The pervasiveness of plastic and its continuous production and consumption since the 1950s is daunting. Recent research by Science, published by the American Association of the Advancement of Science, shows that even if governments and other stakeholders around the world keep up with their global commitments to combat plastic pollution, we would still be disposing between 20 million and 53 million metric tonnes of plastic waste into our water bodies by 2030. This means that our current level of global commitments do not match the severity of the problem.
And while we have mixed recycling bins that expect people to dispose waste accordingly (i.e. plastic, paper, glass, can), it would be naive to assume that everything is getting recycled effectively. In reality, only 9 per cent of plastic waste is recycled as found in a recent study by peer-reviewed journal Science Advances.
Waste should be considered as a “design flaw”. While many product designers consider the technical problems of recycling, very few analyse the consequences of the product’s design itself. These include smartphones, for example, that are deliberately designed in a manner that make it impossible to split up recyclable materials later.
A serious approach to the waste problem should ideally involve redefining the way we design, distribute and consume products. Right from the extraction of raw materials and use in operation to eventual decommissioning and recycling, manufacturers need to be cognizant of the full impact that the design of their product would have over its lifecycle from cradle to grave.
It is imperative that the world shifts from a linear (take-make-waste) to a circular economy in away that benefit everyone within the limits of our planet. This would require the support of effective policies and regulations that discourage the perpetual extraction of resources whilst ensuring companies are responsible for considering the entire lifecycle of their plastic products. Additionally, economic incentives that help accelerate and scale up circular actions in the economy across stakeholders and sectors is critical.
Current environmental problems require a more holistic approach
Challenging the status quo also requires us to analyse our way of living and patterns of consumption – and also requires assessing potential areas of decarbonisation so we can all work together towards a more sustainable, safe and resilient future where we’re actually going to change the way we think, feel and behave with respect to the planet.
Consider mobility as an example. It is worth asking if we as individuals are willing to use public transport to get around as much as possible, rather than relying on our own vehicles? Or let’s ask the urban planners if they are exploring designs and infrastructure that encourage biking and walking in our communities? These questions are essential to further analyse our current behaviour and to design the change needed to support more sustainable lifestyles.
Another key area of concern is food. With a rising population and deepening climate crisis, we need innovative solutions that can minimise the carbon footprint of our food across the globe. The UAE’s latest announcement on the Food Tech Valley is a great example of an initiative that seeks to increase its own food security by encouraging local production with sustainability at its core. And because every bit counts, it’s not hard for us to increase self-reliance when it comes to food too. Start from your home, create your own kitchen garden and replace store-bought food supplies as much as possible.
A granular analysis by the World Resources Institute shows that within the energy sector, the generation of electricity and heat is the most carbon-intensive (30 per cent of total greenhouse gas emissions in 2016), followed by transportation (16 per cent) and manufacturing and construction (12 per cent).
While planning and developing projects – ranging from buildings, bridges and transport to energy generation, water supply and waste management – it is crucial to design and implement these projects with minimal environmental impact whilst also ensuring cost-efficiency and economic viability at the same time.
And as many of us continue to stay indoors and work from home, it is crucial to improve the energy performance of our buildings too. Retrofitting residential and commercial buildings (i.e. the modification of existing buildings to improve energy efficiency or lower energy demand) can considerably reduce the carbon footprint of the overall built environment.
Looking towards the future
If we don’t act now – if we don’t do enough – we are faced with grave realities in the future, including rising sea levels that could affect more than 1 billion people by 2050, and heat waves that could become more frequent and aggressive, affecting hundreds of millions or even billions of people around the world.
If we can decarbonise our economy quickly down to near zero by 2050, we can maintain a habitable planet and a thriving economy at the same time. Implementing incremental actions – ranging from renewable energy generation and more energy efficiency in the built environment to consuming locally produced food and green mobility – can make the transformation to net-zero a reality.
Of course, this is impossible without collaborative partnerships between policymakers, businesses, investors, innovators, and civil society. Accomplishing the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), set as part of the UN’s 2030 Agenda, will require mobilising and sharing of knowledge, expertise, technologies, and financial resources in all countries – especially developing countries.
Finally, switching to a new way of doing things requires a shift in behaviour too. This is where government and policymakers play a critical role in creating a more favourable environment for sustainability-focused innovations as well as driving campaigns that encourage sustainable practices amongst people and businesses.
Dr Tadhg O’Donovan is the Head of the School of Engineering and Physical Sciences at Heriot-Watt University Dubai