Happy World Ocean Day! (8th June)
In light of this special day that celebrates the ocean and all it does for us, it's fitting to discuss something that we are about to do for the ocean.
Since its introduction in the 1960s, plastic has grown to become an integral part of our society. It has been overused in places where it could be avoided due to its cheap production cost and versatility. It is used in anything and everything imaginable, from tea bags to microbeads in facewash. It has become very easy to produce in relation to the more “sustainable” counterparts like paper or metal. The large-scale use of plastics has led to waste generation and retention in the form of microplastics. At this point they are not visible to the naked eye but cause havoc on our environment and society.
The negative impacts of plastic pollution have been surfacing since the late 1970s, and yet the problem has only grown gradually. The good news is that the United Nations has announced an upcoming Treaty on Plastic Pollution in face of this overlooked crisis! This treaty now has a mandate, which means that they have an authority to begin negotiations on the details and legal languages of the Treaty. This resolution was declared on the 2nd of March this year and is in hopes of looking at plastics throughout its lifecycle, from production to waste, and product design. Countries have the right to ratify the treaty on a voluntary basis and participate in its regulations. If the treaty had legally binding elements, the signed parties would be held accountable fot meeting the demands agreed upon.
The majority of plastic waste ends up in oceans endangering the lives of millions of organisms under the water. This treaty may be exactly what we need to accelerate and amplify solutions to minimize and prevent future pollution. If this treaty were able to be legally binding, there would be numerous ways in regulating the ever growing plastic pollution issue. There could be a cap and trade system as what is currently done with greenhouse gasses (GHGs) or plastic tax might be one of the many solutions. In an extreme case, businesses may start committing to reducing their plastic use similar to their net zero/carbon neutrality commitments.
However, that’s not as easy as it sounds. Unlike the previous success with restoring the ozone layer, this environmental issue is much more complex. It may even be more complicated than GHGs since there are existing alternate sources for energy, while there are no suitable alternatives for plastics. Another issue is that only some types of plastics can be recycled, and among those, each type requires a different process for recycling. Systematic changes to our society will be required to collect and recycle these plastics. Countries such as Germany and South Korea are already achieving high recycling rates, creating more jobs and retaining the value of the waste as well. So there is hope!
This treaty would ideally bring together existing solutions while accelerating and increasing support for the development of new solutions, which will allow for a transition to a more responsible and sustainable society.
What does this mean for Hong Kong? We are a region with more imports than exports, and plastic plays a huge role in ensuring that the majority of the goods arrive safely and in good condition. Takeout food containers and bags are another Hong Kong staple, which is an area ruled by plastic with the occasional cardboard boxes. As a city that relies a lot on plastics, it will certainly be difficult to let go of the material that has shaped this type of economy and culture. Maybe eliminating plastics is neither an option nor the solution, and maybe the answer lies in a systematic change that combines the use of new materials while implementing high recycling rates and strict regulations. For now, let’s celebrate the fact that we are another step closer to cleaner oceans and pay attention to what this treaty will bring forward.
Plastics in our Oceans. (n.d.). Retrieved June 8, 2022, from https://www.whoi.edu/science/B/people/kamaral/plasticsarticle.html
UN Treaty on Plastic Pollution (n.d.). Retrieved June 8, 2022, from https://unplasticstreaty.org/
Plastics | 香港地球之友 Friends of the Earth (HK) (n.d.). Retrieved June 8, 2022, from https://www.foe.org.hk/en/Green%20Info/plastics