2021 offers a hint of hope after a year of gloom. Vaccines are rolling out, and we might permit ourselves visions of normality as the battle against the COVID-19 pandemic at last swings in our favour. While we may soon prevail against COVID-19, we can’t ignore an increasing problem that the fight against the virus has worsened. Plastics have been deployed in great quantities as a shield against COVID. But little attention has been paid to where the increased plastic waste will end up. The sad irony is we were on the cusp of real victories against plastic pollution just as the coronavirus pandemic began.
In 2019, Prime Minister Narendra Modi committed to completely phase out single-use plastics by 2022. The commitment called for better arrangements to collect, store, and recycle single-use plastic. The movement was also international. The UN Environment Programme, with the support of Norway and Japan, undertook a multiyear assessment of how plastic finds its way into riverways, and ultimately the ocean, through projects like CounterMEASURE. And National Geographic’s “Sea to Source: Ganges” Expedition brought together four countries, including India and Bangladesh, to holistically study plastic pollution within the Ganges river basin.
The pandemic halted and, in some cases, reversed much of this progress. Plastics, especially single-use plastics, became more ubiquitous. Masks, sanitiser bottles, personal protective equipment, food packaging, water bottles: Life came to be ensconced in a plastic shell.
In time, this plastic will disintegrate into tiny particles of less than five millimetres — known as microplastics — and move through water bodies and farm soil to enter the food we eat and the air we breathe. We know that only 9 per cent of all plastic ever produced has been recycled, while 79 per cent of all plastic produced can be found in the world’s landfills and in our air, water, soil, and other natural systems. Plastic doesn’t belong in our bodies and it doesn’t belong in nature.
But plastic is still important. Its central role in durable goods, medicine and food safety means that it is not practical to get rid of entirely. Instead, we must be more thoughtful about where, when and how we use it. We need an approach that includes reducing the manufacture of new fossil fuel-based plastics, improving waste collection and disposal, and developing and using alternatives.
There are several steps we can take right now, even during the struggle against COVID-19, keeping in mind that above all we should avoid single-use plastics as much as possible.
Firstly, we should ensure that waste collection operates at the same pace as waste generation. We know from UNEP and National Geographic’s work that litter is a large part of the plastic pollution ending up in Indian rivers. Improved planning and frequency of waste disposal operations can alleviate this.
Secondly, we must be able to segregate waste and used plastic early in the waste-to-value cycle so that the plastic remains suitable for treatment and recycling. Some source segregation efforts became more normalised during the pandemic and this is a trend that should continue. It will make recycling much easier and more economically viable.
Thirdly, we need to encourage environmentally-friendly alternatives to single-use plastics where they exist and develop alternatives where they do not exist. Business models that avoid plastic waste through alternative product delivery systems, promote circularity, and use plastic waste should be encouraged. We can make a difference with our wallets.
And finally, considering that plastic pollution is a truly society-wide problem, it is important for government, businesses, and civil society to coordinate to find solutions.
UNEP and its partners are working with the Indian government towards these goals, drawing in researchers, enterprises and community groups to address plastic pollution. The science being generated by UNEP and National Geographic is informing policy and decision-making processes at the national, regional and local level. We hope these efforts will contribute to strengthening the existing plastic waste management framework in India and to the development of a National Action Plan for Marine Litter and Plastic Pollution in Rivers.
Right now, the fight against COVID-19 must take priority. But the plastic pollution problem lingers in the background.
We must not be caught out.
This column first appeared in the print edition on March 17, 2021 under the title ‘A hidden pandemic’. Bagai is head, UN Environment Programme’s India Office and Jambeck, National Geographic Fellow and Professor of Environmental Engineering
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