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Fight the blight

Once hailed as a wonder material, plastic has become a threat to life

By ERIK SOLHEIM | China Daily Global | Updated: 2023-06-05 07:19
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Once hailed as a wonder material, plastic has become a threat to life


When plastic was introduced in the United States in the 1950s, it was seen as the wonder material. We could preserve food better, make cars and aircraft lighter and protect against dangerous bacteria. But as often happens in human life, when we discover something good, we get addicted. We start overusing it.

There are three main reasons why humanity needs to overcome its addiction to plastic.

Plastics have no role in nature. They are causing an environmental catastrophe. A whale died in Thailand recently. It vomited plastic bags while passing away. Sea birds dive down mistaking plastics for shellfish. They feed their chicks with this poisonous food. They perish, as do camels, cows and turtles, in all corners of the planet.

Single-use plastic is an additional economic disaster. Who will swim along the wonderful beaches in Hainan province, in Sri Lanka or in Bali, if it means entering a sea of plastics? For this reason, tourism-dependent Indonesia declared plastic pollution a major economic threat to the nation.

Plastics enter our bodies. We breathe plastic, we drink plastic and we eat plastic. Bigger plastic items fragment in nature and get into our bodies as microplastics. Fish carry plastics. Even the most pristine waters of the world, in the Himalayas or the Arctic, now contain microplastics. We don't know exactly how microplastics affect the human body. But no one has suggested that is good for us.

Fortunately, we know how to solve the plastic crisis. The solution doesn't involve costly high tech or impossible international diplomacy. Every nation can act, without looking over their shoulder asking what others are doing.

The cleanest nation in the world is the most improbable place. In small, poor, landlocked Rwanda you cannot find garbage in the streets. The capital city of Kigali is absolutely clean. "All Rwandans keep clean at home", President Paul Kagame told me. We just need to transform that spirit to the community at large.

The solution is three-fold.

First, we should prohibit all single-use plastics we do not need. Let's simply ban straws, plastic cutlery, plastic cups and bags. This is what the Indian government has done even if it's not yet fully respected everywhere. The European Union has done the same. We can all drink straight from a normal glass, without straws. In average, one North American uses 600 straws a year. Does it make them happier? There is no need to wait. Let's just do it.

We can be a lot more innovative. Straws can be made from bamboo or from paper. Indians have through millenniums eaten from plates made of banana leaves. All over the planet startups are trying to make products with the characteristics of plastics from potatoes, sugar cane and many other natural materials. If we throw away natural products, they will disintegrate in nature.

China's delivery industry, for example, annually produces about 1.8 million metric tons of plastic waste. Bamboo, which is fast-growing, resilient and sustainable, can be used as a substitute for single-use plastics, while being recyclable and eco-friendly. Planting bamboo can restore degraded or deforested land, mitigate soil erosion and provide food for giant pandas and mountain gorillas.

Second, we need to recycle. Yes, we can ban single-use plastics, but we still have many plastic products which are useful to us and not so easy to replace. A normal car contains many kilos of plastics, it makes the car lighter and consumes less energy. These plastics must be brought in and recycled.

Between 2011 and 2020, China recycled 170 million tons of plastic waste, helping reduce crude oil consumption by 510 million tons and cut carbon emissions by 61.2 million tons. China has grown into the largest plastic recycling country in the world. It recycled about one-third of its new plastic waste in 2021, about 1.7 times the global average.

Beijing is making headway in this regard, requiring the city's courier services to step up and fully transform the packaging practice, switching to digital waybills, narrower packaging tape and recyclable bags. The city of Shanghai, and provinces such as Shanxi, Guangdong, Jiangsu, Zhejiang and Fujian are taking similar measures, all in alignment with a 2020 directive from the Chinese government.

Hangzhou, the host city of the postponed 2022 Asian Games, scheduled to take place in September, is set to make the Games a showcase of its "zero-waste city "endeavor and create a "zero-waster "model for large-scale sporting events. It is making this bold attempt by going green, frugal, paperless and recyclable.

Third, let the market wave its magic wand. All countries should introduce Extended Producer Responsibility. That is the polluter-pays principle for the plastics era. A company which contributes to the plastic crisis should also be held responsible for funding the solution. With extended producer responsibility, companies will be engaged in driving the technology for change. They will have to pay a levy on plastics which governments can use to organize plastic collection and pay for large-scale recycling.

Waste is a potential resource. We can turn it into new products, creating jobs and prosperity, protecting Mother Earth all at the same time.

Individuals can also act. Afroz Shah is an Indian environmental activist best known for organizing the world's largest beach clean-up project, inspiring people around the world to clean up their environment. I have joined him for many clean-ups at rivers and beaches in the mega city of Mumbai.

What started as an individual following his heart to act, became a vast movement for political and business change and for a new pact between humans and nature. A young Sri Lankan Nishanka De Silva started Zero Plastics Sri Lanka in the midst of the economic meltdown of his home country. I thought it was impossible to mobilize young people for green action amid the crisis. Incredibly, young Sri Lankans turned out in droves.

The global people's movement to fight single-use plastics is still in its early days. But there is no doubt, it will be successful. China will continue to play a critical role in solutions. On world Environment Day — let's join hands to beat plastic pollution.

The author is vice president of the Green Belt and Road Coalition and former executive director of the United Nations Environment Programme. The author contributed this article to China Watch, a think tank powered by China Daily.

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