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Cancer. (01/2023)

What should we do to fight plastic pollution, Patricia Holm?

Text: Patricia Holm

Plastic waste is a global problem. An environmental scientist and an expert in international law on the actions that can be taken by private individuals and by policymakers.

Prof. Dr. Patricia Holm
Prof. Dr. Patricia Holm, expert in environmental science. (Illustration: Studio Nippoldt)

Plastic is omnipresent in our environment. It not only pollutes the oceans – it’s also present in fields, rivers and even the air. Plastic in the environment is unsightly, and it’s dangerous for animals, should they become tangled inside it or eat it and, as is so often the case, suffer a painful death. Tiny bits of plastic, known as microplastics, are also a problem for humans and the environment. The smaller the pieces are, the more difficult it becomes to remove them from the environment. Animals may mistake them for food and consume them. Our studies showed that plastic particles between 1 and 100 nanometers in size can penetrate the tissues of the stomach and intestines, causing damage to these organs. To combat this growing problem, we must pursue different approaches, such as bans, sanctions and incentives.

Negotiations are already underway to pass the UN’s global treaty on plastic pollution (see article by A. Petrig). As part of my work on the scientific advisory committee of the UNEP's initiative on plastic litter, we held comprehensive discussions on the hurdles involved in negotiating international agreements. Just to touch on a single example: In Europe, we place great emphasis on informing the public, providing training on these topics in schools and sharing knowledge in domestic settings. In some countries, however, these means of disseminating knowledge are considered ineffective due to cultural norms, which include strong hierarchies within families.

But even if we focus on Switzerland alone, there are plenty of challenges: We have a good waste management system in which plastic waste is incinerated or recycled. And even so, we still have plastic pollution – just consider the littering problem. So, how could we approach that? Studies show that things that have value don’t get left behind. Even minor financial incentives, such as refundable deposits, successfully reduce littering. By charging a deposit on containers, which is now standard practice at Christmas markets, vendors can achieve return rates of up to 95 percent. It’s harder to implement this type of system for food products designed to be consumed on-the-go, but what if there were no more free packaging at all?

Patricia Holm is Professor of Ecology in the Department of Environmental Sciences and heads the research group Man-Society-Environment. She represented Switzerland as an expert and delegate in the UN Environment Programme's (UNEP) scientific advisory committee on marine litter and microplastics and conducts her own research on the topic of microplastics.

More articles in this issue of UNI NOVA (May 2023).

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