The initiative was launched by the UN in 1972, and every year the event is centred on a different environmental topic: the World Environment Day 2018 focused its attention on disposable plastic, with the hashtag and the slogan #BeatPlasticPollution: “If you can’t reuse it, refuse it”.
The advantages of producing plastic are obvious: it’s cheap, light and easy to work with. These are the reasons why the use of plastic has increased exponentially since the beginning of the last century and has been the material produced in the highest quantity since the ‘50s. Recycling education has not set in yet: only 9% of the 9 million tons of plastic which has been produced so far has been recycled. If the situation doesn’t change, there will be 13 billion tons of plastic in the environment by 2050. Most plastic is not biodegradable, but decomposes in fragments called “microplastics”, practically impossible to remove from the oceans.
What will the consequences of the presence of so much plastic be?
First of all, the dumping into the oceans. Huge quantities of plastic bags have in fact been found in sea species (in particular turtles and dolphins). This not only compromises biodiversity, but the toxic substances present in plastic digested and assimilated into the animal tissue can potentially harm the human food chain too. The bulk of material can also block waterways, possibly increasing the occurrence of natural disasters. The same could happen to sewage systems, usually infested by insects, which might facilitate the spreading of malaria.
The economic aspect has to be taken into consideration as well: Europe would need 630 million Euros a year to clean its coasts, while Asia would require 1.3 million dollars to do the same along its Pacific shores.
Among the most common strategies is charging for plastic bags, a measure Italy and Ireland have adopted to reduce their use. Other countries have instead opted for a ban, like England with its Green Plan, Rwanda and Kenya with their restrictions on production, use and sale of plastic bags. The European Union has put forward an ambitious proposal to deal with the items seas and beaches are most polluted with (cotton buds, plastic cutlery, balloons, food packaging, bottles, cigarette butts, wipes and fishing rods): the idea is rethinking their design to make them sustainable, make people aware of the importance of recycling, and reducing the amount of packaging material industries and retailers put into circulation.
The progress made so far is still weak, the practice of disposing still prevailing on recycling. Governments should work in closer connection with business companies. On this day, it is in fact fundamental to induce people to give up the common belief that plastic is a simple material and not something to be worried about. The best solution involves the whole society: recycling is a positive contribution, but the real step forward would be not to use disposables.