importance.

What is being done?

Many countries, particularly those with long coasts, are taking actions to reduce plastic pollution. For example, on May 30 Chile passed a law banning single-use plastic bags in the entire national territory. The ban will enter into force in one year’s time for major retailers and in two years’ time for smaller businesses.  

On this occasion, the United Nations Environment Programme (UN Environment) is calling to action in four key areas:

  • Reducing Single-Use Plastics: 50% of the of consumer plastics are designed to be used only once, providing a momentary convenience before being discarded. Eliminating single-use plastics, both from design chains to our consumer habits is a critical first step to beat plastic pollution.
  • Improving Waste Management: Nearly one third of the plastics we use escape our collection systems. Once in the environment, plastics don’t go away, they simply get smaller and smaller, last a century or more and increasingly find their way into our food chain. Waste management and recycling schemes are essential to a new plastics economy.
  • Phasing Out Microplastics: Recent studies show that over 90% of bottled water and even 83% of tap water contain microplastic particles. No one is sure what that means for human health, but trace amounts are turning up in our blood, stomachs, and lungs with increasing regularity. Humans add to the problem with micro-beads from beauty products and other non-recoverable materials. 
  • Promoting Research into Alternatives: Alternative solutions to oil-based plastics are limited and difficult to scale. This doesn’t need to be the case. Further research is needed to make sustainable plastic alternatives both economically viable and widely available.

This World Environment Day is a culmination of years of effort by Member States aimed at focusing the world’s attention and galvanizing action around plastic pollution. UN Environment and its Member States have been developing innovative science and forging new consensus on the complex relationships between plastics, society and the environment.

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