5 Things to Know About Plastic Pollution and How to Beat It
Today, on World Environment Day 2018, the United Nations' Environment Program is urging governments, industries, communities and individuals around the world to take on a daunting but necessary task: Beat Plastic Pollution.
"Plastic pollution has become an epidemic," the agency writes. "Every year, we throw away enough plastic to circle the Earth four times. Much of that waste doesn't make it into a landfill, but instead ends up in our oceans, where it's responsible for killing one million seabirds and 100,000 marine mammals every year. For the good of the planet, it's time to rethink how we use plastic."
We couldn't agree more. Although plastic is undeniably useful, durable and affordable, the impact of this pervasive, non-biodegradable material on the environment will last for centuries. Here's what you should know about plastic—and also how you can make a positive difference.
1. Conventional Plastic Is Made From Fossil Fuels
The vast majority of scientists agree that the primary driver of global climate change is the burning of fossil fuels. And guess what? "Almost all plastics are made from fossil fuels, often by the same companies that produce oil and gas," Dr. David Suzuki writes. The production of plastic uses around 8 percent of the world's oil production.
Suzuki notes, "We don't have to stop using fossil fuels and producing fossil-fuel-derived plastics overnight, but we can't continue to regard the industry as the backbone of our economies and ways of life, and we must stop being so wasteful."
2. We've Thrown Away Most of the Plastic Ever Made
Since the 1950s, when plastic production started to take off, more than 9 billion tons of plastic have been generated, distributed and discarded. Climate News Network explains, "Of that waste, only 9 percent has been recycled, 12 percent incinerated and 79 percent of what is essentially indestructible man-made material is either in landfill or polluting the environment."
The three ways we get rid of plastic has its own problems. When it sits in a landfill, harmful chemicals used to produce plastics such as BPA can leach into our groundwater. As for the small amount that gets incinerated, burning the plastic is a major source of air pollution and thus harmful to human health. And while recycling is always encouraged, not only is the process energy intensive, plastics (for now) are not infinitely recyclable. As ScienceNews explained, when plastics break down, they usually break down into molecules that can't be easily reshaped into plastics or other useful items without going through many different chemical processes.
3. Oceans Have Become a Dumping Ground for Plastic Waste
An estimated 8 million tons of plastics leaches into the oceans each year. The material can be found in the deepest ocean trenches or circulating around and around the world's five gyres, where it can potentially entangle, choke or kill aquatic life.
Ocean plastic is a minefield for marine creatures, affecting everything from microscopic plankton to giant whales. One study estimated that the debris can be found in the majority of all species of seabirds. Another study found that if we continue to consume plastics in a business-as-usual scenario, the ocean is expected to contain one ton of plastic for every three tons of fish by 2025, and by 2050, more plastics than fish by weight. Of course, the proliferation of plastic and microplastics has prompted concerns that they might work their way up the food chain to us.
4. Governments and Businesses Are Waking Up to the Planet's Plastic Scourge
Here's some good news. It seems like every month, a new business, municipality, country, and even an entire continent are taking action against single-use plastics. These entities have introduced or have already enforced bans on items such plastic drinking straws, stirrers, grocery bags, bottles, plastic-lined coffee cups, takeaway foam containers and even non-biodegradable wet wipes.
"Plastic waste is undeniably a big issue and Europeans need to act together to tackle this problem, because plastic waste ends up in our air, our soil, our oceans, and in our food," said EU Commission Vice President Frans Timmermans in a statement.
5. You Can Be a Part of the Solution
The United Nations puts it this way: "If you can't reuse it, refuse it." For instance, say no to plastic straws at restaurants and bars. Or, you can bring your own eco-friendly alternative.
You can also volunteer at a beach cleanup, pressure your local lawmakers and government to take action, and spread the word to your friends and family. The UN recently launched it #BeatPlasticPollution challenge to encourage people to give up single-use plastics. Participants are asked to announce their commitment on social media and tag their friends to help spread the message within 24 hours.
Former California Governor and staunch environmentalist Arnold Schwarzenegger participated in the challenge. In his video, he pledged to "terminate" plastic spoons in his house and replace them with metal spoons.
"We all have to work very hard to make this a healthy environment, a great environment, and to save our oceans and save the planet," he said.
Thank you @PEspinosaC for tagging me in. We have already terminated the plastic bags, so to #BeatPlasticPollution,… https://t.co/jMK2VnGrS8— Arnold (@Arnold)1527689526.0
By Victoria Masterson
Using one of the world's problems to solve another is the philosophy behind a Norwegian start-up's mission to develop affordable housing from 100% recycled plastic.
Sustainable Homes<p>UN-Habitat says an <a href="https://unhabitat.org/un-habitat-aims-to-use-plastic-waste-to-support-housing-for-all" target="_blank">estimated 60% of people living in urban areas of Africa are in informal settlements</a>. At the same time, between 1990 and 2017, African countries imported around 230 metric tonnes of plastic, "which mostly ended up in dump sites creating a massive environmental challenge," the agency adds.</p><p>UN-Habitat deputy executive director, Victor Kisob, said the aim of the partnership with Othalo was to "promote adequate, sustainable and affordable housing for all."</p>
Artist's impression of an Othalo community, imagined by architect Julien De Smedt. Othalo<p>Othalo's process involves shredding plastic waste and mixing it with other elements, including non-flammable materials. Components are used to build up to four floors, with a home of 60 square metres using eight tons of recycled plastic. A factory with one production line can produce 2,800 housing units annually.</p><p>Following successful laboratory tests, Othalo's factory in Estonia has started producing components to build three demonstration homes for Kenya's capital, Nairobi; Yaoundé, the capital of Cameroon and Dakar, the capital of Senegal.</p><p>Othalo founder Frank Cato Lahti has been developing and testing the technology since 2016 in partnership with <a href="https://www.sintef.no/en/" target="_blank">SINTEF</a>, a 70-year-old independent research organization in Trondheim, Norway, and experts at Norway's <a href="https://en.uit.no/startsida" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">University of Tromsø</a>.</p>
Othalo founder Frank Cato Lahti. Othalo<p>Almost <a href="https://www.un.org/development/desa/publications/2018-revision-of-world-urbanization-prospects.html" target="_blank">seven out of every 10 people in the world are expected to live in urban areas by 2050</a>. More than 90% of this growth will take place in Africa, Asia, Latin America, and the Caribbean.</p><p>"In the absence of effective urban planning, the consequences of this rapid urbanization will be dramatic," UN-Habitat warns.</p><p>Lack of proper housing and growth of slums, inadequate and outdated infrastructure, escalating poverty and unemployment, and pollution and health issues, are just some of the effects.</p><p>Mindsets, policies, and approaches towards urbanization need to change for the growth of cities and urban areas to be turned into opportunities that will leave nobody behind, UN-Habitat says.</p>
Pioneers of Change<p>Reimagining cities and communities for greater resilience and sustainability was a key topic at the<a href="https://www.weforum.org/events/pioneers-of-change-summit-2020" target="_blank"> World Economic Forum's Pioneers of Change Summit 2020</a>.</p><p>The digital event brought together innovators and stakeholders from around the world to explore solutions to the challenges facing enterprises, governments and society.</p><p>Opening the summit, <a href="https://www.weforum.org/events/pioneers-of-change-summit-2020/sessions/opening-plenary-8f731cbc65" target="_blank">Stephan Mergenthaler, the Forum's Head of Strategic Intelligence and a member of the Executive Committee</a>, said: "We need to change the way we produce, the way we live and interact in our cities to make this transition to net-zero emissions a reality…</p><p>"And as this year has illustrated so dramatically, we need to make every effort that we keep populations healthy, if we want to avoid jeopardizing all this progress."</p><p><em>Reposted with permission from </em><em><a href="https://www.weforum.org/agenda/2020/11/un-africa-recycled-plastic-housing/" target="_blank">World Economic Forum</a>.</em><a href="https://www.ecowatch.com/r/entryeditor/2649069252#/" target="_self"></a></p>
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By Dolf Gielen and Morgan Bazilian
John Kerry helped bring the world into the Paris climate agreement and expanded America's reputation as a climate leader. That reputation is now in tatters, and President-elect Joe Biden is asking Kerry to rebuild it again – this time as U.S. climate envoy.
Energy Is at the Center of the Climate Challenge<p>The <a href="https://science2017.globalchange.gov/chapter/1/" target="_blank">effects of climate change</a> are already evident across the globe, from <a href="https://theconversation.com/100-degrees-in-siberia-5-ways-the-extreme-arctic-heat-wave-follows-a-disturbing-pattern-141442" target="_blank">extreme heat waves</a> to <a href="https://science2017.globalchange.gov/chapter/12/" target="_blank">sea level rise</a>. But while the challenge is daunting, there is hope. Solar and wind power have become the <a href="https://www.irena.org/publications/2020/Jun/Renewable-Power-Costs-in-2019" target="_blank">cheapest forms of power generation globally</a>, and technology progress and innovation continue apace to support a transition to clean energy.</p><p>In the U.S. under a Biden administration, long-term national climate legislation will depend on who controls the Senate, and that won't be clear until after two run-off elections in Georgia in January.</p><p>But there is no shortage of <a href="https://www.bloomberg.com/features/2020-biden-climate-change-advice/" target="_blank">ideas for ways Biden</a> could still take action even if his proposals are blocked in Congress. For example, he could use executive orders and direct government agencies to tighten regulations on greenhouse gas emissions; increase research and development in clean energy technologies; and empower states to exceed national standards, <a href="https://www.reuters.com/article/us-autos-emissions-california/defying-trump-california-locks-in-vehicle-emission-deals-with-major-automakers-idUSKCN25D2CH" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">as California did in the past with auto emission standards</a>. A focus on a just and equitable transition for communities and people affected by the decline of fossil fuels will also be key to creating a sustainable transition.</p><p>The U.S. position as the world's largest oil and gas producer and consumer creates political challenges for any administration. U.S. forays into European energy security are often treated with suspicion. Recently, France blocked <a href="https://www.wsj.com/articles/frances-engie-backs-out-of-u-s-lng-deal-11604435609" target="_blank">a multi-billion dollar contract</a> to buy U.S. liquefied natural gas because of concerns about limited emissions regulations in Texas.</p><p>Strengthening cooperation and partnerships with like-minded countries will be critical to bring about a transition to cleaner energy as well as sustainability in agriculture, forestry, water and other sectors of the global economy.</p>
Creating a Global Sustainable Transition<p>How the world recovers from COVID-19's economic damage could help drive a lasting shift in the global energy mix.</p><p>Nearly one-third of Europe's US$2 trillion economic relief package <a href="https://www.bloomberg.com/news/articles/2020-07-21/eu-approves-biggest-green-stimulus-in-history-with-572-billion-plan" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">involves investments that are also good for the climate</a>. The European Union is also strengthening its 2030 climate targets, though each country's energy and climate plans will be critical for successfully implementing them. The <a href="https://joebiden.com/clean-energy/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">Biden plan</a> – including a $2 trillion commitment to developing sustainable energy and infrastructure – is aligned with a global energy transition, but its implementation is also uncertain.</p><p>Once Biden takes office, Kerry will be joining ongoing <a href="https://www.un.org/en/conferences/energy2021/about#:%7E:text=The%20overarching%20goal%20of%20the,2030%20Agenda%20for%20Sustainable%20Development.&text=Accelerate%20delivery%20of%20United%20Nations,related%20issues%20at%20all%20levels." target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">high-level discussions on the energy transition</a> at the U.N. General Assembly and other gatherings of international leaders. With the U.S. no longer obstructing work on climate issues, the G-7 and G-20 have more potential for progress on energy and climate.</p><p>Lots of technical details still need to be worked out, including international trade frameworks and standards that can help countries lower greenhouse gas emissions enough to keep global warming in check. <a href="https://www.carbonpricingleadership.org/what" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">Carbon pricing</a> and <a href="https://www.csis.org/analysis/how-can-europe-get-carbon-border-adjustment-right" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">carbon border adjustment taxes</a>, which create incentive for companies to reduce emissions, may be part of it. A consistent and comprehensive set of national energy transition plans will also be needed.</p><p>The global shift to <a href="https://www.irena.org/publications/2019/Jan/A-New-World-The-Geopolitics-of-the-Energy-Transformation" target="_blank">clean energy will also have geopolitical implications for countries and regions</a>, and this will have a profound impact on wider international relations. Kerry, with his experience as secretary of state in the Obama administration, and Biden's plan to make the climate envoy position part of the National Security Council, may help mend these relations. In doing so, the U.S. may again join the wider community of countries willing to lead.</p>
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By Maria Caffrey
As we approach the holidays I, like most people, have been reflecting on everything 2020 has given us (or taken away) while starting to look ahead to 2021.