Plastics have been part of our lives. Global statistics indicate that plastic production in the last 60 years has grown from 1.5 millions tonnes in the 1950s to a staggering 335 tonnes by 2016. This figure is expected to double(if not already doubled) in the next 20 years.
While the debate on the advantages of plastics continues to have firm ground, with pros such as providing packaging alternatives that are very efficient and affordable, we must look deeply at the negatives that these products are having on the industry, health and eco systems.
Much of this impact, in terms of greenhouse gas emissions, land degradation, and resource depletion, for instance, is inherent in fossil resource extraction, and therefore unavoidable if we continue to depend on virgin, fossil-based materials.
Furthermore, acute events like oil spills can damage both ecosystems and economies. But the problems do not stop with the sourcing of plastic.
Take the Water tourism sector, for example. This sector has been devastated by the proliferation of plastic litter. Apart from the fact that declining, dirty beaches dissuade tourists from making return visits, the potential health impact associated with poor waste management (e.g., open dumping) is well established.
The specific effects of unmanaged plastics and microplastics on human and animal health are not yet fully understood. It is suspected that inhaled or ingested microplastic may create an even higher risk of respiratory issues and epigenetic consequences than is currently understood.
It is also known that microplastics are present in 12 of the 25 most important species and genera that comprise fresh water fisheries, and animals are adversely affected by larger pieces of plastic and suffer from body toxicity, suffocation, and digestion issues. The aggregate effect of these occurrences is still being determined. Environmental damage to fresh water ecosystems, meanwhile, is estimated to be USD 13 billion per year
According to the National Environment Management Authority, Uganda has produced over 12,330 metric tons of PET plastics since 2018. In Kampala Metropolitan Area, 135,804 tons of plastic waste are generated per year. Of this, 42% is uncollected, 15% collected through the value chain approach and 43% collected by the service providers.
About 21,728T of plastics is burned and 47,457T is landfilled/dumped, 27,160T is retained on land and 13,580T finds its way into water systems.
NEMA also affirms that as a consequence, of plastic pollution, the country is seeing increased unexplained cancers, floods, poor water quality, poor air quality, decreased soil fertility, siltation of water bodies, death of livestock, fish and wildlife through ingestion and entanglement and above all, enhanced greenhouse gas emissions.
The current scenario points to the fact that Inadequate waste management systems are a major cause of plastics pollution
Both the Uganda and global Recycling and leakage statistics paint a stark picture of our progress in terms of plastic pollution.
Globally, only 14% of plastic packaging is collected for recycling, and as much as 32% of all plastic packaging does not end up within a collection system, let alone recycled, this, according to a study by the Ellen MacArthur Foundation.
While ocean-based occurrences of plastic pollution have received a lot of attention, much less attention has been paid to the fact that 80% of plastic pollution in the ocean stems from land-based and fresh water sources. Leaked uncollected waste is mainly the result of inadequate waste management.
This problem is twofold. First, adequate infrastructure that enables collection is often not provided. For instance, while most high-income countries have a collection rate close to 100% for general waste, low-income countries such as Uganda achieve only 39% or even less on average. This leaves citizens without the means to correctly dispose of their waste.
Citing an example of our growing cities and city divisions, we shall all agree that the city authorities try their best to ensure that the solid waste is collected. Unfortunately, the odds of it finding its way back to nature are still quite high, since as much as 60% of it is mismanaged and deposited in open dumps.
In non-sanitary and poorly managed landfills, waste — especially plastic items, which tend to be light — can be blown or washed away. Meanwhile, a growing number of the world’s largest cities are already running out of landfill capacity, and rapid urbanization rates are creating similar challenges for many smaller cities like Kampala.
While eliminating single-use plastics may seem like the obvious answer to this challenge, removing this one component of the global system of materials management may transfer environmental costs to another part of the system.
Indiscriminate substitution of single-use plastics with paper products, for example, would overlook the crucial role plastic plays in preservation and food safety, with detrimental results for our natural resources. The plastics issue is not the only environmental crisis we face, and we therefore cannot seek solutions to plastic waste that exacerbate the adverse impact on our climate, forests, and food waste.
At WWF in Uganda, we are calling for an integrated approach, which accounts for the interconnectedness of both technical and natural systems, a “one planet perspective.”
This is an approach that resonates particularly closely with the current strategy of WWF, No Plastic in Nature, and focuses additionally on outlining better choices for managing, using, and sharing the natural resources within our planet’s limits — to ensure food, water, and energy security for all.
No Plastic in Nature aims to stop the flow of plastic pollution into our ecosystems by 2030. To successfully alleviate the harm inflicted by plastic, aligned and committed action by all stakeholders at every stage of the plastic life cycle is needed.
No one solution is, however, capable of defusing this crisis, and each region will therefore have to tailor its approach appropriately.
Business has an important role to play in solving the plastic waste crisis. While it is not the sole responsibility of companies to solve this problem, their engagement and meaningful action is essential to catalyzing the actions of other important stakeholders and achieving practical solutions.
Businesses control the design (and associated environmental impact) of their products and packaging, have enormous influence over their supply chains and the public’s interaction with their products, and maintain the ability to make industry-wide changes through collective action.
In addition, businesses could provide important support for policy changes that will make circular material systems more realistic.
Importantly, businesses also have a strong rationale for taking action, ranging from improving employee satisfaction and customer experiences to building the next social contract based on sustainability and tapping into new market segments.
While companies have already started to engage in several different ways, the issue is complex, and solutions will need to be carefully tailored to specific regions or products.
The author is the WWF Country Director