Our planet is drowning in plastic. It has been found in the most remote parts of the world – from the top of Mount Everest, the highest point on Earth, to the Mariana Trench, the deepest.
Despite widespread recognition of plastic’s damaging impacts on both nature and humans, its production shows no sign of slowing down or stopping – in fact production is expected to double by 2050.
In this article, Youth Green Journal members from around the world share their experiences of plastic pollution in their local areas, discussing some key problems and ways to tackle the problem and what they hope to see in the future.
Dar es Salaam, Tanzania
Polyethylene Terephthalate (PETE) is the most common form of plastic in Dar es Salaam. It is used to make many common household items like beverage bottles, medicine jars, rope, clothing and carpet fibre, which means – they are hard to avoid.
Even though plastic bags were banned in Tanzania in 2019, we’re still struggling with a few problems. First, there is a lack of enforcement of the ban and second, there is a lack of affordable alternatives.
The government must create better enforcement mechanisms to stop the smuggling of plastic bags and the increasing use of thicker bags that are not covered by the ban. The government should raise public awareness about the impact of single-use plastics on human health as well as nature. They must also invest in a range of alternatives, and provide incentives for the general public to use them. They should also make decisions with the input of other stakeholders such as retailers, consumers and manufacturers to ensure that there is support from all of them.
COVID-19 has increased plastic use because of the rise in disposable cleaning products, wipes, masks and hand sanitizers. Also, many people use nylon fabrics for the practice of ‘Kujifukiza’, a herbal steam therapy that is thought to prevent the contraction of the virus. This may increase the inhalation of microplastics that have long term health implications.
Individuals and families must be educated to make responsible choices when dealing with plastic products. Using key principles such as, “If you can’t reuse it, refuse it”, more people can be motivated to make better choices.
Kenya has a large plastic manufacturing sector, which provides many jobs especially in the capital city, Nairobi. However, plastic also pollutes Kenya’s land and water, and disrupts other parts of the Kenyan economy that rely on coastal and marine resources, such as agriculture, fishing and tourism. Therefore, there has been a big effort from the government to reduce pollution.
In 2017, the Kenyan government made a world-leading decision to ban the sale and use of plastic carrier bags for commercial and household purposes. The punishments for breaking this law are serious, involving prison sentences of up to four years and fines of up to 4 million Kenyan shillings (approximately USD $40,000). Since the ban, it is rare to see any plastic bags being used in shops, or littering the streets – this was a significant success that other countries can implement too.
There are several government-endorsed programs across Kenya, such as PETCO, which collect and recycle PET plastic waste. However, there is low public awareness about the harms of plastic pollution. This makes it harder for the government to increase restrictions on plastic use, as they are met with opposition from both plastic manufacturing companies and citizens. Already, the Kenyan government has been influenced by businesses to go back on some of its pledges.
Recently, Coca Cola launched a campaign called ‘World Without Waste’, where they collect and recycle one bottle or can for every one sold by 2030. Although this may seem like a positive move, it is in reality a clear example of greenwashing. Recycling is not the solution to our plastic crisis – the only solution is to stop producing single-use plastic entirely. What Coca Cola should do instead is focus on replacing all of their plastic PET bottles with materials such as glass, which can be refilled, reused, and recycled for a much longer time without losing its quality.
Birmingham, United Kingdom
In the UK, the plastic which is hardest to avoid for the average citizen is single-use plastic packaging for food and drinks. In most supermarkets, it is very hard to find items that are not covered in one or more layers of packaging. Whilst it is important to protect and conserve the longevity of food, it is still possible to sustainably sell groceries, as modelled by the many zero waste shops around the country.
In my city of Birmingham, plastic pollution is having a clear impact on our nature. It has already affected the quality of water in the canals and in 2019, otters living in the canal were found to have significant amounts of microplastics in their bodies. Microplastics present a big problem for humans too, as once they are in the water systems, they can enter human bodies through eating seafood or drinking contaminated water. This is worrying because microplastics have been associated with an increased risk of cancer and metabolic disturbances.
In the UK, the responsibility of tackling plastic pollution mainly lies within city and county councils. As such, one of Birmingham City Council’s current projects is to use the Commonwealth Games (2022) as a catalyst to raise awareness about the importance of reducing plastic use and practical ways on how to do this.
In the next 5-10 years, I hope that all single-use plastic will be removed from supermarkets and they can all adopt the zero-waste model. I would also like there to be a drive to educate young people on how to live with less plastic, so that sustainable habits are normalised from a young age, and therefore are easier to practice throughout their lives.
Plastic bags are widely used in Kolkata. They are mainly available in grocery stores, from vegetable/fruit vendors on the street and other retail markets.
In my local area, our streets are cleaned regularly, so the impact on nature and wildlife is not evident. However, littering of roads and public spaces is prevalent. Recently, the state government has tried to tackle this by prohibiting plastic bags in public places and heritage sites, with heavy fines for disobeying this.
Some people in the locality burn plastic wastes during winter to keep themselves warm, which may release harmful toxic substances into the air. This is harmful for people who breathe the air in, and may have long term health consequences. Another big impact is the spread of dengue. When people throw rubbish in the street, the plastic can act as a reservoir for water and can cause them to become breeding grounds for mosquitoes.
The local authorities are extremely incompetent in the case of recycling plastic waste. In most cases, it isn’t separated properly, hence they end up in the same place as other general waste- dumped in a landfill. On the bright side, many young people in my area are really invested in spreading awareness about plastic pollution, and have organised litter picks and educational events for the community.
The Covid-19 pandemic has somewhat reduced the usage of plastic in my area. For example, while grocery shopping, people prefer to carry their own reusable shopping bags to avoid the risk of spreading the virus.
In November 2020, climate activists from 10 different countries participated in a virtual Climate Youth Hack. The Youth Green Journal is a culmination of the winning ideas developed at the hack. The journal explores how different communities around the world are being affected by unsustainable practices, and what must be done to tackle it.