Expert voices Vol 23, No. 08 - August 2019

Planet or plastic – the choice is yours

With more than 2,000 participants from all over the world, this year’s High-level Political Forum on Sustainable Development (HLPF) was the largest global review of progress towards the Sustainable Development Goals yet. Among the 2,000 guests were Heather Koldewey and Sara Hylton of the National Geographic Society’s “Sea to Source: Ganges” expedition,  part of National Geographic’s “Planet or Plastic” initiative. Here is what they had to say about the global plastic pollution crisis.

UN DESA: The fight against plastic pollution has inspired massive global action. Arguably even more so than climate change. What is it about plastic?

Heather Koldewey, National Geographic Fellow: “Plastic really is a very visible part of our society and what we’re doing, as people, to the environment. So, I think that connection of cause and effect, of what you choose to buy, what you choose to use, how you choose to live your life, as it links to plastic, is something that’s immediately relatable to everybody. And it’s also something that everybody can change. That’s a very quick action in terms of reducing the amount of plastic or looking for more sustainable alternatives. That means that we can really make quick change very easily.”

Sara Hylton, National Geographic Photographer: “I was speaking to a friend yesterday and she bought five water bottles per day and recently just purchased a reusable water bottle. It’s not about completely changing our lives, it’s about making small, daily steps that make a huge impact in the single-use plastic pollution crisis.”

National Geographic has documented plastic pollution around the world – sometimes in the most unexpected places. But have you also seen any progress or local solutions that work?

HK: “All the research that we’ve done, everywhere we looked there is plastic. We haven’t found anywhere yet without plastic, in the oceans or in our waterways, which is a massively concerning challenge. But we are seeing many local solutions emerging.”

SH: “We had a chance to speak with waste pickers who are part of an informal sector who are working to recycle plastic bottles because there’s value in plastic bottles. So, I think if we look at the grass-roots level, we see a lot of things that are happening among these communities that make us hopeful.”

Can we still live without plastic? What are our alternatives? Is it a simple question of swapping one material with another or is there more to it?

HK: “It’s not about eliminating plastic, it’s how we use it. Over half or about half of the plastic that’s manufactured every year is used for single-use plastic. So, we take this remarkable material, we use it for a few seconds or a few minutes, and then we throw it away where we bear the legacy for hundreds—if not thousands—of years on the planet. And it’s that use that we’re looking to change.”

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