“Beyond the beach: tackling plastic pollution upstream”, a Sting Exclusive by Erik Solheim, Head of UN Environment

UN Environment Erik Soheim Mumbai

Mr. Erik Solheim, Head of UN Environment, participates in the largest beach clean-up in history at Versova Beach Clean-Up in Mumbai, India. (C) RedBox Filmers (UN Environment, 2016)

This article was exclusively written for The European Sting by Mr. Erik Solheim, Executive Director of the United Nations Environment. The opinions expressed in this article belong to the distinguished writer.

Plastic has been nothing short of miraculous. In our kitchens and supermarkets, it’s helped cut down on food waste. It’s the source of medical breakthroughs, a new era of fuel efficient transportation and the latest in renewable energy technology. But our inability to manage it properly means that up to 12 million tonnes of it enter our oceans every year, harming plants, animals, coastal communities and entering our food chain. It’s time for this plastic catastrophe to stop.

We are seeing the effects all too clearly. In my home country of Norway, a stranded whale died after having ingested 30 plastic bags. In the high Arctic or stormy Southern Ocean, lumps of polystyrene can be seen floating amid the icebergs. Even bottled water from all corners of the globe has been found to contain microscopic plastic particles. Our seas, for the depths of the Mariana Trench to the most remote and rugged coastal waters, are slowly being transformed into a plastic soup.

When visiting Mumbai in India, I saw with my own eyes the damage marine plastic pollution is doing. At Versova beach, the horrific sight of the sand covered in plastic prompted local lawyer Afroz Shah to start organizing weekly beach clean-ups. Since October 2015 and backed by an increasing army of volunteers from every walk of life, more than 7,000 tonnes of litter has been collected. They are now expanding that effort to another 13 beaches around India, while inspiring similar actions around the world.

Volunteer actions like this are a cause for celebration, but the grim reality is that the plastic keeps washing up on the beach. So it’s now time for the real message to be understood: change must happen upstream.

Even if each and every one of us do what we can to reduce our own plastic footprint – and of course we must – the current tide of single-use plastic is overwhelming. Global plastic production, roughly one-third of which is non-recyclable and sometimes used for just seconds before being discarded, is rising fast. This year, it is estimated that 360 million tonnes will be produced. By 2025, this will grow to nearly 500 million and by 2030 we could be looking at a staggering 619 million tonnes of plastic being produced globally.

Looking at these projections, it’s abundantly clear that we need strong government intervention if we are going to have any chance to handle this growth in a way that does not completely swamp our oceans. After all, it is policy gaps coupled with laziness and lack of foresight that have led us into the current crisis. Many countries have already taken important steps in this direction. Panama recently banned plastic bags. Kenya did the same last year, and several other countries have levies on different kinds of single-use plastic items. The EU’s plastics strategy, meanwhile, offers the prospect of a fundamental, all-encompassing investigation of the problem and the proposed solutions.

Individuals are also exercising their power as consumers. People are turning down plastic straws and cutlery, cleaning beaches and coastlines, and second-guessing their purchase habits in supermarket isles. If this happens enough, retailers will quickly get the message to ask their suppliers to do better.

Ultimately, this is a problem of design. The way in which we’ve designed our manufacturing, distribution, consumption and trade systems – indeed our global economy – needs to change. The linear model of planned obsolescence, in which items are designed to be thrown away immediately after use, sometime after just seconds, needs a re-think.

At the heart of this is extended producer responsibility, where producers are given held to account for the lifecycle of consumer products, including the costs to others down the line who have to clear them up. At the same time, companies doing the right thing must see the incentives of moving to a more circular model of design and production. And there are many things we can simply do away with. For example, do we really need plastic straws, hundreds of millions of which are thrown away each year? Or plastic cotton buds and coffee cups, or needless plastic microbeads in face scrubs or toothpaste? The sad fact is that much of the rubbish we generate has such little value, so we need to ask why we use it in the first place.

It’s also crucial that we don’t see action as a cost, but rather an investment that will spare us huge negative externalities – the hidden costs that we are only beginning to understand the scale of – over the coming years. It may be blocked sewers that flood cities or litter-strewn beaches that turn away tourists.

Just like climate change, plastic pollution is not something that once it hits is remotely easy to reverse. And just like climate change, it requires us to collectively slam on the brakes. If we do that, the volunteers cleaning up their local beaches may one day be able to take a weekend to enjoy the sand.

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