World Environment Day

Beat Plastic Pollution

Forging a path towards a plastic-free world

By Robert C. Brears, author of The Green Economy and the Water-Energy-Food Nexus, Blue and Green Cities, Natural Resource Management and the Circular Economy, and editor of Climate Resilient Water Resources Management

Over the past six decades, we have created 8.3 billion metric tonnes of plastics, most of which has ended up in landfills or littering the natural environment. In fact, just 9% of plastic we use today is recycled.

Each year, up to 12 million tonnes of plastic enters our oceans, the equivalent to one rubbish truck every minute. Plastic litter on the streets too can enter the ocean via drainage networks or rivers that flow into them: it has been estimated that the world’s major rivers carry up to 2.41 million tonnes of plastic into the sea each year, the equivalent to 100,000 rubbish trucks. So much plastic is flowing into the ocean that scientists estimate that by mid-century our oceans will contain more plastic waste than fish, tonne for tonne.

Even when plastic waste is collected and transported to landfill sites, it still impacts the environment with leaching of chemicals from plastics contaminating groundwater supplies and reservoirs. Tiny bits of plastic have already been detected in our drinking water. One study of water samples in cities and towns across five continents found that 83% of the samples collected, including tap water from the Environmental Protection Agency’s headquarters in Washington DC, contained microscopic plastic fibres.

If we continue a business-as-usual path, there will be 12 billion metric tonnes of plastics in our landfills by 2050, severely damaging our environment and potentially our health too with plastics entering the food chain.

Thankfully, many cities and countries are bucking this trend, forging a path towards a plastic-free world.

Recently, New York City’s Council introduced a Bill banning plastic straws and drink stirrers from being served at New York City restaurants and bars. The hope is that restaurant owners will replace plastic straws with ones made of paper, or straws made of corn, pasta, or reusable aluminium. With the Mayor backing the Bill, plastic straws may soon be relegated to history in the city.

In India, the Delhi National Capital Region’s National Green Tribunal passed a law banning disposable plastic including bags, chai cups, and cutlery. This step is significant with India being among the top four largest plastic polluters in the world responsible for roughly 60% of all plastic entering the ocean each year.

The United Kingdom has announced plans for a deposit return scheme to crack down on plastic pollution, a scheme already running successfully in countries such as Denmark, Germany, and Sweden. With UK consumers using around 13 billion plastic drink bottles per year, many of which are left to pollute the landscape and marine environment, the government will assess various types of deposit return schemes that could be introduced including cash rewards for returning containers without an upfront deposit.

With the world’s oceans and water quickly filling up with plastic, let's make sure every city and country implements policies to effectively remove plastic from our daily lives.

About the author

Robert C. Brears is the founder of Mitidaption, Mark and Focus, and is Director on the International Board of the Indo Global Chamber of Commerce, Industries and Agriculture.