An urgent cry for a future without plastic pollution

Authors: Mahendra Reddy, Former Minister for Waterways and Environment, Fiji Government & Yemesrach Workie, Deputy Resident Representative, UNDP Pacific Office in Fiji

December 9, 2022

Participants find plastic waste all along the foreshore during a beach clean up initiative.

Photo: UNDP

There is now, a growing interest amongst the rank and file with regard to the quality of our environment and natural resources amongst us. The increased concerned has arisen as a result of both, our own conduct and activities as well as external shocks such as climate change and natural disasters.

Both of the above shocks could negatively affect the quality of life of future generations in a number of ways. It can reduce the stock of our natural resources, our biodiversity, it could change, deplete, and make vulnerable the genetic mix of our flora and fauna, or it could become a threat to our very existence given its limitations. While there is great deal of discourse and limited responses to these, an issue that has been bothering everyone is plastic pollution.

Plastic pollution is posing a serious threat on human and environmental health, biodiversity, and marine resources in Fiji and the Pacific. This threat arises from the mismanagement of plastic refuse and continues to grow along our increasing dependence on plastic products. In the marine ecosystems, plastics makes up approximately 80 percent of all marine pollution. If we continue with ‘business-as-usual’, it is estimated that there will be more plastic pollution in the ocean than fish by 2050 as alluded to by environmentalist Ellen MacArthur at the January 2016 World Economic Forum. 

To think that these are only a couple of the countless alarming figures depicting the seriousness of the plastics crisis at hand is indeed worrying, especially for the Pacific Small Island Developing States (SIDS). Much like climate change, Pacific SIDS contribute very little to the plastics crisis but face the large-scale brunt of its negative impacts. To fully grasp the magnitude of the problem, one only needs to refer to the Henderson Island scenario - a remote, isolated, uninhabited island in the South Pacific that has become the most polluted island in the world, simply due to the transboundary movement of plastics pollution through ocean currents. 

While a plastic pollution-free future of Fiji and the Pacific may sound ambitious, it is not impossible, but we must be realistic in terms of interventions and understand that we cannot simply recycle our way out of this crisis. We must take a step back from focusing so closely on plastics end-of-life stage and look at the bigger picture, and that is - the entire plastics value chain, particulary, re-engineering our production and consumption process to reduce its use. The least plastics used; the less plastic waste is generated. However, it seems the current discourse is much more focused on recycling only.

From its production to its manufacture, utilization and management, interventions in the plastics value chain will need to come at all stages of the value chain if we are to truly curb the plastics crisis. There is no single solution to a challenge as complex as this and the urgency to move to a more circular economy for plastics has never been more evident. We can no longer continue to sustain the current take-make-waste model where unnecessary single-use plastics have become a staple in our daily lives. 

Innovative approaches are crucial to redesigning the way plastics are produced and used, to ensure they continue to flow through the economy in a closed loop, rather than becoming plastic waste. Furthermore, we have yet to explore and see large scale participation from corporate sector to produce and inject bio-degradable alternatives at competitive prices. Unless this is done, it will be impossible to reduce plastic pollution given that a large proportion of the Pacific population originate from low-income households and are highly price sensitive.

In June 2022, the Fijian Government through the Ministry of Waterways & Environment and the UNDP Pacific Office in Fiji, in realizing the urgent need for a shift to a circular economy for plastics, brought together key stakeholders across the entire plastics value chain for a 3-day workshop to discuss the plastics crisis. With a diverse group of participants all in the same room we asked the question, “What kind of interventions would encourage plastics circularity in Fiji?”. With representatives from government, civil society organizations, activists, media, municipal councils, disability forum, the private sector, grassroots, academia, international multilateral organizations, Council of Regional Organizations of the Pacific, and regional agencies, among others, the ensuing dialogues were rich and certainly not short of fresh innovative ideas. 

What resulted at the end of a productive three days of brainstorming, discussions, learning and listening, was a co-designed ‘portfolio of interventions’. Through peer learning and working together, the workshop participants were able to identify key focus areas and potential entry points where possible interventions may help to shift the current system to one that is more conscientious of plastic production and use. The UNDP Strategic Plan 2022 – 2025, envisions a world that is free of plastic pollution and has committed to work with partners to realize this vision.

Behavioral change, policies, technology, institutions, business models, and innovation were all identified as key focus areas and core drivers that will help to push and catalyze this transition to plastics circularity. This portfolio will then be finetuned to a workable number of strategic experiments that addresses the plastics crisis from various angles, while ensuring interventions are inclusive and wide-ranging. 

We are encouraged by the level of passion and dedication expressed during the workshop in working towards a circular economy for plastics in Fiji and remain optimistic that more people will continue to join this movement and network of like-minded people who want to see a plastic-free future, for our people and planet. Every step towards this goal counts, no matter how small.

With stronger commitments and a renewed focus, curbing the plastics crisis is not impossible. While it may not be an easy feat, we must all play our part to close the plastics loop and stop plastic pollution leakage into our environments. We must encourage our younger generations through leading by example. From students to business owners, informal workers to the leaders of our country, no role is too big or small to get involved in this ambitious goal towards a plastic pollution-free future. Our environments hold significant social, economic, and cultural importance to Pacific people, and we must act now to protect this most precious resource for future generations. Together, we can create a circular economy for plastics.