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Earth Day 2018: end plastic pollution

April 10, 2018

Sunday 22 April is Earth Day, and 2018's theme is all about mobilizing the world to end plastic pollution

By Jenny Hughes

It is particularly focused on eliminating single use plastics and regulating the disposal of plastics at a global level. Earth Day is an annual worldwide event which has been celebrated since 1970 to demonstrate support for environmental protection.

As explained on the dedicated website the exponential growth of plastics is having hugely negative effects—from poisoning and injuring marine life to disrupting human hormones, from littering our beaches and landscapes to clogging our waste streams and landfills.

With the plethora of national awareness, celebration and annual holidays in the calendar it’s easy to forget campaigns like Earth Day. But this one’s a goodie—it’s become strikingly obvious that we need to do more to protect the environment of this wonderfully complex and beautiful planet that we call home. Earth Day is a great opportunity to get involved, improve our awareness, and make a change/difference as an individual, an organization or as an educator.

The context

Waste has been in the mainstream news a lot recently. There has been a focus around the pervasive use of single use plastics and a collective awakening at what horrendous impacts these have on our blue (and green) planet. People are realising how nonsensical it is to wrap everything in plastic before it is wrapped, again, in another layer, and then another layer of plastic. David Attenborough’s incredible Blue Planet II series (the most watched TV show of 2017 in the UK) highlighted how plastic is slowly killing our sea creatures, fish and birds. We’re also realising that there are other related waste issues, for example, putting items (coffee cups) in recycling bins doesn’t necessarily equate to them being recycled.

How are industries responding?

It’s exciting and positive that waste reduction, recycling and reuse is getting so much coverage and in the last couple of months we’ve had commitments from some major actors, including supermarkets, who are pledging to stop using plastic packaging. In January Iceland was the first major UK retailer to commit to eliminating plastic packaging within five years for its own-brand products. Just last week Waitrose pledged to phase out disposable coffee cups in its stores by autumn. We’ve also seen the widespread appearance of a range of alternative products in recent years including compostable packaging, and re-usable bamboo coffee cups and straws.

What’s happening in government and policy?

Although UK recycling has improved greatly since levels of 11% in 2001, we could be set to miss the 2020 EU target of 50% recycling.

Theresa May launched a 25-year environment plan early in January which, amongst other challenges, such as setting targets for reducing air pollutants and improving water quality, sets targets for minimising waste. The plan says ‘recycling plastics is critical’ and includes the following targets:

  • Working towards our ambition of zero avoidable waste by 2050
  • Working to a target of eliminating avoidable waste by end of 2042, and
  • Significantly reducing and where possible preventing all kinds of marine plastic pollution.

There were initially mixed messages on whether government were also going to sign up to the European target to recycle 65% urban waste by 2035, but DEFRA have recently confirmed that the government will commit to this. They said they will also explore whether even more ambitious recycling targets could be introduced after Brexit.

What implications could this have and why?

Government legislation in relation to waste requires whole industries and communities (and not just engaged stakeholders) to act. The types of waste being recycled/ reused in different ways and the funding streams available for infrastructure to manage waste can be dictated by national policy and legislation. As explained by the Chartered Institute of Waste Management the entire chain needs to be properly funded, and in recent years, recycling performance has suffered as funding has reduced.

Some concluding thoughts

As a company, we’re always looking for new ways to improve our own sustainability, which is why Earth Day is an important date in our calendar.

There is a lot that individually, we can do (and should be doing) to reduce waste, by carrying reusable coffee cups, avoiding plastic bags and actually recycling the right items and so on … but at a collective level, this really needs to be supported by the bigger infrastructure and systems which deal with waste.

It’s the same as tackling a lot of environmental issues and problems. It requires concerted action form a range of stakeholders and sectors of society. Now that public awareness has moved from ‘radar’ to ‘reality,’ it will be very interesting to see what happens following industry and government commitments and how our use and disposal of single use plastics will change in future.

Originally published by PBA, now Stantec.

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