Interviews |

We must give up what we cannot reuse

G’nY. The theme for this WED is ‘beat plastic pollution’. Although pertinent for countries like India, what is the core area of focus, littering or recycling? 

Eric Solheim : The scourge of plastic pollution is a problem for every country in the world. Recently we found a plastic bag in the deepest depths of the ocean, in the Mariana Trench. We have found plastic in animals, in the water we drink and of course on land. In Bandung province in Indonesia, an army chief referred to plastic pollution as the biggest enemy that the country is combating today. Nearly 12 million tonnes of plastic flow into our oceans. Plastic is a miraculous material, but how we have used and discarded it is not. So we are asking people to give up single-use plastic and to get out of their homes and join thousands of clean-ups around the world. We are asking businesses to take a very serious look at how they produce and to take responsibility for where their products end up. We are asking policymakers and governments around the world to legislate our future away from a plastic planet.

G’nY. In India an average 25,490 tonnes of unstructured plastic waste is generated each day. How, in your opinion should this waste be tackled?

Eric Solheim : We have to focus on several fronts. One, we must give up what we cannot reuse. And there are many simple things we can simply give up. What use do plastic straws really have? The second is for us to recycle as much as possible. India is already a country where recycling is common and a lot of innovation is happening. For example, across India roads are being built with plastic waste and this is an incredible innovation. Third, we need companies to change the ways they do business and move to a circular economy.

I see absolutely no reason why Indian business cannot beat plastic pollution and other environmental challenges. In Gujarat for example, paper mills generate an enormous amount of non-recyclable plastic waste which was earlier either dumped in a landfill or incinerated.
Now many cement mills in the
area have modified feeding systems to use large quantities of plastic waste, replacing fossil fuels.

G’nY. In the current scenario, plastic is almost ubiquitously used in every industry. Since there is no way of going back – how can industries be cajoled into being more responsible?

Eric Solheim : Plastic is one of the most useful things ever invented. It saves lives in medicine, keeps food clean and is at the center of the renewable energy revolution. I believe environmental challenges offer industry enormous opportunities and so it is less about being cajoled as seeing opportunities and acting upon them. We throw away hundreds of billions of dollars in plastic, electronic and food waste a year. But imagine the opportunities if we viewed waste as a resource, an investment and as an employment provider? The time is ripe for another revolution – to build the next frontiers of business. At a time when economies around the world are looking for growth, changing the way we produce and consume, could be the next big economic victory.

Many businesses are looking keenly at how to close the materials loop. Danone, which produces Indonesia’s leading brand of bottled water, has set up several recycling cooperatives with litter collectors, creating jobs, providing social services and micro finance. The circular economy can also span the next generation of start-ups because green business is good business. Method is one of the largest and fastest-growing ‘green’ cleaning products companies in its field. It uses recyclable materials and renewable energy. Its ‘Oceans Plastics Bottle’ project has led to using discarded plastic from the sea in its packaging.

 G’nY. Disasters, especially the hydrological ones, pull out light weight plastics into freshwater bodies and ultimately into marine environments. Are there any innovative ways to deal with this looming crisis, especially in a backdrop where such disasters are likely to rise in a changing
climatic regime?

Eric Solheim : We need to tackle the problem of plastic pollution at source. That is, doing everything we can to make sure plastic does not end up in the ocean in the first place. If it does, it is extremely difficult to find ways to deal with it especially when disasters strike. Many major brands, retailers and packaging companies are working towards using 100 per cent reusable, recyclable or compostable packaging. The Netherlands has super markets which are completely plastic free. There are apps that let shoppers order exact quantities of groceries and are delivered in reusable packaging. Many people are selling reusable containers. Right here in India, there are many companies selling biodegradable cutlery made from completely natural materials that does not harm people or the planet. Many companies are looking at ways to design edible and compostable sachets for things such as ketchup. So there are changes happening, but they must be spread wider and be scaled-up. Single-use plastic can no longer be the norm in the way we produce, package
or consume.

G’nY. Despite the huge waste generated the plastic recycling plants in India find it difficult to run full capacity, not to mention the endemic problem of power outages. What solutions can India opt for?

Eric Solheim : India is a global leader in solar. Over the last three years for example, solar capacity has increased 370 per cent I believe there is tremendous opportunity in plastic recycling plants looking to use solar to power their businesses.

 G’nY. Many states in India have opted to ban plastic bags. Do you think banning is a solution?

Eric Solheim : Many countries around the world have now banned plastic bags. And yes, we are seeing successes in countries like Kenya and Rwanda, the latter of which, for example, banned plastic bags more than 10 years ago. The streets of Kigali are amongst the cleanest I have ever seen in the world! Bans need to be accompanied by widespread awareness amongst consumers as well. This is very important. Take the state of Sikkim for example which has banned disposable plastic bags in 1998. And they have been very successful and are now targeting single-use plastic bottles. Maharashtra has introduced very ambitious bans on plastic bags and other forms of single-use plastic. So yes, we need legislators to guide us in the right direction and for this to be accompanied by action from people and companies.

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