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The theme for Earth Day is ‘Planet vs Plastics’, in a year which forms a critical inflection point in international politics on our level of commitment to tackling the issue. As we wait in 2024 for global leaders to ratify a treaty on plastic pollution, World Earth Day shines a healthy spotlight on the issues of plastic which are often not well known.

Plastic has pervaded every part of our lives and undoubtedly changed society in many positive ways. As a wonder material, it has made things cheaper, lighter and crucially more durable. It is this durability of plastic and its chemistry that is at the heart of how problems have become societies’ solution to many problems; and created many problems that need solutions.

It is undoubted that the topic of plastics and their impact on the environment and our health is a wildly complex one, but as we pause to think about our planet on World Earth Day, it is worth educating ourselves on some of the less well-known impacts. Plastic is now one of the most pressing, and truly global, transboundary problems across its entire lifecycle of production, use and disposal. Unlike other lifecycles, plastic doesn’t die and gets returned to its base constituents easily.

So what might you not know about plastic and its impact on our planet?

  • The rapid expansion of plastic production, especially in single-use plastics has been partly a consequence of the environmental movement. A huge pivot in investment by fossil carbon companies as renewable energy has risen has driven a massive expansion of production capacity for plastic polymer production and its marketing for wider uses.
  • By 2040 nearly 20% of global carbon budgets will be consumed by plastic production, making the fight against net zero even harder.
  • The impact of plastic is inequitable and not uniform. Just as with climate impacts, plastic pollution disproportionately affects the more vulnerable especially Small Island Developing States (SIDS).
  • Plastic pollution is an economic problem – estimates put the cost of marine plastic pollution at 1-5% reductions in ecosystem services causing nearly $2.5 trillion in annual losses.
  • Recent studies have shown that 77% of humans have microplastics in their blood. While the evidence for what this means for our health is unknown, we know that persistent particles can create inflammation and immune responses.
  • We do know the impact of the multitude of chemicals that are added to plastic and can leach from it. Many of the myriad chemicals are endocrine disruptors (affecting human development). Studies have shown a link between some chemicals’ neurotoxicity with neurodevelopmental disorders. Phthalates when exposed pre-natally have been associated with an increased risk of autism spectrum disorder and BPAs are linked with adverse emotional behavioural disorders in young children. The list of chemicals in plastics is huge and the known impacts are scary!
  • Only 30% of the plastic produced since the 1950s is still in use….
  • Recycling alone isn’t the solution. It is challenged by low rates (circa 9% globally) because of unfavourable economics and the huge spectrum of plastic types. Strategies for reduction also need to include the removal of single-use plastics, more sustainable alternatives, reuse, repair and refill programmes, as well as driving down production in the first place.
  • Clothing sheds microplastics, both during wear and tear and especially during washing. Filters in machines can help but consumer sustainable purchasing matters. As an example, we can replace microfibre cloths with bamboo alternatives.
  • Tyre wear is one of the most challenging areas of microplastics. It is one the biggest sources and one of the hardest issues currently to solve.

The list could go on but we run the risk of frightening ourselves too much and potentially becoming fatalistic. The reality is that we have the solutions as a global society. We need to move away from single-use, we need to embrace other changes than simply recycling, we need to invest in technology to reduce impacts and increase the economic viability of pollution control and we need to support knowledge transfer and policy interventions that help drive down the impact on our planet.

And we can all do our bit. Next time you buy a bottle of soft drink, buy a can. Next time you go to buy a microfibre product, buy a bamboo alternative. There are a myriad of ways that we, as global citizens, can drive down our global footprint. Because, unlike many other environmental issues, our specific actions could end up on the beach in the Pacific, in the stomach of an Albatross or the blood of someone else’s child. Here at Oxford HR we support the spotlight on plastic pollution and are proud to support our partners and clients who work hard on these issues.

James Sawyer
James Sawyer
Principal Consultant, Europe at Oxford HR | Website

James joined Oxford HR in 2023 as a principal consultant. He has over 25 years of experience in the non-profit sector focused in conservation, environment, animal welfare and emergencies. He has operated in more than 40 countries in his career, delivering policy change at national and international levels as well as significant service delivery to beneficiaries and changes to protected area status.