Opinion: Addressing plastic pollution must be a part of the ‘green recovery’

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Addressing plastic pollution should be a key piece of the global rebuilding effort. Photo by: Marta Ortigosa from Pexels

How do we tackle plastic pollution in a pandemic? Can we?

About three months ago, the entire world seemed to come to a stop. Borders were closed, in-person meetings and workshops canceled, and projects suspended while resources were redeployed to address the crisis at hand.

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But in this moment of unimaginable difficulty, many are already seeing hope in a green recovery: a “more protective ... more inclusive” economic model that would “contribute to building more resilient societies.” In this new approach, governments have the opportunity — and the responsibility — to transform sustainability commitments into action, both in the short and the long term.

Addressing plastic pollution should be a key piece of this rebuilding effort, and governments can help keep everyone on track.

More than ever, governments need to create an enabling environment for building sustainable plastics ecosystems. Plastics are, on the one hand, undeniably essential — versatile and affordable, they have long been the bedrock of medical equipment and protective gear, keeping our hospitals running and front-line workers safe.

But we have also seen a worrying trend: demand for disposable plastic products, driven by the fear of viral transmission, is skyrocketing. The capacity to safely deal with these materials after use, however, is not.

Around the world, from New York to the U.K., governments have lifted or delayed restrictions on single-use plastics, particularly disposable bags at supermarkets. These new orders were issued on the assumption that plastic materials are less likely to carry the coronavirus, but research actually suggests the opposite: a study in April found that the virus can live up to 24 hours on paper, cardboard, and fabrics, compared with up to 72 hours on plastics and other hard, shiny surfaces.

In Indonesia, the plastics recycling industry has reportedly laid off at least 63,000 workers. This figure does not include the millions of waste pickers in the country’s informal sector, who make up the backbone of plastic waste management and collect 1 million metric tons of plastic waste per year — 70% of which is recycled. Faced with shuttered plants and dwindling demand, their livelihoods hang in the balance.

The future of recycling and sustainable waste management has never looked so uncertain. Government support is sorely needed to keep the industry viable in several key ways: declaring recycling to be an essential industry; channeling financing and resources into existing facilities to boost processing and sorting capacity; providing front-line sanitation workers, particularly informal sector waste pickers, with personal protective equipment and supplementary compensation, when needed; and working with businesses and manufacturers to create financial incentives for purchasing recycled plastics rather than virgin plastics.

By taking these actions in the short term, governments can begin to create an enabling environment for a more sustainable approach to managing plastics, generating positive outcomes for people and planet that will last far beyond the scope of this pandemic.

Upstream interventions are key to stopping the endless tides of plastic waste. The circular transition will be a vital part of the economic recovery agenda.

Consider the average life cycle of a plastic takeout container. It is designed, produced, sold by a restaurant, purchased by a consumer, and disposed of after use. From there, several outcomes are possible. The discarded container could sit in a landfill; it could be incinerated; it could be exported to a foreign nation; or it could very well make its way into the sea, bringing us one step closer to a not-so-distant future in which plastics in the ocean outweigh fish. Those had been the most likely scenarios under a linear, business-as-usual model.

The popularization of the circular economy for plastics has permanently changed the game. The e-commerce organization Loop Alliance, for example, has brought together logistics company UPS and some of the world’s biggest consumer goods brands to deliver products to customers’ doors in reusable boxes, which are then collected, cleaned, and reused up to 100 times.

Similar zero-waste ventures are gaining popularity around the world, from MUUSE, which offers reusable and returnable takeout containers at restaurants and cafes, to Evoware, which creates biodegradable utensils from natural products like seaweed and bamboo.

The transition to a circular economy is also one of the cornerstones of the European Green Deal. In the Circular Economy Action Plan put forth by the European Commission, “avoiding waste altogether and transforming it into high-quality secondary resources” is a key focus, as is issuing new mandatory requirements for recycled plastics and biodegradable plastics.

By pre-pandemic projections, adopting the circular economy would add around 700,000 jobs in the European Union by 2030. Indonesia, whose government has also announced the intention to go circular, is projected to add 150,000 jobs.

Governments can begin to create an enabling environment for a more sustainable approach to managing plastics, generating positive outcomes ... far beyond the scope of this pandemic.

Governments must not lose sight of commitments to help citizens develop a healthier, less wasteful, and more sustainable relationship with plastics. The fight against plastic pollution is twofold: We must first contain it, and then we must eradicate it.

Citizens and consumers have an essential role to play, from making small lifestyle changes — such as shopping with reusable bags or at zero-waste stores — to raising their voices to advocate for more progressive and sustainable policies from governments and businesses. Citizens’ voices often become the impetus behind public policy decisions.

But decision-makers at both the national and local levels also hold the key to introducing the sweeping, transformative changes that we need at the societal level to truly end plastic pollution in this generation.

We need to develop concrete targets and road maps for reducing avoidable plastic usage. We need to dramatically scale up plastic waste collection, recycling capacity, and safe waste disposal through investment and public-private partnerships.

We need to create awareness campaigns to empower consumers to reduce their reliance on single-use plastics, understand the importance of sorting household waste, and move toward healthier and more sustainable ways of living that will benefit their families and their communities.

A green recovery is possible. We must move cautiously to navigate the new realities of this pandemic, but we also must move forward boldly.

The views in this opinion piece do not necessarily reflect Devex's editorial views.

About the author

  • Kristin Hughes

    Kristin Hughes is director of the Global Plastic Action Partnership, a public-private platform for advancing plastic pollution action hosted at the World Economic Forum.