By Erik Solheim, head of UN Environment
India is the global host of World Environment Day, and the theme of the celebrations are be an ambitious challenge: beating plastic pollution.
It’s important to say right away that neither the United Nations nor the Government of India are declaring war on plastics. Far from it. It’s a miracle material, life-saving in many medical applications and energy-saving in plenty of others.
In fact, the problem isn’t really plastic. It’s what we do with it.
Because it’s so cheap and versatile, we’ve come to abuse the material. We’ve fashioned it into products that we sometimes use for mere seconds, the problem being that the resulting waste can linger on for hundreds of years. It’s the ultimate product, and the ultimate pollutant.
The results of this reckless throwaway plastic addiction are clear for all to see. Aside from the visible waste piling up on land, many beaches are now covered in the stuff, making it barely possible to see the sand.
A plastic bag was recently found drifting deep inside the Mariana Trench, the deepest place point of our oceans, while discarded packaging has been spotted floating among the icebergs in the high latitudes.
In total, we’re throwing up to 13 million tonnes of plastic into the oceans every year. Current projections show that global plastic production will skyrocket in the next 10-15 years to almost double current quantities. Much of that will be non-recyclable, and our waste systems will not be able to keep up.
That means the next time you see scenes of plastic choking a river or burying a beach, consider double that impact in just over 10 years. It’s a grim vision of a future we must avoid.
We’re asking for three things on World Environment Day: action from citizens, governments and, above all, the private sector. With businesses, the conversations are already overwhelmingly positive, showing innovation is already taking place.
In India, the Taj Group is one such example of a company taking the lead in the vital services sector. The Taj Exotica Resort & Spa is the first luxury resort to open in the Andaman Islands, and is aiming to keep the beach destination and the unique ecosystems unspoilt. It is perhaps the world’s first single-use plastic-free luxury resort, and as such it’s a possible game-changer for the industry. Throughout the rest of its hotel network, the Taj Group is looking towards eliminating the unnecessary but ubiquitous throwaway plastic packaging that permeate the tourism sector.
It’s a step-by-step process: identifying sustainable alternatives, sourcing new products from within India and solving the problem one step at a time. This initiative could set the bar for the rest of the industry – because it’s solutions we need right now.
Infosys is another example of another Indian company raising the bar. I’ve seen first hand their campus in Hyderabad, where staff levels more than doubled over the past 10 years yet electricity consumption barely increased thanks to incredible advances in energy efficiency and green buildings. From plastics to food waste, the model is the kind of circular model we need to see more of – the kind that will bring us to carbon neutrality and less waste. All the more important, industry leaders are showing this action is not only good for the planet, it’s also good for business.
Ultimately, this is about sound business practice, and the idea that a sustainable operation will also contribute to a sustainable bottom line. This is true for every sector striving to reduce their environmental footprint.
Beating plastic pollution is just a part of this wider shift to green business practice, a change that will include opportunities on a par with the digital revolution. India’s innovators have already given a taste of what can be done, and it is high time this becomes the new normal. India, and the world, will be far richer as a result.
Learn more about World Environment Day.