02 Jun 2023
‘Stakeholders invested in reducing reliance on fossil fuels should pay close attention to the plastics crisis’
Global plastic production now amounts to some 400 million tonnes per year, as per United Nations Environment Programme. Yet only an estimated 12% of the plastics produced have been incinerated and only an estimated 9% have been recycled. About 8% of the world’s oil goes into plastic production and it’s going to rise to 20% […]

Global plastic production now amounts to some 400 million tonnes per year, as per United Nations Environment Programme. Yet only an estimated 12% of the plastics produced have been incinerated and only an estimated 9% have been recycled. About 8% of the world’s oil goes into plastic production and it’s going to rise to 20% by 2050. Rachel Karasik, a senior policy associate for the Nicholas Institute for Energy, Environment, and Sustainability who also leads Duke University’s Plastic Pollution Working Group, works on global plastics policy landscape, socioeconomic outcomes of coastal restoration, equity in environmental management, and education and outreach. In an exclusive interview with Let Me Breathe, Karasik talks more about her work and explains how individual actions, responsible leaders, scientific community and committed organisations are the key to fight plastic pollution.   

Edited excerpts from the interview:

Photo: Rachel Karasik, a senior policy associate for the Nicholas Institute for Energy, Environment, and Sustainability.

What is the objective of The Duke Plastic Pollution Working Group (PPWG)? Share briefly about the work done by the group.

PPWGs objective is to create a convening space and serve as the central hub for Duke students, staff, and faculty to meet, collaborate, and share their work related to plastic pollution. In addition to coordinating internally PPWG members contributed to a special issue in Frontiers in Marine Science focusing on transdisciplinary analysis of problems and solutions to the plastics crisis. In addition, the Working Group hosted a student seminar, showcasing student research on plastics, here. Several members of the working group also recently won an internal award to develop a roadmap for improving estimates for the social cost of plastic. Some of our working group member publications can be found here.

Photo: Plastic cups

About 8% of the world’s oil goes into plastic production and it’s going to rise to 20% by 2050. Can you shed some light on how this is going to impact us?

An increase in the production of fossil-fuel based plastics under business as usual scenarios is likely to have many negative effects on human and environmental health across the plastics life-cycle. Extraction, refining, and manufacturing releases not only greenhouse gases that contribute to global climate change, but also air pollutants which lead to increased incidence to and mortality from many conditions. In addition, an increase of plastic produced, even with improvements in waste management capacity can lead to increased plastic pollution entering the environment or being incinerated, both of which also harm human and environmental health.  Stakeholders who are invested in reducing reliance on fossil fuels should be paying close attention to the plastics crisis, as our dependence on fossil fuels for plastics may eclipse meaningful achievement the world is gaining when it comes to decarbonization and electrification.  

This year’s World Environment Day theme is #BeatPlasticPollution. How will this theme help in creating awareness around the issue?

There is increasing evidence of the important impact that education and outreach has on addressing plastic pollution. Interventions including plastic bag bans and reuse programmes are only successful when the public knows about it and supports it, so the more campaigns on plastic the better.

What kind of concrete steps can stakeholdersindividuals, corporations and governmentstake to tackle plastics?

Many corporations and countries are starting to make lists of unnecessary and problematic plastics. These are plastics that are unnecessary for safety or health or that have harmful and toxic additives or can’t be properly managed. Making these lists is a good way to identify which plastics can be eliminated or phased-out without disrupting life or business.

Suggest some easy-to-do tips that individuals can take to reduce the amount of plastic they use in daily lives?

We can do things that limit our consumption and disposal of products, including switching to alternatives (bags, water bottles, straws, coffee mugs, Tupperware etc.) and making sure we bring them with us. Some of us also live in places and have enough resources where we can buy our products from zero waste or zero packaging stores or participate in reuse and refill programmes. We can also participate in local beach clean ups, which not only support clean oceans but help with data collection that can be used to inform policy.  Reuse and reduce are the most important ways that we can tackle this problem, but we can also be very intentional about recycling and make sure we are recycling well by checking labels and making sure our cities can recycle certain products. In North America, the resource How2Recycle and buying products with How2Recycle labels, and reading those labels can be helpful, and there may be similar options in other parts of the world. It’s also important to participate in civic action – write to your lawmakers and vote in every election cycle for candidates who believe in science and want to tackle these issues.

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