Plastic Pollution: A Barrier to Achieving the Sustainable Development Goals

Plastic is an inevitable commodity to reach the UN Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). However, the same plastic helping us to achieve some of them, hinders us to achieve others. Numerous policies, from the international to the local level aim to reduce, reuse and recycle waste. However, significant efforts are still needed to rethink and limit the use of plastic.

To eradicate poverty (SDG 1), modern technologies, including banking systems, ATMs and credit cards, are needed to shift money. Many of these contain vast amounts of plastic. Plastic packaging facilitates the transportation, storage and trade of food, which is essential for reducing malnutrition and increasing agricultural productivity (SDG 2). Plastic is indispensable in healthcare for items like surgery masks and medical utilities (SDG 3). Additionally, plastic is utilized in various products such as school pens (SDG 4), water bottles, clean water hoses, pipes (SDG 6) and electricity cable sheathing (SDG 7).

Plastic is a blessing due to its persistence, flexibility, and durability; however, plastic is also a curse. The material made from refined oil does not easily dissolve, it is rarely recycled and persists on our earth as macro, micro and nano plastic. Plastic pollution resulting from land-based activities often ends up in the water cycle, negatively affecting life on land (SDG 15) and life below water (SDG 14). Plastic production is increasing daily and the fossil fuel it is made of harms the climate (SDG 13). In short, the same plastic used to support reaching some SDGs hinders the achievement of others.

These benefits and trade-offs of plastic reveal: If we want to achieve the SDGs, we must learn how to manage and limit the use of plastic!

The Basel Convention of 1992 recognizes plastic pollution as an international and transboundary issue. In consequence, a Plastic Waste Partnership was established in 2019 to minimize plastic waste, foster recycling and regulate its transboundary movement. The Convention’s annex was amended in 2021 to enhance control over transboundary plastic waste movements. Various other international conventions and agreements, such as the Convention on Biological Diversity, the CleanSeas Campaign and the Global Partnership on Marine Litter, aim to protect land and sea from littering. Furthermore, SDG 12 focuses on sustainable consumption and production, including waste management of all wastes throughout their lifecycle. Finally, the slogan “Reduce, Reuse, Recycle” (3R) was initiated on the first Earth Day in 1970, and was later expanded to 6R, 7R or 8R principles, encouraging citizens to manage their waste. In Switzerland, this was especially important, as in the 1950s and 1960s, solid waste ended up on over 38’000 dumpsites, negatively affecting ground, surface water and agricultural land.

However, the efforts to limit the use of plastic must be increased:

Awareness Raising: Despite Switzerland being among the world champions in recycling, plastic reduction and its reuse must be prioritized to tackle excessive waste production. Furthermore, in economically less developed countries, awareness must be increased that proper solid waste management (SWM) contributes to a reduction of vector- and water-borne diseases, a cleaner environment, reduces waterlogging of drains and channels, increases social prestige, and ultimately increases land fertility and enhances nutrition due to fertilizer produced from compost. Awareness raising can be done creatively through mass cleaning campaigns, youth involvement or upcycling. Behaviour change communication is crucial to make people understand the importance of SWM and change their behaviour in the long run.

Community engagement: Involving households, waste pickers, scrap dealers and governments in setting up a reliable SWM system, introducing fee collection and joint monitoring creates a sense of ownership. In return, this facilitates the recycling of valuable materials, the production of compost, the disposal of properly established and well-managed landfills or burning of residual waste in incinerators with modern filters.

Producer Responsibility: Producers must reconsider packaging practices, shifting towards reduced and alternative, recyclable, or multi-use packaging options. A life-cycle perspective should be integrated into their strategies to promote sustainable practices.

Policy Frameworks: National policies and binding local bylaws must be established for waste management, recycling, production, and consumption. Such policies must clearly define responsibilities, monitoring mechanisms and sanctions. They should incentivize individuals and industries to adopt sustainable habits. The precondition is a solid understanding of existing policies and practices of SWM, including their advantages, drawbacks, and barriers to implementation and law enforcement. To develop more effective and evidence-based policies, a governance approach involving public and private actors at multiple levels and across multiple sectors is inevitable.

In conclusion, to achieve the SDGs, we must rethink our use of plastic and reduce, reuse and recycle it. And we need to recognize that it needs us all – from households to policymakers, industry and researchers – to develop a holistic, mindful and caring sense of the environment we live in.

Image credits: Aravind Edamanakunnel Soman