Head of Resource Policy, Green Alliance
Covid-19 put action on plastic pollution at risk, but governments are getting back on track. In tackling this environmental problem, they must make sure not to create new ones.
In early 2020, before Covid upended everything, Pew Charitable Trusts’ Breaking the plastic wave report showed the world was on track to triple the amount of plastic in the sea by 2040. In fewer than 20 years, that 29-million-tonne river of plastic would be heading for our oceans – that’s 50kgs for every one metre of coastline.
That report came at a time when public outcry about plastic pollution was at its height and governments and businesses were actively engaged in tackling the problem. So it was shocking that the report also showed that all the international commitments made would only reduce the amount of plastic in the ocean by a mere 7% relative to business as usual. Even if businesses and politicians did everything they promised, plastic pollution would still almost triple.
It intends to tackle the full lifecycle of plastics, with potential new targets for reusing, refilling and repairing plastic items.
Pandemic thwarts progress
The pandemic put even these weak promises at risk. The trend towards reusable cups took a hit early on, with some cafés banning them as a precaution. Even when the science showed this was unnecessary, fear was cynically exploited by some in the plastic industry, particularly in the US, with the suggestion that single use was safer.
Business appetite for reuse is returning
Post-pandemic, plastic is still a major public concern. Businesses are becoming interested in reuse again. More significantly, the UN is issuing a legally binding global treaty with the aim of ending plastic pollution. It intends to tackle the full life cycle of plastics, with potential new targets for reusing, refilling and repairing plastic items.
Getting to the root of throwaway culture
But what we don’t want is problematic single-use plastics replaced by problematic single-use items made from other materials. England’s plastic cutlery and plates ban, for instance, assumes they will be replaced on a like for like basis with wooden cutlery and paper plates. These come with their own environmental impacts. The last thing we should be doing is solving one environmental problem while causing another. The bottom line is that the planet can’t cope with throwaway culture – that’s what needs to change.