Does plastic harm the environment?

Just as the world has been battling the COVID-19 pandemic, our planet has been fighting another enemy that threatens our very existence – Plastic. Did you know that every piece of plastic we have ever touched is still on Earth? It may be disintegrating but it is still here and more entering the system every second. We’re two weeks into #PlasticFreeJuly and there’s no better time to reflect on how we can all make small changes and take simple steps to reduce waste in our lives.

My little one asked me three questions the other day. The first one is whether plastic harms the environment. The answer to this, which I promptly replied “yes”, is an easy one but, the second question on why needs a lot more elaboration.

We must admit that plastics made from fossil fuels have only been around for a century. According to the National Geographic, the manufacturing and creation of thousands of new plastic goods increased tremendously after World War II. This altered the modern age to the point that we cannot imagine our life without plastics today. Plastic has helped us in a variety of ways, making life easier and safer.

With life-saving devices, plastics transformed medicine, enabled life-saving devices such as helmets and incubators, made space travel possible, enabled lighter vehicles and aircrafts, reduced fuel and pollution and improved sanitation. On the flip side, this also resulted in a throw-away culture and Single-use plastics now account for 40% of the overall annual plastic production.

According to a 2018 survey by the Singapore Environment Council, Singaporeans consume 1.76 billion plastic goods annually including 820 million supermarket plastic bags, 467 million PET bottles, and 473 million disposable plastic such as takeaway containers. To put this in context, this is more than two bottles used by each Singaporean in a week.

Although many of these including plastic bags and food wrappers have a brief lifespan, they can endure hundreds of years in the environment. According to a report published in the scientific journal – Philosophical Transactions of The Royal Society B, disposable packaging like bottles and bags forms more than one-third of all plastic and largely ends up harming the environment.

A study published in Environmental Health News found that the chemical building elements that make plastics so adaptable are also components that may harm humans, animals as well as the environment.

While the image of a bird tangled in a plastic necklace has become well-known, plastic particle ingestion is far more common. Harmful chemicals used in the manufacture of plastics when absorbed by humans have been said to impact hormones among other health consequences.

As the use of plastics grows, we need to look at alternatives – reuse rather than dispose as it  involves using fewer resources to produce;  expand recycling facilities to make plastic recyclable from the start.

Increasing availability of biodegradable plastic manufactured from renewable ingredients like corn and soy is another possibility. However, biodegradable polymers now have a global production capacity of roughly 350,000 tons, accounting for less than 0.2 percent of petrochemical-based plastic. Lastly, decrease plastic waste by allowing consumers to opt for packaging based on a lifecycle analysis that considers all aspects of the production process.

While there are many broad ideas on plastic alternatives, companies and individuals can begin by doing their part to reduce plastic use. Companies may be drawn into sustainability initiatives as a reactive approach that could be due to pressure from stakeholders or even the media. I suggest we don’t leap into it but take time to develop a clear sustainability strategy. Sustainability cannot be a “flavour of the month” but a long term push and if done well can increase the company’s brand equity, engage customers and most importantly, ensure the environment continues to stay around for your business to thrive.

For us at the Science Centre Singapore, we are taking a three-prong approach. Being sustainable requires a change in our ways and nothing is more important than starting with the “man in the mirror”. Our goal is to ensure we support and adopt sustainable practices organisation wide. These include setting internal environmental goals and supporting green practices by revamping our Centre to incorporate eco-offices and spaces equipped with energy efficient technologies and water saving capabilities. Next, we believe in cultivating a sustainable culture by building green capabilities among team members and having the correct mindset. Our staff are all enrolled in training courses to enhance their environmental literacy. Additionally, we encourage them to cultivate eco-friendly habits such as recycling and reducing the use of paper.

 Finally, we aim to create that ripple effect among the guests and stakeholders  via innovative programmes, workshops and exhibitions such as the Climate Change and Earth Alive exhibitions to educate guests on how our daily actions may ultimately affect our planet. We also hero the Young Sustainability Champion Programme which aims to raise awareness and inspire young individuals to develop creative solutions that align with the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). Sustainability is an evergreen pillar at the Centre and these are just some of the programmes we’ve created at the Centre to promote awareness and adoption among the community.

Each and every one of us can do our part to make a difference with a couple of easy tweaks to our daily lifestyle. Request to opt out of the extra plastic the next time you get takeout. Switch to reusable bamboo utensils, a portable cutlery set, or use your own! Remember to bring your own reusable containers the next time you order a takeaway.

You can also gently nudge your favourite cafes and food shops to switch to compostable and eco-friendly options. When planning a gathering, look for a caterer who doesn’t use plastic cutlery. Bring your own reusable cup if you’re going to get your favourite latte. Opt for eco-friendly reusable straws made from sustainable materials such as stainless steel, bamboo, paper, silicone.

Continue to play your part as every bit helps! That way, you would have done the environment and all our little ones a big favour. Why all our little ones you ask? Well, you would have helped me answer my little one’s last question and undoubtedly something all our children would ask us: “If people know that too much plastic is bad, then why don’t they do something about it?”

Check out my related post: What is the Ocean Cleanup Project?

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