On Tuesday morning, Staff Writer Catherine Sherman attended the first virtual seminar of a two-part series hosted by Columbia Global Centers in Mumbai. This seminar invited experts to discuss the current state of global plastic pollution and pose potential methods to reduce plastic-related environmental and health harms in the future.

Blue whales, weighing an average of 100 tons each, are the largest animals on the planet. Every year, we produce the equivalent of four million blue whales of plastic waste. Since the invention of plastic in the early 20th century, advancements in its durability and composition have caused production to soar and the material to proliferate to every corner of the globe. 

Scientists estimate that by the year 2050, global plastic production will surpass 26 million tons—a prediction that is especially concerning considering plastic takes about 400 years to fully decompose, and the current global sum of recycled single-use plastics is less than 10%. These statistics tell the story of plastic production, but how has plastic pollution become so pervasive, and what can we do about it? 

Columbia Global Centers Mumbai and the Columbia Global Collaboratory have partnered to answer these questions in a two-part seminar series titled “Plastics: Retelling the Story of Waste.” As part of the seminar, experts in several environmental and adjacent fields presented their perspectives on plastic pollution and potential ways to combat the ever-growing problem. 

To trace the impact of plastic pollution and pose solutions, the first seminar of the series introduced Dr. Beizhan Yan, a researcher and professor at Columbia Climate School; Dr. Alexandra Harrington, an international environmental lawyer and the chair of the International Union for Conservation of Nature World Commission on Environmental Law (IUCN WCEL) Agreement on Plastic Pollution Task Force; and Ms. Shalini Goyal Bhalla, the managing director of the International Council for Circular Economy. 

Dr. Yan opened up the seminar by providing context for understanding the current state of plastic pollution. In his introduction, he touched on the history of plastic use and the science behind the pervasiveness of plastic pollutants. First, he quantified the boom in plastic production following the development of large-scale production technology, noting that between 1950 and 2015, 8.3 billion metric tons of plastic were produced. Much of the plastic produced is discarded into landfills and makes its way into waterways and oceans.

Dr. Yan further explained that when discarded plastics are exposed to the elements, they undergo weathering processes, turning them into microplastics and nanoplastics. Yet another large contributor to microplastics in the environment are synthetic clothing materials like polyester and nylon, which release microfibers during the washing and decomposition processes. Most wastewater treatment plants lack the technology to filter microplastics and smaller particles out of the water supply. Thus, these microplastics and nanoplastics are present in much of our drinking and bathing water.

Besides the environmental implications of micro and nanoplastics in water supplies, Dr. Yan stressed the health risks of nanoplastics because of their smaller size and prevalence. Nanoplastics are small enough to cross the blood barrier and can cause physiological harm in several ways. The small particles can pass through the blood barrier and accumulate in vital organs, they can cross the blood-brain barrier and cause neurodegenerative disease, and they can also quickly cross the placental barrier and enter the bloodstream of a fetus. The threat of nanoplastics is exacerbated by the inability of traditional imaging techniques to detect them, which researchers are currently trying to mitigate. 

Ms. Bhalla also spoke to the importance of developing new techniques in the field, emphasizing the steps for producers to take rather than advances in research equipment and procedures. Along with her involvement in policymaking in India, Bhalla is part of an organization that seeks to promote the concept of a circular economy as a method for waste elimination. The successful continuous management of plastic waste will require a transition from a linear model of consumption to a circular model, a process that includes several changes in producer and consumer behavior. 

Broad goals of circularity in plastic waste management involve extended producer responsibility and the elimination of problematic plastic packaging. Oftentimes, Bhalla explained, the packaging can be replaced with sustainable packaging options like banana leaves. More specifically, circularity in this context requires a change in design and production, as well as the innovation of different materials, so that consumers can reuse, repair, and share a product before discarding it.

To promote a circular model of waste management, business models must provide services that allow consumers to use and then return products. Consumers often only require access to a product for a short period of time, so this model would allow them to utilize the product and then return it instead of discarding it. For this to work, however, products containing plastic must be designed to last longer in the supply chain so that more people can get use out of them. This change in design could come partially from designing products for modularity, meaning repairing, remanufacturing, or upgrading could be easily done in place of discarding.

Even with these changes in production and consumption patterns, however, plastic products will still end up eventually discarded to decompose or be recycled. To account for this, Bhalla stressed the importance of designing products that require less material and are made without composite plastics, which are harder to recycle than other types.

While technological advancements are necessary to combat plastic pollution, Dr. Harrington highlighted the importance of policy change in this process. Dr. Harrington is personally involved in the negotiations for an international treaty on plastic pollution first posed in 2022. In the process of constructing a treaty that considers the interests of all the states which will vote on it in the UN Environmental Assembly, there are several core issues at play. Dr. Harrington noted that, on the base level, it is necessary to create a universal definition of plastic with which an international regulation system can enforce sanctions on production and disposal. 

Another important aspect to consider when crafting the treaty is the scope of its social implications. For example, Dr. Harrington pointed to the necessity of balancing the interests of regulating plastic pollutants with the interests of the small states most impacted by plastic pollutants so as not to exacerbate social problems for them. In the same vein, tracking methods and life-cycle regulation of plastics are an essential part of the treaty to ensure proper accountability. With these methods, regulation will occur at the beginning of the cycle (in the developed producer states), as opposed to at the end of the cycle in states that contribute the least to plastic production but are the most impacted by the ramifications.

Dr. Harrington further emphasized the importance of accounting for the social impacts of the potential treaty in her explanation of the necessity of “just transitions,” which involve accounting for the treaty’s repercussions for the general labor force and marginalized labor groups like waste pickers. Although the first negotiation meeting did not yield substantive results, Dr. Harrington is optimistic that the consideration of these core issues and others will yield a treaty that is inclusive, socially aware, and beneficial to a broad population.

The first seminar painted a bleak picture of the progress that must be made to combat plastic pollution in many ways; however, it also provided a reason for optimism. Research techniques are constantly advancing, new designs and business models have the potential to reduce the amount of discarded plastics, and international treaties are in the works. The journey to minimize plastic pollution will be long and challenging, but the socially-conscious advancements taking place in various sectors around the world provide hope for a less polluted future. 

The second seminar of the series, featuring leaders of organizations that work with global corporations to reduce plastic pollution, will take place virtually on February 28 from 9 to 10 am.

Header via Flickr