December 19, 2019

Single Use Plastic

Co-authors: Arijana Drinić and Amina Omićević, UNDP Accelerator Lab Bosnia and Herzegovina

Almost all plastic ever produced still exists today! Plastic is mostly non-degradable and rarely anything else can be made of it - only 9% of plastic in the world is recycled and reused.

Plastic materials have only been used for about a hundred years and for the last fifty years they have been a regular ingredient in our consumer habits. Most plastic is purpose-built to be used only once and then thrown away, also known as single-use plastic.

When you buy a plastic bag, its "original use life" will take an average of 12 minutes before it becomes waste and it will continue its "life" in a landfill, or more likely in nature, for another 1000 years.

When you buy water in a plastic bottle, after you drink the water, the bottle will end up in the waste bin, from where it will end up in a landfill or again in nature, for at least the next 450 years.

Single use plastics include:

By throwing away plastic bags, glasses, bottles, straws and food packaging every day, we create huge amounts of plastic waste that pollutes our environment and affects our health. Just remember how many times you have seen a tree “adorned” with plastic bags, or plastic bottles floating in the river - the planet is suffocating in plastic, while we have become its obsessive consumers and contribute to plastic pollution faster than ever!

Today, we produce about 300 million tonnes of plastic waste every year. That’s nearly equivalent to the weight of the entire human population. Researchers estimate that more than 8.3 billion tonnes of plastic has been produced since the early 1950s. about 60% of that plastic has ended up in either a landfill or the natural environment. More than 99% of plastics are produced from chemicals derived from oil, natural gas and coal – all of which are dirty, non-renewable resources. If current trends continue, by 2050 the plastic industry could account for 20% of the world’s total oil consumption.

All right! Clearly, we have a plastic problem! What did we do first?

We at the UNDP Accelerator Lab have recognized this problem as well as the opportunity to start changing things. We set ourselves the goal of encouraging our work colleagues to change their behavior and reduce the use of single use plastic in their workspace, guided by the assumption that behavioral change will be transposed to their lives past work.

This was to be our first "simple" experiment, as all our colleagues advocate daily for achieving the Sustainable Development Goals, and they also know a lot about sustainability. After all, what can go wrong?

After the first month of our experiment, we can say with certainty that things turned out to be not so simple.

For a month, we conducted an information campaign on single use plastic, promoting the importance of reducing the use of this plastic through audio announcements, talking to almost all employees, putting up posters with key messages in strategic locations, making video presentations with the most important data, information and trends in reducing the use of disposable plastic globally as well as locally. We have organized challenges and implemented activities to reduce the total number of waste bins, as well as activities to replace plastic bags with textile ones. We have flooded social networks through UN agency channels with the information that as the UN we are becoming the first single use plastic free workspace in Bosnia and Herzegovina. We counted each plastic item our colleagues brought into the building and were repeating the mantra non-plastic is fantastic!

What have we learned?

A month does not seem like a significantly long period, but when you do a social experiment in a relatively localized space, the lessons shape up on their own.

1. Communication through digital channels and tools is ok, but it is still the most effective direct conversation with people!

In addition to all the digital "tools" we have been developing to describe as much as possible the problem of using disposable plastics in the world and in Bosnia and Herzegovina, and to inform everyone about the alternatives they can use in their daily lives and thus reduce the amount of waste they produce, nothing proved as effective as a direct conversation with our colleagues. People simply feel much more inclined to share their impressions through personal contact, and each campaign becomes much more successful if it harnesses the power of such a personal approach.

2. Changing habits is difficult, but not impossible.

Sir Newton’s first law says that all resting objects like to stay that way, if they can. The same goes for habits. To people who already had some sustainable habits, this initiative came as bingo - we received smiles and support from them, and in some cases a concrete offer to help. We have identified enthusiasts, the true agents of change among us, who have been encouraged to further spread the importance of reducing single use plastics. There were also "undecideds" who didn't know what to think about all this - but through conversation we were able to get them interested in waste reduction activities. However, there were others who were ready to defend the use of their plastic water bottle or their plastic waste bin until the last atom of power! We were genuinely surprised by some of the reactions, but this campaign taught us patience, openness, and understanding of different points of view, and the fact that voluntary change of behavior and human habits are not a process that can happen overnight.

3. Rewards win over excuses, and opportunities override obstacles!

A lot of the people we talked to at first were very creative with excuses for why it's hard for them to give up some plastic items. Some of the excuses were reasonable, while others were simply lazy. Some merely reiterated the lack of policy enforcement mechanisms relevant to the systemic solution to the problem of waste management, including plastics, and thought that a voluntary approach could not change anything. But when we mentioned that free checkers will be available at the entrance to the UN House, and prizes for the top 50 that participated in our staff challenge, all faces lit up. Shortly afterwards, the Accelerator Lab office was full of happy colleagues who took part in the first challenge and claimed their prizes dearly. Obviously, people like to be rewarded for their hard work and are willing to forget all those "buts" when faced with a bit of play or challenge. Also, when we promised to advocate for waste separation and proper disposal activities, no one had a problem committing to participate. In the end, peer pressure can still be a positive thing.

4. Provide creative individuals with an opportunity to participate and things will go at light speed!

After we started the campaign and talked with colleagues, ideas for expanding the initiative started pouring in. At the request of several colleagues who were delighted about the Accelerator Lab initiative, we also reduced the number of waste bins in our building offices and increased the number of paper recycling points, thus increasing the amount of paper recycled in our building many times over. A self-organized group of employees has also started discussing other sustainable options for improving our work space - from separate collection of other types of waste to new approaches to reduce our carbon footprint. The hierarchy has become less important and has given way to mutual recommendations for a healthier life that will ultimately contribute to a healthier environment.

Where do we stand now regarding the use of disposable plastic in the UN House?

After a month, we cannot say that we are completely “free” from single use plastic, but the fact is that our colleagues have reduced their use of plastic in the short term by up to 35%. People are open to reducing the use of disposable plastics where alternatives are easy and quick to access. They are ready to replace plastic bags with textile ones, plastic water bottles with glass - unless it is water with "special nutritional values" that can be purchased in exclusively plastic packaging. They are ready to invest in reusable food boxes, want system solutions, and have no problem separating waste and supporting recycling if they know their effort will not be in vain.

Almost half of our colleagues said they now know a lot more about the harms of single use plastic than they did before our campaign began.

But it's not over yet...

In addition to the activities for reducing and sorting the different types of waste in our workspace, in 2020 we are expanding plastic free workspaces movement to other companies, organizations and other partners who want to work with us for a more sustainable environment! We are also pleased that several schools have shown interest in becoming non-plastic fantastic schools and will be writing more about this initiative soon.

If you are interested in learning from our experience and changing things, write to us at