Today is World Environment Day (WED)! A day the United Nations Environment Program (UNEP) raises awareness and encourages action for the protection of the environment. The day is celebrated on 5th June every year. This year marks the 45th celebration of this event since it first began in 1974. Over the years, WED has raised global awareness on environmental issues from biodiversity, climate change, desertification, among others. Beat Plastic Pollution is this year’s theme and India is the event’s global host.
The theme for this year couldn’t have been more appropriate given the increasing generation and use of plastics and its associated negative impacts, particularly in the world’s oceans and seas. The World Economic Forum estimates that there are about 150 million tonnes of plastics in the ocean currently and, in 2050, there will be more plastics than fish in the ocean by weight. And, about 13 million tonnes of plastics leach into the ocean every year. The UNEP also approximates that globally, we use in excess of five trillion plastic bags yearly, about one million plastic bottles are purchased every minute, and plastics make up 10% of the composition of waste we generate. Plastics that make their way into the ocean are trapping and killing marine creatures like fish and are making our beaches uninviting to use. In fact, some studies have found evidence of microplastics in the guts and flesh of fish (see: Jabeen et al., 2017).
As a result, this year’s theme encourages all of us – individuals, families, groups, communities, businesses, industry, governments, etc. – to look for alternatives to the everyday plastics that we use. For instance, we can carry along reusable water bottles instead of buying sachet water and/or plastic-bottled water. How about being served our favourite meals in bowls/plates rather than in (plain and/or black) polyethylene bags when we visit the food vendor? Or, replacing our everyday plastic spoons/forks that we toss into the garbage after use with metallic alternatives? We can also shop our groceries in a basket or reusable shopping bags and opt against paying for plastic bags. Reusable bottles, bowls/plates, spoons/forks, and baskets/reusable shopping bags can be reused over and over again until such a time that they no longer serve us. Consider doing these for a year and quantify the number of single-use plastics you will be diverting from the waste stream. Uncountable and unimaginable amounts! The above examples are by no means exhaustive but illustrative of the things we can do in the fight to Beat Plastic Pollution.
In a country engulfed in filth, mostly plastics, one would have hoped that Ghana will chance on this year’s WED theme to line up programs to educate, raise awareness, and actively engage the citizenry on the dire consequences of plastic pollution and improper waste management in general. Yet, the government hasn’t taken the opportunity to do so. If indeed the country is going to win the war against plastic pollution (and waste management in general) as the government makes us think, a day as this shouldn’t pass us by without action across the country. Of course, education on this day alone isn’t enough but certainly adds to raising awareness on an important environmental challenge this country is saddled with: plastic pollution. After all, we had days of celebration for Ghana @ 50 and 60, so why can’t we have a week-long celebration of WED, which is packed with activities and events to raise awareness and engage the citizenry to own their actions to protect the environment? Environmental education and awareness in this country is almost non-existent. Our lack of understanding of the implications of our inactions on dealing with plastic waste has contributed to our current predicaments.
Countries that are serious with solid waste management issues are investing in education and informing the public regularly on how to properly manage waste, as well as financing waste diversion infrastructure, facilities, and programs. Educational tools have and are continually being developed to inform and educate the public on various waste needs. Moreover, some countries have moved towards current trends such as Zero Waste, Life Cycle Analysis, and Circular Economy with emphasis on reduce, reuse, recycle, recovery (4Rs) and composting programs. These are countries that are working to rid themselves of filth. In Africa, mention can be made of Kenya and Rwanda as two countries that have actually banned plastic bags. That is vision, commitment, and action working together to achieve results, not lip-service. I’m not sure what Ghana’s vision for the waste sector is even though we have the Ministry for Sanitation and Water Resources – a ministry ostensibly created to champion and push the country’s agenda of making Ghana one of the cleanest countries. And, oh, our current Environmental Sanitation Policy was revised in 2009 and published in 2010. One wonders how this document will meet current solid waste needs and trends. It’s been more than a year since the Minister for Sanitation and Water Resources assumed office and yet we don’t know where the country is headed in terms solid waste management. Political rhetoric to keep the country clean won’t do it! It never has! Only incremental action will!
It is true that waste management issues are complex and need to be looked at from various angles. However, educating and informing the public is at the heart of any waste management program and initiative. And, this year’s WED theme presents a principal avenue to do so and encourage action by all and sundry. The head of the UNEP, Erik Solheim, has said that “...the most ambitious, global agreements are only as good as the individual action and determination that bring them to life.” So, even though our governments keep disappointing us on the plastic pollution (and waste management in general) front, let’s think through the many alternatives we can use in place of our everyday plastics, particularly single-use plastics. Our mantra should be: If you can’t reuse it, refuse it! With our individual efforts coming together, we can Beat Plastic Pollution. Let’s be conscious of the amount of waste we generate daily. Happy World Environment Day!
Natural Resources Institute, University of Manitoba