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World Environment Day 2023: The plasti-city problem

Here’s a quick thought experiment: how many things within your arm’s reach are made of plastic? When it comes to sustainable development, plastic is often given a free pass because it’s so convenient. However, free passes also come with expiry dates.

The tipping point

Plasticity refers to a material’s ability to be molded into any shape and retain it. It’s an inherent characteristic of plastic, which is also a silent environmental threat as it is difficult to degrade naturally.

This is an issue which we can’t sweep it under Earth’s rug anymore. To put the problem’s magnitude into perspective, 400mn+ tonnes of plastic waste are churned out every year worldwide, and only 10% of it ends up in recycling systems. Plastic convenience is a loan our environment can no longer afford to pay.

It’s time to #BeatPlasticPollution

Fortunately, there are large efforts underway to address this issue. The theme for World Environment Day 2023 aims to look beyond the surface of its central motto’s statement. Leading by example through its 2014 ban on plastic bags, the host nation of Côte d’Ivoire hopes to shed light on the best practices for sustainable use of plastic, from big corporations down to everyday individual use.

The partner host, The Netherlands, echoes the same sentiment.

“Plastic pollution and its detrimental impacts on health, the economy and the environment cannot be ignored. Urgent action is required. At the same time, we need true, effective and robust solutions.”

– Vivianne Heijnen, Minister for the Environment, Netherlands.

With this goal in sight, the scientific community has forged ahead, devising new strategies and solutions to reduce plastic’s detrimental impact on the environment. The good news? There have already been some major breakthroughs and success stories.

New-age solutions

  • Bioplastics: Instinct would tell us to look for a material that has all the benefits of plastic, with none of the caveats. Bioplastics from seaweed harvests, for instance, are dissolvable in hot water, and are food-safe. Mass production, however, remains a challenge.
  • Plastivores: A recent discovery has led to an increase in research on organisms that can digest plastics. Aspergillus tubingensis, a fungus, has been found to digest polyurethane, opening the door to new possibilities in eco-friendly plastic disposal.
  • Biodegradable plastic market influx: Countries all over the world are acknowledging the urgency of dealing with the plastic pollution dilemma. They have pushed initiatives including replacing single-use plastics with biodegradable alternatives in supermarkets and fast-food joints.

The common thread among these three solutions is governments making a difference in plastic pollution on two fronts: backing research for sustainable plastic alternatives and creating awareness on an individual level amidst the general public.

The way forward

Modern civilization as a whole is responsible for plastic pollution. While researchers and governments do their part, as individuals, we also have a pivotal role to play in eliminating the threat down to its roots. Mindful use, regular recycling & awareness on eco-friendly alternatives are duties we can no longer afford to ignore.

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