The increasing urban populations, rapid industrialization, growing concern toward the environmental impact of the improper disposal of plastic waste, along with laws and regulations regarding disposal and treatment of plastic waste, have propelled the growth of the global plastic waste management industry.
The visibility of plastic waste is increasing because of its accumulation in recent decades and its negative impact on the surrounding environment and human health. Unlike organic waste, plastic can take hundreds to thousands of years to decompose in nature. Plastic waste is causing floods by clogging drains, causing respiratory issues when burned, shortening animal lifespans when consumed, and contaminating water bodies when dumped into canals and oceans . In oceans, plastic is accumulating in swirling gyres that are miles wide. Under ultraviolet light from the sun, plastic is degrading into “micro plastics” that are almost impossible to recover and that are disrupting food chains and degrading natural habitats.
According to a study of the World Bank, plastic waste mainly enters the environment when it is poorly managed, such as through open dumping, open burning, and disposal in waterways. Unfortunately, with more than one-fourth of waste dumped openly and many formal disposal sites managed improperly, plastic litter is increasing. Even when plastic waste is collected, many countries lack capacity to process the waste.
There are many ways to curb plastic waste by producing less, consuming less, and better managing the waste that already exists to prevent contamination or leakage. Taking these actions requires engagement from numerous stakeholders in society, including citizens, governments, community organizations, businesses, and manufacturers. Policy solutions, increased awareness, and improved design and disposal processes, among others, can minimize the impact of plastic waste on society.
Before pursuing dedicated plastics management solutions, governments must first focus on holistic management of waste. Cities need consistent collection services, safe and environmentally sound disposal, and consistent enforcement of policy before targeted interventions for plastic can be fully effective. Without strong basic waste management systems, plastic is likely to continue to be dumped when uncollected, citizens and businesses are less likely to comply with restrictions on materials for consumption or manufacturing, and cost recovery for waste systems will continue to be a struggle. With adequate primary waste management services in place, many cities have succeeded in focused interventions. In 2018, the European Union launched a strategy called Plastic Waste that aims to make all plastic packaging recyclable by 2030 and to ensure that waste generated on ships is returned to land. However, innovative policies concerning plastic will not solve the issue of plastic mismanagement without proper institutions, systems, and incentives.
Management of plastic waste often starts at the household and individual levels, and strategies to educate and motivate citizens can dramatically change behavior. In Jamaica, community members that serve as Environmental Wardens sensitize their neighbors about local cleanliness and safe and environmentally friendly disposal of waste. Environmental Wardens are community members employed by the Jamaican National Solid Waste Management Authority through a World Bank supported project. Their role is to spread awareness about waste management and to keep communities clean and healthy. The communities and schools that are part of the project collect plastic bottles in large volumes, through competitions, and remove plastic litter from shared spaces and drains. They sell the collected plastic bottles to recyclers.
Plastic waste can be reduced or put to productive use at both a local and a global scale. Industries can alter manufacturing processes to reduce the amount of material needed, use recycled materials as inputs, or design new materials that can be degraded or more easily recycled. At a local level, recovered plastic can be used as inputs to make cement blocks, roads, and household goods such as baskets and mats. These outlets for productive use can, in turn, drive increased collection and recovery of plastic waste.
The weaknesses of existing plastic waste management strategies lead to the pollution of the natural environment. Although around 75% of plastic litter comes from developing countries, an important 25% is originated in western countries mainly due to the limited efficiency of the collection systems and low recycling rates. Global plastic production has almost doubled over the last decade, and it is predicted that it will continue to grow. It is, therefore, imperative for the countries to make strategies to tackle this ever increasing threat and save the future generations from its harmful effects.
Writer is the CEO of Mélange IT Solutions & The Asian Telegraph, an expert on Political Economy, & Director of Bandial Group