An inter-generational behavior shift in production, consumption and waste management is needed to stem plastic pollution.
Under the Basel Convention, the Partnership on Plastic Waste has 23 pilot projects offering a ‘cradle to grave’ way of mobilizing resources to improve the environmentally sound management plastic waste.
The Partnership is showing that successful collective action on plastics pollution is possible when resources are available.
Celine Frechou, UN Environment Programme, ENRTP-GPGC Programme Management Unit, Corporate Services Division
The world has a plastic problem. Since the 1950s, the rate of plastic production has grown exponentially and faster than that of any other material. This is a trend with severe environmental consequences.
At present, according to the UN Environment Programme (UNEP), approximately 300 million tonnes of plastic waste (an amount equivalent to the weight of the human population) are produced every year, with eight million tonnes finding its way into the world’s oceans. At this rate, by 2050, the ocean may contain more plastic than fish, by volume. Of all the plastic waste ever produced, only 9% has been recycled, 12% incinerated, meanwhile the remaining 79% has accumulated in landfills or the natural environment. Over time, these materials breakdown into microplastics that ease additional pollutants into our food chain, freshwater systems, and the air.
The exigency and breadth of the plastic pollution problem have landed it on the table of many intergovernmental fora. In 2020, for instance, the issue was taken up by the Basel Convention, under which country parties adopted a legally binding amendment to prevent the dumping of plastic waste in countries that lack the infrastructure to recycle and/or properly dispose of it. This decision was an important step towards stemming the societal and environmental hazards created by plastic waste worldwide.
Implementing this ambitious amendment, which entered into force in January 2021, means assuring that country parties to the Basel Convention have what they need to create and enforce regulations, standards, and inspections at ports as well as elsewhere in the supply, consumption, and waste chains for plastics. Since countries don’t all have the same resources and capacity to do so, the Partnership on Plastic Waste (PWP) was launched under the Convention to provide additional assistance. With donor support, for instance, its second and third meetings are funded by the European Union, the PWP approaches the plastic pollution wholistically. Its four areas of work – (1) Plastic waste prevention and minimization; (2) Plastic waste collection, recycling and other recovery including financing and related markets; (3) Transboundary movements of plastic waste; and (4) Outreach, education, and awareness-raising – provide a framework for advancing understanding and solutions globally.
Since its establishment, the PWP selected 23 pilot projects to be implemented by governments, the private sector, civil society, and the Basel and Stockholm Convention Regional Centres over the course of 2021 to 2023. These activities offer a ‘cradle to grave’ way of mobilizing resources to improve and promote the environmentally sound management (ESM) of plastic waste particularly in Asia and Africa. For instance in Nigeria, the Partnership will support a life cycle assessment of selected plastic products/wastes. It will also advance a non-toxic circular economy in Kenya and the ESM of plastics in Tanzania, while also supporting a lifecycle analysis of plastics in Uganda. For Eritrea and Cameroon, pilot initiatives will look to reduce ocean plastic pollution. In a handful of Asian countries, Cambodia, Laos PDR, Malaysia, Philippines, and Thailand, the PWP will help optimize plastic waste utilization and absorption in recycling. In another pilot project, the Partnership will aid the replacement and collection of single-use plastic containers for take-out food in China.
While PWP pilot projects are country-based, their impacts are both international and inter-generational. This is because once plastic enters the environment, it goes global with environmental impacts that can last hundreds of years. The great pacific garbage patch is a well-known example of how waste from any number of countries ends up in an in stretch of ocean with no national jurisdiction and creates a tragedy of the commons. Further, though plastics are malleable, they are essentially, permanent. This was the thrust of the PWP photo exhibition, Plastic is Forever, held prior to the 2021 Conference of the Parties to the Basel, Rotterdam and Stockholm Conventions – 2021 BRS COPs). Featuring the finalist photos of the PWP photography contest, the exhibition showed the plastics problem for what it is – an environmental scourge that will impact our children’s, grandchildren’s and great grandchildren’s health and environment. With youth set to inherit the challenge of cleaning up the Earth, an inter-generational behavior shift in production, consumption and waste management is needed. The Plastic is Forever campaign is expected to culminate in June, during the 2022 BRS COPs, with the publication of a coffee table book featuring the finalist photos, a hackathon event, a social media challenge, and other initiatives.
The work of the Basel Convention and the nascent PWP support such a shift and show that collective action is possible if the resources are made available. From here it will take the full and enduring engagement of all stakeholders – consumers, corporations, and governments – who must feel it is their responsibility to take action and demand results. We owe it to future generations to tackle plastics pollution now. [Video on chemicals and plastic waste]