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Can we win the battle of Planet vs. Plastic? Drastic changes are needed

Since its beginning in 1970, Earth Day has become one of the most significant global civic events. This year, as we mark the Earth Day’s 54th anniversary on April 22, the urgency to address environmental issues is greater than ever, particularly concerning the enormous proliferation of plastics. 

Recent statistical analyses have shown that, over the last six decades, humanity has produced around eight billion tons of plastic, and a staggering  90.5% of this has never been recycled. The theme for this year’s Earth Day, “Planet vs. Plastic,” demands a 60% reduction in plastic production by 2040.

A plastic planet 

The exponential increase in plastic production from a mere two million tons in 1950 to over 450 million tons annually today represents a dire environmental crisis requiring immediate action. 

This dramatic escalation in plastic production, with half of all plastics ever produced being manufactured in the recent 15 years alone, indicates a trend that could potentially lead to a doubling of plastic production by 2050. Each minute, more than one million plastic water bottles are sold globally, contributing significantly to the environmental burden.

Millions of tons of plastic waste

Alarmingly, every year, approximately 11 million tons of this plastic waste are discarded into the oceans, wreaking havoc on marine ecosystems and biodiversity. 

Despite significant advancements in recycling technologies, a paltry 9% of all plastic produced has been successfully recycled. This inefficiency in managing plastic waste is exacerbated by the longevity of plastics in the environment, with some types requiring up to 400 years to fully degrade. 

Moreover, many plastics contain additives to prolong their lifespan and functionality, further complicating their disposal and recycling.

Critical levels of plastic in the environment

The pervasiveness of plastic in our environment has reached such critical levels that it now ironically contradicts the promises made by the plastics industry decades ago. An advertisement from the American Plastics Council in a 1997 edition of The New Yorker humorously declared plastic wrappers and containers as the “sixth food group,” touted for keeping food contaminant-free. 

Yet, the reality today is starkly different. Microplastics have permeated every corner of our environment, infiltrating the food we consume and the water we drink. As scientists argue, the average human ingests the equivalent of a credit card’s worth of plastic each week, with the long-term health impacts of this consumption still largely unknown and potentially devastating.

Drastic changes are urgently needed

This growing body of evidence underscores a pressing need to reevaluate and drastically change our production, consumption, and disposal of plastics. The argument for maintaining current production levels is untenable in the face of such overwhelming evidence of harm. 

It is imperative that we shift towards more sustainable practices, including enhancing recycling efforts, reducing plastic production, and developing alternative materials that do not compromise the health of our planet and future generations. Ignoring these warning signs and continuing on our current path is not just irresponsible – it is morally indefensible.

Plastic planet: Initiatives to combat the crisis

On the global front, initiatives are underway to combat the plastic crisis, as it will be addressed in the upcoming fourth session of the United Nations Intergovernmental Negotiating Committee on Plastic Pollution meeting in Ottawa, Canada. 

The objective of this session is to forge an international legally binding agreement on plastic pollution, aiming to include marine environments. The hope is that by early next year, a new treaty could be ratified at the United Nations to combat plastic pollution by 2040.

Looking at the entire life cycle of plastics

Businesses play a pivotal role too in addressing plastic pollution. To truly make a difference, companies must look beyond isolated sustainability efforts and consider their entire supply chains. 

This involves conducting Life Cycle Assessments, which analyze the environmental impacts of a product from its creation to its disposal, adhering to the ISO standard 14040. 

The comprehensive approach allows businesses to understand and mitigate the environmental footprints of their products through their entire lifecycle.

Moreover, businesses need to innovate by investing in new materials and technologies to reduce dependence on single-use plastics. Designing products with their end-of-life in mind is essential for fostering a circular economy, where materials are reused and recycled, thereby reducing waste and environmental impact.

Making sustainable choices

Ensuring compliance with environmental regulations throughout a product’s life cycle is crucial for sustainable operations. Companies must manage regulatory and sustainability requirements diligently, from tracking registrations and substance volumes to classifying products and creating compliance documents. 

This comprehensive approach ensures that businesses not only claim sustainability in their mission statements but also practice it through responsible supply chain management.

Individuals also have a significant role to play. Simple actions, such as using reusable bottles, straws, and shopping bags, can significantly impact plastic reduction. Additionally, engaging in local clean-up events and supporting environmental initiatives can amplify individual efforts.

On Earth Day, we should all commit to making long-term sustainable choices. By collectively advancing towards significant plastic reduction, optimizing recycling efforts, and enhancing sustainability practices across all sectors of society, we can hope to preserve our planet for future generations. 


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