Plastic is Not the Villain — We Are

In Ocean

Sperm Whale(Physeter macrocephalus) playing with plastic bag, Vulnerable (IUCN), Pico Island, Azores, Portugal, Atlantic Ocean.

©

The writer is Campaigns Manager at WWF-Singapore, Lotika Mehta

The problem: our wasteful model of consumption. 

Countless times, I have been shocked and dismayed at supermarkets with the cashier’s reckless use of plastic, double bagging, or using a bag per item.

Recent studies show that in Singapore, an average person uses 146 bags from supermarkets alone; this is clearly extreme — and unsustainable.

Plastic, the cheap and ubiquitous material we use every day, the very bedrock of modern society, is now a global crisis!

Every year, 8 million tons of plastic enters the oceans.
© naturepl.com / Franco Banfi / WWF

Today, 18% of tuna and swordfish and 90% of the world’s seabirds have fragments of plastic in their stomach. By 2050, there will be more plastic than fish in the ocean.

Why are we using so much plastic in our daily lives?

Strong and versatile, plastic exists because we want convenience at a low price. If we were to remove it from our life, we would have to get rid of almost everything we wear, live in, or work with.  Plastic protects products from damage and contamination and preserves food better than any other material. 

But, plastic is not the villain. The problem is our wasteful model of consumption. 

Our ‘take-make-dispose’ model means that plastic products get produced, bought, used only once and then thrown away. 
© Antonio Busiello / WWF-US

Added to this is the sheer volume of plastic under production. According to current estimates we produce 3 million plastic bags and bottles per minute.

For instant gratification, we are rapidly producing and consuming plastic at a rate that will leave a toxic plastic legacy on earth. As it is incredibly durable, plastic does not decompose, which means it will continue to be in our food, water and air for the next 400 years, or 16 generations.

But there is hope

We need to change the way we think about plastics and look at it as a resource with value.  

In my conversations with companies, it is evident that there is a strong will to make the change, to rethink existing business models and innovate but like all things, the changes are easier to make if companies come together, to pool their knowledge and experiences. 

WWF recognises this and is bringing businesses together under PACT: a Plastic ACTion commitment to stop excessive and unnecessary plastic production and ensure existing plastic is effectively recovered and recycled.

WWF’s PACT commitment asks companies to sign up to bold and ambitious targets:

  1. Ensure no new plastics enter nature. We ask companies to eliminate unnecessary plastic items that are unrecyclable by 2022 and to eventually move towards 100% phasing out of all unrecyclable single use plastic.
  2. Invest in recycled material and the collection of plastics. We want companies to move to 100% reusable or recyclable product & packaging by 2020.
  3. Drive net positive impact for the environment by committing to collecting more plastics from nature than they produce by 2030.
  4. Fund research and innovation that leads to better waste management, the collection of plastics or alternative materials.

How can your business make an im-PACT?  

The ambition of PACT is to disrupt the existing linear system of excessive and wasteful consumption, and in place of it, set up a circular economy that is regenerative and restorative by design. Our targets are deliberately demanding and mutually reinforcing making companies responsible for the entire life cycle of plastics, from packaging to recovery.

Eco-friendly products like beeswax wrap and reusable coffee cup (above) help reduce the use of plastics today.
© Leonie Sii / WWF-Australia

We need to change the way we produce, source and design products and packaging. We also need to find new materials that have all the good benefits of plastics but none of the negative impact. Most importantly, we want to do it together and make them available for every one.

Take the first step now

On 4th December, I, together with my WWF colleagues, will host 40 companies across Retail, Hospitality, F&B and the Manufacturing sector for our first roundtable on PACT.

We will put our collective minds together to examine the challenges and obstacles and outline actionable plans to achieve our targets.

I believe plastics represent not just a risk but also an opportunity. Recycling is a sector ready for growth and investment — fully developed, it can lead to improved city infrastructure and many employment opportunities. 

We understand the difficulties ahead. Sometimes hard choices need to be made and they are a lot easier if we do it together.

If you want your favourite businesses to be a part of PACT, see here for more info or email me at lmehta@wwf.sg. 

Read more about our op-ed “Plastics: Enough Trash Talk” and the stranded sperm whale that was found with 6kg of plastics in its stomach.

2 Comments

  1. We should make the attempt to be more precise in pin-pointing what is responsible for the mass pollution of the seas and oceans – the marine environment – with plastic discards. IMO, the main culprits for polluting the earth’s seas and oceans are members of the shipping community, the cruise companies, etc. Only they would have the greatest opportunities to regularly dumping their waste directly into the marine environment in mid-ocean, and most probably it is done under the cover of darkness at night! The reason the mariners could be doing it is quite obvious, it needs no more elaboration than to point out the savings in cost, convenience, space and the ample opportunities for them to do it and getting away with it. So I am curious as to whether this is being looked at and measures if any are being effectively taken to monitor and to enforce to make sure that all docking and returning ships at port of calls are handing over the quantities and types of trash that commensurate with the food and other items first taken on board. I am not saying that land based sources of plastic pollution do not exist, they certainly do, but IMO, this can be quite effectively curbed by governments with anti-littering laws and measures. But the pollution of the seas and oceans by mariners is another kettle of fish (pardon the pun).

    I am also curious to know whether any studies have been conducted to conclude that plastic and other wastes thrown on land – cities, towns and other inhabited places – would invariable find their into the seas and oceans. My own casual observation informed me that plastic wastes are more often washed ashore, including those originating from other sources, rather than being washed out into the deep blue from the land causing untold harm and tragedy to marine lives. I recall reading a report about some huge mid-ocean mass of plastic waste circulating between continents. To me therefore it is most probably due to the prevailing winds circulating the plastic waste thrown overboard by the commercial shipping and cruise communities.

    I agree with you and it has always been my view that plastic is not the culprit but the way people and countries dispose of it that is the big issue. I also feel that to constantly harp on the plastic bags used by shops and malls and supermarkets to hold purchases would blindside us to the other IMO equally culpable causes of environmental pollution of the sea and the air. I also think it is a rather silly ploy to seize upon the humble drinking straw, making it a scapegoat of sort. In the process, probably blindsiding the public, drawing them into complacency towards the real issues by belittling the problem.

    The world would not be able to do without plastics, that’s for sure until a viable and more environmentally friendly alternative or alternatives are available. The way I see it, to be able to control plastic pollution of the marine environment is at least half the battle won. I think we should shift our target in this respect if it is not already being done or looked into.

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