UN dedicates World Environment Day to global plastic fight, as environment chief Erik Solheim warns of a 'plastic calamity'
Plastic pollution is top of the agenda this World Environment Day, thanks in large part to a major new push from the United Nations to track progress from countries around the world phasing out unnecessary plastic use.
In the first assessment of its kind on global action to tackle plastic waste, the UN has concluded that more than 60 countries are now taking action to cut plastic pollution. The study is the biggest report on the issue from the UN to date, and reflects the staggering surge in interest in tackling the problem over the last year.
It also comes in response to increasingly stark figures on the fallout from plastic waste. If current consumption patterns and waste management practices continue, then by 2050 there will be around 12 billion tonnes of plastic litter in landfills and the environment, the UN said. Studies suggest the total economic damage to the world's marine ecosystem caused by plastic reaches at least $13bn every year.
National measures to cut plastic pollution have so far focused on banning plastic bags and Styrofoam, the UN reports, but it is not clear how much impact such policies are having, with some countries reporting little to no changes in waste levels. In many cases this is because enforcement is not robust enough, and a lack of readily available alternatives is driving consumers to ignore the bans, the UN said.
The report stresses tougher action is needed. In a week which saw the tragic death of a pilot whale after it swallowed 80 plastic bags, UN environment chief Erik Solheim warns today in the Guardian the world must end its "addiction" to plastics if we are to avert a "plastic calamity".
"Avoiding the worst of these outcomes requires more than awareness, it demands a movement. A wholesale rethinking of the way we produce, use and manage plastic," he writes. "That's why United Nations Environment is now focusing on a simple yet ambitious goal: beat plastic pollution."
In its report the UN sets out a roadmap of specific actions policy makers can take to improve waste management, promote eco-friendly alternatives, educate consumers, enable voluntary reduction strategies and successfully implement bans or levies on the use and sale of single-use plastics.
It also emphasises the need for broader co-operation from business and private sector stakeholders to adopt more "circular economy" thinking to cut waste.
Business are rapidly jumping on board with new efforts to tackle plastic waste. Only today Network Rail announced plans to stop retailers from supplying plastic cutlery and cups in its managed stations, while the Canary Wharf estate has promised to stop all the bars, restaurants and coffee shops at the East London business hub from serving plastic straws, for three weeks in a bid to shift behaviours.
But despite the rafts of pledges from firms promising to cut plastic waste, consumers are still frustrated at the amount of plastic being used.
A Populus survey released today from Greenpeace reveals 72 per cent of the UK public think supermarkets are not doing enough to tackle plastic pollution from packaging, while more than eight in 10 say they find it hard to avoid plastic packaging during a supermarket shop.
But the UN said consumers need to play their part in demanding plastic-free goods, to help drive change amongst businesses. "Individuals are increasingly exercising their power as consumers; turning down plastic straws and cutlery, cleaning beaches and coastlines, and rethinking their purchase habits. If this happens enough, retailers will get the message and look for alternatives," Solheim said.
Meanwhile to mark World Environment Day, campaign group A Plastic Planet is aiming to convince 250 million people around the world to avoid single-use plastic for 24 hours, with people documenting their efforts on social media using the hashtag #passonplastic.
Yet despite the calls for voluntary action from consumers and businesses, the UN admits legislative action - and robust enforcement - from governments may be the quickest way to drive change. "To meet this rising tide of plastics, we urgently need strong government leadership and intervention," it says.
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