GEORGE TOWN, July 2 – World Environment Day 2023 is marked by a resounding call to action: #BeatPlasticPollution. The United Nations Environmental Programme (UNEP) has released staggering data that highlights the severity of the global plastic crisis. Every minute, one million plastic bottles are purchased worldwide, and an astonishing five trillion plastic bags are used each year. The production of plastic continues to escalate, with half of all plastic manufactured for single-use purposes. Over the past few decades, plastic production has outpaced that of any other material.
If historical growth trends persist, the global production of primary plastic is projected to reach a staggering 1,100 million tonnes by 2050. Shockingly, approximately 36 percent of all plastics produced are dedicated to packaging, including single-use plastic items for food and beverage containers. Regrettably, an estimated 85 percent of this plastic ends up in landfills or becomes unregulated waste. Reports indicate that the world generates approximately 400 million tonnes of plastic waste annually.
However, less than 10 percent of the seven billion tonnes of plastic waste produced globally so far has been recycled. It is clear that recycling alone cannot solve the plastic crisis. To combat plastic pollution effectively, global reduction targets must be set to cap plastic production. Plastics, derived from carbon (fossil fuels) and chemicals, release toxic substances throughout their life cycle. Shockingly, around 98 percent of single-use plastic products are derived from fossil fuels.
Moreover, the greenhouse gas emissions associated with the production, use, and disposal of conventional fossil fuel-based plastics are projected to account for 19 percent of the global carbon budget by 2040. In a landmark decision at the fifth United Nations Environment Assembly in 2022, all 193 UN Member States pledged to end plastic pollution. Civil society groups have united in demanding a robust treaty that addresses the health, climate, biodiversity, and human rights risks associated with the entire life cycle of plastics, not just their end-of-life stage.
Recently, the second meeting of the Intergovernmental Negotiating Committee (INC-2) for a new global agreement to combat plastic pollution concluded at UNESCO headquarters in Paris. Although negotiations faced significant challenges from parties with vested interests in the oil and petrochemical industry, positive outcomes emerged. Some countries called for global reduction targets on plastic production, and discussions shifted from viewing plastic solely as a waste and pollution issue to addressing the threats posed by chemicals throughout the entire plastics life cycle.
The focus also shifted toward a just transition to safer and more sustainable livelihoods for workers in the plastics supply chain. In Malaysia, the government has taken steps to address single-use plastics through the “Roadmap Towards Zero Single-Use Plastics (SUPs) 2018-2030.” The recent announcement of a nationwide ban on plastic bags for retail purchases by 2025 demonstrates commendable progress. However, more immediate action is needed to phase out and ban additional single-use plastic products, especially those used in food packaging, which often go unrecycled, leading to environmental and health concerns.
Merely allowing corporations to continue with business as usual will perpetuate false solutions to the plastic waste crisis, and plastic pollution will persist. While increasing plastic recycling is viewed as a solution by many governments and corporations, it is crucial to consider that plastics containing toxic chemicals should not be recycled at all and should be classified as non-circular materials. Plastic materials often contain a wide range of hazardous chemicals that, when recycled, may end up in toys and consumer goods, posing threats to human health.
Until the elimination of thousands of toxic chemicals used in plastics, recycling will remain a toxic practice. To successfully beat plastic pollution, governments must lead the way by implementing policies to cap plastic production and ensuring that corporations transition to safe alternatives for products and packaging. Consumers also play a vital role by reducing waste generation through mindful consumption and purchasing habits. Embracing delivery systems that prioritize refills and reuse can significantly contribute to waste reduction.
If the global plastics crisis goes unchecked, it will exacerbate existing planetary threats, including the climate emergency, biodiversity loss, toxic pollution, and microplastic contamination, all of which have profound implications for human health and human rights. On this World Environment Day, let us unite in a collective effort to beat plastic pollution and safeguard the future of our planet.