Plastic plague

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Jamil Ahmad Published April 24, 2022 –


Feeding the poor and needy is an act that draws us closer to Allah. We earn His forgiveness, mercies and blessings through this act of charity.

“Anyone who looks after and works for a widow and a poor person is like a warrior fighting for Allah?s cause, or like a person who fasts during the day and prays all night. (Bukhari)

The writer is director of intergovernmental affairs, United Nations Environment Programme.
The writer is director of intergovernmental affairs, United Nations Environment Programme.

OUR planet is drowning in plastic. The convenient, cheap and durable nature of plastic has led to its massive production and consumption over the last 70 years. With 9.2 billion tons of plastic having been produced in that period, plastic pollution is harming environmental and human health at each stage of its life cycle.

Excessive use of plastic impacts economies as well. This is evident in the agricultural sector where plastic is reducing soil fertility and crop production, leading to food insecurity. A recent report, released in March 2022 by the Food and Agriculture Organisation, found that agricultural land is contaminated with large quantities of plastic pollution, with 12.5 million tons of plastic products used in agriculture value chains each year, mainly in the crop production and livestock sectors.

Another 37.7m tons is used in food packaging. The report notes that Asia is the largest user of plastics in agricultural production, accounting for almost half the global usage, and warns that “in the absence of viable alternatives, demand for plastic in agriculture is only set to increase”. Proper and timely waste management is, therefore, an obvious requirement for such large production and use of plastic products while environmentally friendly solutions are being found.

In 2018, an estimated 291m tons of waste was generated, but only a small portion — about 20 per cent — was properly disposed of or recycled. Most plastic waste ends up in landfills or, in poor countries, in open-air dumps, causing large-scale pollution both on land and in the oceans, risking human health and choking wildlife.

Trade in plastic waste has serious implications for poor nations.

Single-use plastic products, including water bottles, shopping bags and packaging material are most hazardous for the environment as these can take up to 400 years to decompose. Pakistan, like several other countries, has banned plastic shopping bags, but the ban will have to be enforced strictly to be meaningful. Other equally harmful single-use plastic products continue to be used in abundance. The Covid-19 pandemic increased demand for single-use plastic globally through personal protection equipment for healthcare workers and other medical accessories, thus, exacerbating pollution.

National and local actions are proving insufficient and less effective due to the scale and transboundary nature of plastic pollution, which has become a global environmental concern.

The UN Environment Programme estimates that around 19-23m tons of plastic leaks into rivers, lakes and oceans annually, and that by 2040, “there will be more plastic in the oceans than fish” if the trend continues. Ominously, once the discarded plastic decomposes into microplastic, it further contaminates marine life and enters the food chain.

International trade in plastic waste is another dimension of the problem with serious implications for poor nations. Huge quantities of plastic waste generated in developed countries end up in developing countries where capacities for waste management are limited. Pakistan also imports plastic waste for use in industry and recycling. It spent $11 million on importing plastic waste in 2018. While the bulk of the discarded plastic is traded legally, a hefty chunk is smuggled into South Asia and Africa illustrating the scale of plastic waste.

Strengthening international cooperation will help curb illegal trade in plastic waste and prevent further environmental damage. The UN backs such efforts by supporting policies and regulatory measures, awareness campaigns and partnerships for nudging a shift to circularity at large.

While the world still does not have a comprehensive plastic managem­ent mechanism nee­ded to tackle this issue, the UN aims to develop an international, legally binding agreement on plastic pollution by 2024 to address the full life cycle of plastic, including its production, design and disposal.

This could be a mechanism to address the triple planetary crisis of climate change, biodiversity loss and pollution and waste. However, a lot of spadework is needed. Countries will have to prepare enabling conditions through policy alignments, promoting research for environmentally friendly alternatives of plastic, and mobilising private finance for investment in a circular economy.

During the preparatory process of the treaty in the next two years, it will be crucial for governments, industry, businesses and other stakeholders to rise to the challenge, look past plastic’s short-term convenience and focus more on the objective of a balanced and healthy ecosystem. For the sake of present and future generations, this is not a big ask. Environmental multilateralism has its task cut out for it.

The writer is director of intergovernmental affairs, United Nations Environment Programme.

Published in Dawn, April 24th, 2022


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