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World Environment Day


World Environment Day (WED) is an event that has been running since 1974 and is regarded as the ‘UN's most important day for encouraging worldwide awareness and action for the protection of our environment’. Each year the event has a host country and a theme. This year’s theme was unsurprisingly, ‘Beat Plastic Pollution’ and giving up single-use plastics; hosted in India.

Giving up single-use plastics is amicable, but it's a polluted drop in the ocean in the grand scheme of things...

Plastics, in themselves aren't 'evil', not when appropriately used, collected and recycled/treated. Plastics can delay the rate at which food goes off, are sterile and make products lightweight, saving waste and carbon as part of wider life cycle of the products they are used to package and protect (however you do have to question the point of a plastic coffee stirrer!). What we need to ensure are that the products and plastics we purchase are fit for purpose and not superfluous. We also need to make sure they are easily identifiable, separable into their polymer streams and find the right home. It’s also important to make sure that any alternative materials, be they biodegradable or bio-based plastics are treated in the right way.

 China used to import almost half of the world’s exported plastic. Plastics become a problem when they end up in the wrong place. Jessica Barker, MD at Chase Plastics put it eloquently in her article in Resource magazine this month (Single-use plastics: Fiddling while Rome burns...). Since China closed its gates to our low-grade plastics it’s even more important to question where these materials are going, the chances are these materials are now destined for other developing countries with potentiality poorer facilities and environmental standards. This Plastic Pathways infographic shows how China used to import almost half of the world’s exported plastic. 

Plastic pollutionWhat I would ask of people supporting and pledging to World Environment Day is to speak to their waste management provider and ask them what actually happens to the materials that are sent to them, and where do they ultimately end up? Are these wastes fully separated and recycled/treated locally, or shipped off to a developing country with a questionable environmental record? Do the residual low value/hard to manage residual plastics end up being dumped into a dry riverbed waiting for the next monsoon? If your contractor can't give you the answers you need, then how can you be sure you're not part of the problem?

It’s fitting that India is the host country for this year’s event, with the Ganges being the 2nd biggest contributor of river-based plastic pollution.

Plastic recyclingRecent news regarding the spate of >60 dubious waste-facility fires linked to the China import ban further emphasises the need for waste producers to do their homework and ask where their waste is going: Poland vows to fight illegal waste dumps after toxic fires.

So, if you’re promoting World Environment Day make sure that it’s more than just a marketing exercise or greenwash. If your CEO is committed to it, hold them to account, it's a great opportunity for them to review, extend and recommit to your company’s Sustainability Policy (or even write one!) Making sure your wastes are managed responsibly and moving to more sustainable methods and materials can take some effort to investigate and implement and isn't likely to be the cheapest option. Buy-in from management and procurement teams is essential to making a change in your organisation and World Environment Day is great way to get (and keep!) the ball rolling.  Remember it was the cheap and easy route that got us here, but a bit of effort and investment will ultimately get us out of it.