“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.

Advertising

Advertising

Advertising

Advertising

Advertising

Advertising

the sting Milestone

Featured Stings

Can we feed everyone without unleashing disaster? Read on

These campaigners want to give a quarter of the UK back to nature

How to build a more resilient and inclusive global system

Stopping antimicrobial resistance would cost just USD 2 per person a year

This is where obesity places the biggest burden on healthcare

Things are bad and getting worse for South Africa. Or are they?

UN calls for action to tackle ‘ubiquitous but invisible’ global road safety crisis

Press conference by EC Vice-Presidents Valdis Dombrovskis (left) and Jyrki Katainen, on the Commission's proposals in the framework of the financial union (Source: EC Audiovisual Services / Copyright: EU, 2018 / Photo by Georges Boulougouris)

EU Finance ministers agree on new banking capital rules and move closer to Banking Union

‘The welfare of the Libyan people’ the UN’s sole agenda for the country, says Guterres in Tripoli

Foreign Affairs Council (Trade) of 22/05/2018: EU relations with key trading partners

‘Counter and reject’ leaders who seek to ‘exploit differences’ between us, urges Guterres at historic mosque in Cairo

These clothes were designed by artificial intelligence

Senior UN adviser sees ‘rare’ victory for humanitarian diplomacy as aid convoy reaches desert camp in Syria

Let us keep ‘their spirit of service alive’: Guterres leads tributes to UN workers who died in Ethiopia crash

New UN bullying report calls for ‘safe, inclusive’ schools for all children

Europe provides financial support to African countries while Turkey denies to change terrorism laws jeopardising the EU deal

MWC 2016 LIVE: Gamelab founder talks Apple TV, VR and monetisation

Right2Water initiative: Is the Commission ready to listen to citizens?

5 ways Denmark is preparing for the future of work

The relationship between Dengue and the rainfall in Boa Vista, Brazil

International Court of Justice orders Pakistan to review death penalty for Indian accused of spying

Here’s how to bring agility into the boardroom

‘Revved up climate action’ needed to counter ‘prolonged’ and deadly storms like Cyclone Idai: Guterres

Chart of the day: These countries have the highest share of electric vehicles

How we can work together in the fight against NCDs

3 ways activists are being targeted by cyberattacks

Germany hides its own banks’ problems

Here are three ways blockchain can change refugees’ lives

Sudan: New political transition, bolstered by peacebuilding, could bring long-term stability to Darfur, Security Council told

UN human rights office urges Egypt to immediately release detained protestors

When is Berlin telling the truth about the EU banking union?

UN honours peacekeepers who ‘paid the ultimate price’, for the sake of others

3 technologies that could define the next decade of cybersecurity

Member states jeopardising the rule of law will risk losing EU funds

‘Violence, atrocities and impunity’ reign throughout Libya, ICC prosecutor tells UN Security Council

Gaza blockade causes ‘near ten-fold increase’ in food dependency, says UN agency

GSMA Announces Final Event Lineup for Highly Anticipated 2019 “MWC Los Angeles, in Partnership with CTIA”

Hunger, displacement and disease: 4.3 million people remain in dire need of aid in Chad

Q&A on the 19th China-EU Summit to be held on 01-02 June 2017 in Brussels

Will the outcome of the UK referendum “calm” the financial markets?

Charles Michel advocates a strong Europe that acts where it can add real value

Nature is our strongest ally in ensuring global water security

To tackle climate change, we need city diplomacy

How can newspapers survive? By measuring their social impact

Low quality healthcare is increasing the burden of illness and health costs globally

Commission presents EU-Vietnam trade and investment agreements for signature and conclusion

Real EU unemployment rate at 10.2%+4.1%+4.7%: Eurostat Update

Bundestag kick starts the next episode of the Greek tragedy

Can the national and age groups pockets of unemployment cause irreparable damages to Eurozone?

Building cybersecurity capacity through benchmarking: the Global Cybersecurity Index

‘Disaster resilient’ farming reduces agriculture risks, yields economic gains, says new UN agriculture agency report

Eurozone’s bank resolution mechanism takes a blow

Human rights breaches in Iran, Egypt and Tanzania

OECD sees global growth moderating as uncertainties intensify

Over 80 per cent of schools in anglophone Cameroon shut down, as conflict worsens

Spain will soon overtake Japan in life expectancy rankings. Here’s why

Ingredients for a new life: how cooking helps refugees and migrants blend in

The ECB accuses the politicians of inaction, continues injecting billions to banks

Investment and Financing under the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI): EU and Chinese stakeholders share their views at European Business Summit 2018

How Big Food is responding to the alternative protein boom

MEPs call for EU rules to better protect minorities’ rights

Estonia is making public transport free

Cohesion Policy: EU invests €880 million to improve Poland’s railway system

Political power of women suffering ‘serious regression’, General Assembly President warns

More Stings?

Speak your Mind Here

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s