It’s World Environment Day on June 5th and this year’s theme, ‘Beat Plastic Pollution,’ is a global call to action to reduce plastic use and waste.
The central message of the day is a reminder that “people’s actions on plastic pollution matter,” emphasising that governments, businesses, and individuals need to work together to combat the devastating environmental effects of our dependence on plastic. It’s also an opportunity to celebrate the progress made in finding solutions through innovation, science, and global partnerships.
The impact of plastic pollution
Plastic pollution is now a global threat impacting every country and community. According to the UN Environment Programme (UNEP), around 400 million tonnes of plastic waste is produced each year– roughly the same weight as the entire human population. Around 11 million metric tonnes of plastic waste enters the marine environment every year and an estimated 171 trillion pieces of plastic are now floating in the world’s oceans. By 2050, scientists have calculated that there will be more plastic in the sea than fish.
Only 9% of plastic waste gets recycled, the rest goes into landfill or is carried by lakes and rivers into the sea. Most plastic items never fully disappear, they break down into smaller pieces and harmful microplastics – a single plastic bottle can take up to 450 years to decompose.
Plastic pollution is devastating for the environment, wildlife, marine ecosystems, and human health, with microplastics now being detected in our major organs and in the placentas of newborn babies. Plastic production also contributes to climate change, releasing carbon dioxide and methane into the atmosphere and increasing emissions.
Cutting single-use plastics
As a material, plastic is easy to make, durable and convenient. It has transformed every area of our lives; from the clothes we wear to the food we consume. As a result, the global population has become addicted to throwaway plastic products. Single-use plastics make up around half of all plastics produced and the majority cannot be recycled. From food wrappers to bottle lids, most of us use these items every day without thinking about where they might end up.
UNEP estimates that global plastic pollution could be cut by 80% by 2040 if governments, businesses and individuals act to eliminate single-use plastics. In 2022, 175 nations endorsed a historic UN resolution to end plastic pollution by committing to drawing up a legally-binding agreement by 2024. The agreement focuses on the creation of a circular economy for plastic, which considers every stage of a plastic item’s journey, from production until after it reaches the consumer. The circular economy calls for worldwide implementation of a reduction in single-use plastic production, reuse of existing plastic, recycling and reorientation (finding new, sustainable materials to replace plastics).
However, the responsibility for reducing single-use plastic waste also lies with individuals. If we don’t use these items, fewer will be produced. Investing in reusable, everyday items and making sustainable choices at home, such as swapping cling film for food containers or shampoo bottles for soap bars, make a big difference in the fight against plastic production and waste.
Advocating for change on a local level is also a great way to cut single-use plastic waste. Confronting businesses about their use of these items, putting pressure on local authorities, and getting involved in anti-plastic activism will help put an end to single-use plastic pollution.
Beating plastic pollution through innovative research
Along with the small changes individuals can make, the fight against plastic pollution demands collaborative thinking and innovative research. Pioneering academic research into finding solutions to plastic waste is happening worldwide, such as studies into plastic-eating microbes or the development of Smart Sustainable Plastic Packaging (SSPP).
Higher education is at the forefront of interdisciplinary research into the development of plastic-free and sustainable products, materials and technologies. Researchers, lecturers and senior-level academics in physical and environmental sciences play a key role in leading research into human impact on the environment. They also shape tomorrow’s environmental science innovators and activists.
If you’ve just graduated in an area of physical and environmental sciences, you may be considering pursuing your interests in this area through a PhD studentship. Or perhaps you already have a doctorate and are looking for your first lecturing or research job in this field. You’ll find a wide range of exciting academic jobs in physical and environmental sciences – check out our current opportunities here at jobs.ac.uk.
- World Environment Day – Get Involved
- Case study: Working as an Environmental Sciences Lecturer
- Academic jobs in Physical and Environmental Sciences
- UN Environment Programme (UNEP)
- UNEP-Clean Seas Pledge
- Global Plastic Action Partnership (GPAP)