• Wednesday, Oct 27, 2021
  • Last Update : 09:55 am

Drowning in plastic debris

  • Published at 01:00 pm February 5th, 2021
Plastic debris
File photo: Children play in a garbage dump site filled with single-use plastic in Bangladesh Syed Zakir Hossain/Dhaka Tribune

Global plastic production reaches 359 million tons, 8 million tons end up in the world’s oceans every year

The world has never before seen the proliferation of plastic at such an extreme level, with global plastic production reaching 359 million tons a year from just 1.5 million tons 70 years ago in 1950.   

The United Nations Economic and Social Commission for Asia and the Pacific (ESCAP) said in a recent report that plastic users across the world tend to think the plastics they use are being recycled. 

In reality, only 9% of all plastic waste ever produced has been recycled,  while about 12% has been incinerated and 79% has accumulated in landfills, dumps, or the natural environment, said ESCAP.

Plastic waste clogs drains, endangers marine life and is a health concern for communities.

“Our relationship with plastic is short term focused. The plastic produced is designed to be single-use. We use it once and then discard it,” noted ESCAP, which serves as the United Nations’ regional hub promoting cooperation among countries to achieve inclusive and sustainable development. 

With 53 Member States and nine associate members, ESCAP is largest regional intergovernmental platform, shedding insight into the evolving economic, social and environmental dynamics of the region.

It quoted a recent research by Plastics Europe  that said the world now produces around 359 million tons of plastic annually, with the global market valued at $568.9 billion in 2019 and projected to reach almost $1 trillion by 2035. The Asia-Pacific region produces nearly half this plastic and consumes 38% of it.


Also read - Is plastic a problem?


Eight million tons of plastic will end up in the world’s oceans every year, mostly fed from rivers, that serve as direct conduits of trash from some of the world’s fastest-growing cities into the marine environment, said ESCAP.

There are also massive economic costs associated with marine plastic pollution. According to conservative estimates in March 2020, direct damage to the ASEAN region’s blue economy is placed at $2.1 billion per year. 

“We must start developing solutions to prevent our oceans from becoming more polluted by plastics and other debris, and beyond that, actually clean up our oceans,” asserts ESCAP. 

According to a study by the Environment and Social Development Organization (ESDO), 87,000 tons of single-use plastics, including plastic bags, bottles, cups, plates and straws are thrown away annually In Bangladesh. 

In 2002, Bangladesh was one of the first countries in South Asian to ban the use of plastic and polythene bags, in an effort to stop them collecting in waterways and on land. However, the ban has had little success.

Bangladesh’s High Court last year ordered the government to ban single-use plastics in coastal areas and in hotels and restaurants in one year.

Finding solutions

There should be multipronged approach to fight against the plastic menace. ESCAP identifies some of the solutions -  

Product Design: The first step is identifying plastic products that can be substituted with non-plastic, recycled, or biodegradable materials. By engaging with product designers, alternatives to single-use plastics can be found out. Countries need to adopt circular and sustainable economic principles throughout the plastics value chain to achieve this. 

Pricing: Plastics are cheap because they are produced with heavily subsidized oil and can be more affordable, with less economic incentives to use than recycled plastics. Price structures should internalize negative externalities of plastic use and encourage alternative materials or reused and recycled plastics.

Technology and Innovation: Creating the tools and technology to help governments and organizations measure and monitor plastic waste within their cities. ESCAP’s "Closing the Loop" project helps cities create smarter policy strategies to combat the problem.

Creating a Plastic-free Workplace: In 2018, ESCAP banned single-use plastics in all catering operations. All single-use items were replaced with re-usable items or more sustainable single-use options and charged at an extra fee to promote behavioral change among staff and visitors. This initiative could prevent nearly nine tons of waste annually by rethinking our way of working.

Producer Responsibility: The retail (packaging) sector can apply extended responsibility, where producers are responsible for collecting and recycling products that they release into the market.

Municipal and Community Actions: Clean-up events on beaches and rivers, and awareness-raising initiatives to inform the public about how their actions contribute to marine plastics pollution (or to its solution), along with bans and levies on disposable plastic bags.

Multi-Stakeholder Co-operation: Government ministries at the national and local levels, need to work in developing, implementing, and overseeing policies, which also involves industrial manufacturers, NGOs, and volunteer organizations. 

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