Plastic is now part of us: it’s time to act against plastic pollution

Microplastics, which are tiny particles less than 5mm, are everywhere, including in our bodies. In 2018, they were detected for the first time in human faeces. In March 2022, they were also found in human lungs and blood. They enter our bodies through the food we eat, the water we drink, and even the air we breathe. As they accumulate over time, there are many reasons to be concerned about the possible effects on our health.

Why are microplastics everywhere?

Between 1950 and 2020, annual plastic production has increased exponentially, from 1.5 million metric tons to 367 million metric tons. Cumulatively, global production exceeds 8 billion metric tons. This includes plastic for packaging (36%), construction (16%) and textile manufacturing (14%).

Plastic is convenient, versatile and cheap, but the huge volume produced far exceeds our ability to handle plastic waste safely, especially in developing countries, due to illegal dumping and lack of adequate management systems. garbage. Currently, only 9% of the plastic used is recycled because not all types of plastic can be recycled. About 20% is burned, leading to a host of health issues depending on the performance and safety of the combustion methods used, ranging from open fires to incinerators. The other 70% ends up in landfills or dumps, or as litter on sidewalks, in rivers, forests and oceans.

Eighty-one percent of the world’s plastic enters our oceans from Asia. Southeast Asia, for example, is a major contributor to land-based plastic waste leakage into the world’s oceans, with six of the ten ASEAN member states generating a total of 31 million tonnes of plastic waste annually. Once it enters the environment, plastic is difficult to clean. It is durable and easily tangles in the environment. It remains in the environment for over 500 years, slowly breaking down into microplastics that move almost freely through water and air. The plastic is then ingested by humans, fish, turtles or birds, and sometimes they get entangled in it and die!

So what to do?

The plastic crisis calls for sustained and collective efforts to do things differently to ultimately create a zero waste circular economy. Since plastic production far exceeds processing capabilities, it is crucial to drastically reduce its production and use. The measures should mainly target single-use plastics such as bags, straws and packaging, which are thrown away immediately after use. The absurdity of addiction to single-use plastics is that its use is measured in minutes, but its negative effects last for decades or centuries.

Regulatory measures as well as financial incentives and disincentives have been applied to reduce the production of single-use plastics and accelerate innovative solutions such as the shift from single-use plastics to multi-use plastics and sustainable alternatives and the design of easily recyclable products. To date, more than 127 countries have introduced regulatory measures, including bans, taxes and levies on single-use plastic. The governments of Cambodia, Malaysia, the Philippines and Thailand have adopted circular economy strategies to prioritize plastics-related policies and investments.

Undoubtedly, good governance is part of the solution, but cooperation and support from businesses and consumers must follow. Around the world, awareness and information campaigns aim to create a change in behavior for the adoption of sustainable consumption and the promotion of recycling and alternatives to plastic.

The plastic waste perceptions survey of 2,000 consumers and 400 food and beverage companies in Indonesia, Malaysia, the Philippines, Thailand and Vietnam, conducted by the United Nations Environment Program ( UNEP) and Food Industry Asia (FIA) in 2020, revealed that 91% of consumers are “extremely concerned” about plastic waste. But more than half of consumers surveyed continue to use non-recycled containers, due to cultural norms and a lack of awareness of reusable and/or alternative products.

Yet such campaigns cannot solve the whole problem. This leaves a heavy responsibility to oil and plastic producers. According to the Minderoo Foundation (2021), 20 companies, including ExxonMobil, Dow and Sinopec, produce virgin polymers used for 55% of global single-use plastic. In addition, a citizen audit of plastic brands conducted in 45 countries in 2021 identified global brands such as Coca-Cola, PepsiCo, Unilever and Nestlé in terms of the amount of plastic waste found during cleanups.

One strategy to engage producers in the search for solutions is the introduction of the Extended Producer Responsibility (EPR) policy tool, which makes producers responsible for the collection, recycling and treatment of post-consumer products. More than 60 countries have already adopted such policies. Policy discussions on the potential value and feasibility of EPR-based regulations are ongoing in several countries in East and Southeast Asia. Besides China, Thailand and India, Vietnam, Malaysia, Indonesia and Cambodia are also considering the introduction of EPR. This transition to the circular economy and the promotion of innovation can be accelerated by impact investing and innovative finance. Businesses and financial institutions are therefore important agents of change.

Now is the time to take local and global action for transformational change to reduce plastic addiction and ensure a safe and sustainable planet, for our health, survival and prosperity.

Alissar Chaker, Resident Representative, United Nations Development Program Cambodia Moeko Saito-Jensen, Environmental Policy Specialist, United Nations Development Program Cambodia

Bryce K. Locke