OPINION: The world environment day and the need to forge solutions to plastic pollution

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By Pius Wamala

The year 2023 marks the 50th anniversary of the World Environment Day. Celebrated annually on 5th June over the past five decades, the day has grown to become one of the largest global platforms for environmental outreach.

This year’s World Environment Day foucsed on solutions to plastic pollution under the theme “#BeatPlasticPollution”.

The day serves as a reminder that people’s actions regarding plastic pollution are important to preserve and protect our environment for current and future generations. This day encourages us to address issues such as climate change, deforestation, pollution, biodiversity loss, and sustainable development. It is an opportunity for people from all walks of life to take concrete steps to protect the environment and live more sustainably by reducing waste, conserving energy, implementing eco-friendly practices, and supporting environmental causes.

The United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) estimates that over 430 million tonnes of plastic are produced annually, two-thirds of which are short-lived products that soon become waste and less than 10% are recycled. An estimated 19-23 million tonnes end up in lakes, rivers, and seas annually. Microplastics find their way into the food chain, water, and air. This presents associated social and economic costs of plastic pollution ranging between US$300 and US$600 billion annually.

A Plastics Packaging Study (2022) undertaken by researchers from the Department of Agricultural and Biosystems Engineering at Makerere University presents a huge challenge i.e., each day, Uganda generates around 600 metric tons of plastic waste and estimates show that Kampala Capital City Authority spends $1.53 million per month to remove only 30% of the total waste generated.

Plastic is non-biodegradable and considering that not all types of plastic are easily recycled, accumulation in the environment if not well managed can be highly detrimental to public health and biodiversity, making land inhabitable, and contaminating the soil leading to soil degradation eventually affecting food security, among others.

A recent study by UNEP shows that about 1 in 5 of the fish in Lake Victoria had ingested plastic while another research indicated microplastics in surface waters in several sites on the lake. This detrimental effect of plastic waste threatens the health and livelihoods of the communities that depend on the lake for survival.

Over 90% of the plastics are derived from virgin fossil fuels. Therefore, the more plastic we make, the more fossil fuel is required, and the more we intensify the climate crisis. Also, plastic products create greenhouse gas emissions across their whole lifecycle. If no action is taken, greenhouse gas emissions caused by plastic could account for 19% of the total emissions by 2040.

The danger presented by plastic underscores the importance of this World Environment Day in mobilizing transformative action from every corner of the world. The 2nd of March 2022 marked the most significant environmental multilateral deal since the Paris Accord. Representatives from UN Member States endorsed a historic resolution at the UN Environment Assembly to end plastic pollution and forge an international legally binding agreement by 2024. The resolution addresses the full lifecycle of plastic, including its production, design, and disposal.

According to UNEP, a shift to a circular economy can reduce the volume of plastics entering water bodies by over 80% by 2040; reduce virgin plastic production by 55%; save governments US$70 billion by 2040; reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 25%; and create 700,000 additional jobs – mainly in the global south.

Some of the solutions earlier employed to reduce plastic waste in Uganda as well as many other African countries, including the ban on the production and use of polythene carrier bags of less than 30 microns, and imposing heavy excise duty (120% for Uganda). Sadly, enforcement measures were never effective in Uganda.

However, one would wonder whether this was the best solution given the unique functionality of plastics that may not easily be substituted with available alternatives like glass or paper.

Whereas enforcement of the ban had its issues, several strides have been made to reduce the impact of plastic waste by recycling as much plastic as possible. Some of the private companies have made efforts to routinely collect plastic waste from the environment by partnering with plastic companies while other non-state actors have supported community- based initiatives to promote the concepts and principles to waste management along the generation value chain such as reducing, reuse, and recycling.

Considering all the strategies being put in place to reduce the impact of plastic packaging like strengthening markets for recycling, social awareness, encouraging the production of eco-friendly plastics, and innovations through waste-to-wealth initiatives; the government through its agencies such as the Uganda Development Bank Limited should enhance their support to smaller privately owned plastic recycling businesses through incentives or more subsidized financing mechanisms to ease the work of these companies in reducing plastic waste in Uganda.

The author is a Senior Green Finance Officer at the Uganda Development Bank Limited.

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