The Second Global Bamboo and Rattan Congress (BARC 2022) focussed on bamboo and rattan as nature-based solutions to replace plastics, reduce plastic pollution and help reach net-zero emissions. UNEP’s Jyoti Mathur-Filipp and UNEP-WCMC’s Han Meng jointly presented the keynote speech “Global review: the progress of Intergovernmental Negotiating Committee on plastic pollution and synergies between the plastics and biodiversity agenda” at the congress.
On November 7-8, the International Bamboo and Rattan Organization, the National Forestry and Grassland Administration of China and the International Centre for Bamboo and Rattan hosted BARC 2022 in Beijing, China, to promote the use of bamboo and rattan materials in progressing green economic development.
In the past decade, the production of plastic has grown at a tremendous, exponential rate, with around 400 million tonnes now produced per year. However, only an estimated 12 per cent of the plastics produced are incinerated and a mere 9 per cent are estimated to have been recycled. The remaining large amounts of global plastic waste is either disposed of in landfills or released into the environment, including the oceans.
With rapid expansion of plastics production and unsustainable consumption and disposal methods, plastic pollution has become one of the main contributors to the triple planetary crises – climate change, biodiversity loss and pollution. Plastic pollution has direct linkages to altering habitats and natural processes which lead to reducing the ability of ecosystems to adapt to climate change, further affecting millions of people’s livelihoods, increasing food security concerns and social wellbeing.
Plastic is produced from fossil fuels and its production highly contributes to the climate crisis. With the demand that plastic currently holds, the expansion of plastic production is estimated to emit more than 56 billion metric tonnes of carbon dioxide equivalent greenhouse gases between 2015 and 2050. If this trend continues, the GHG emissions from plastic would amount to 15 per cent of the global carbon budget by 2050. Further, as plastic waste incinerated is known to release carbon dioxide and methane into the atmosphere, the disposal methods would increase emissions and exacerbate global warming.
Meanwhile, plastic pollution and its contribution to the degradation of ecosystems and severe impact on biodiversity is a well-known challenge we are facing. Plastics, particularly micro and nano plastics, harm organisms across the spectrum of animal, plant, and microbial kingdoms, through a combination of chemical and physical effects; both, having the potential to cause devastating biological responses in organisms.
Although commercial markets are now seeking practical and scalable solutions with the growing concern over plastic usage, the alternatives available are far from sufficient and involve trade-offs. For example, we could replace plastic with other materials, but they probably have a much higher carbon footprint than plastics themselves, some of which are not biodegradable. Paper is often considered to be one of the popular alternatives to single use plastics and ideal as it contributes less to the impacts of littering; however, it brings setbacks in the form of emissions. This studyfound that paper bags have a much higher carbon footprint than conventional plastic shopping bags.
Actions to address the plastic pollution emergency took place earlier in 2022, at the fifth session of the United Nations Environment Assembly in Nairobi, as heads of state, ministers of the environment and other representatives from UN member states endorsed a landmark agreement directed towards an international legally binding instrument on plastic pollution that addresses the full lifecycle of plastics. Using UNEA discussions as a springboard, BARC 2022 set out to promote natural materials as a positive alternative to plastics and explore new opportunities and platforms for the use of bamboo and rattan.
Jyoti Mathur-Filipp, the Executive Secretary of the Intergovernmental Negotiating Committee (INC) on Plastics Pollution, provided the audience with an update on INC’s progress: “UNEP has been requested to develop an internationally legally binding instrument on plastic pollution… We have been requested to do this in two years, so it’s a marathon run, not a walk in the park. We start our process in Punta del Este later this year from November 28th where we will have the first meeting of the Intergovernmental Negotiating Committee on plastics, and we have been requested to hold five of these from the end of this year to the end of 2024. So, there will be two next year and there will be two in 2024, and they will finally end with a diplomatic conference in mid-2025.”
The potential of Bamboo and rattan
Bamboo and rattan have the potential to develop a green economy, address climate change, build disaster-resilient infrastructure, alleviate poverty, revitalise rural areas and protect the environment. The natural characteristics of bamboo, being lightweight, produce strong and flexible building materials that are resilient to certain kinds of disasters that could be a result of slow-onset climate change impacts. Further, they also help restore degraded lands and protect forests, making them a robust way of combatting desertification.
Bamboo’s lightweight and linear-splitting nature makes it comparatively easier to process than timber, giving farmers, many of whom are women, with opportunities to engage in the initial processing and further increase their share in value addition. Rattan is also a very important plant for many poor communities, especially in some rural communities across Laos, Cambodia, and Vietnam, where 50 per cent of the cash income is derived from the sale of rattan products.
From an energy perspective, bamboo can be used in electricity generation plants, where approximately 1.2 kg of bamboo can be used to generate 1 kWh of electricity through gasification technology. Additionally, another major advantage of bamboo is its efficiency in carbon sequestration, with its ability to sequester up to four times CO2 compared to other hardwood species.
Bamboo and rattan have collectively produced trade offs that come in the form of combating climate change through mitigation and adaptation benefits and support local communities in many ways. The congress promoted these multifarious benefits and initiatives by conducting high-level dialogues, parallel sessions, product exhibitions and advanced technologies supporting bamboo and rattan as an alternative to plastics.
The Launch of Replacing Plastics with Bamboo
BARC 2022 also launched a new initiative on “Replacing Plastic with Bamboo”, aimed at reducing plastic pollution and finding pathways and mechanisms to mainstream bamboo as a viable alternative to plastic products. The initiative focussed on –
- Formulating supportive policy frameworks to be incorporated at different levels, including international, regional, and national levels,
- Promoting technological innovation,
- Encouraging strengthening of scientific research into using bamboo as a substitute for plastic,
- Building a scientific knowledge system including the material data and full life cycle databases,
- Facilitating the entry of bamboo products into the markets to promote its consumption as a plastic replacement, and
- Enhancing the significant potential of bamboo as a solution by raising awareness around the subject.
Plastic is being used in so many fronts of our day-to-day life. It is convenient, it is cheap and it represents a large proportion of our economy. In trying to solve the plastic pollution problem, we must also be mindful to not create other problems. Therefore, it’s not an easy task to find and sell alternatives.
We really need to develop a solution package that covers the full cycle of plastics from production to recycle, covering each step looking into how we produce, how we use, and how we dispose; and takes into consideration of the interconnection between plastics and other issues such as climate change, biodiversity loss, human health and food security. We need to change systematically in how we produce and use plastics in ways that are significantly smarter than what we do now.
Dr Han Meng, UNEP-WCMC China Officer
In her keynote speech, Han Meng, UNEP-WCMC China Officer, spoke about plastic pollution’s linkage to biodiversity loss, and ultimately its contribution to the triple planetary crises. The speech emphasised the devastating impact of plastic pollution on biodiversity and ecosystems, highlighting that nearly a-fifth (17 per cent) of the species affected by the presence of plastic in the ocean are on the IUCN Red List of Threatened Species.
BARC 2022 brought together representatives from governments, research institutes, international and non-governmental organisations, the private sector, and the media and experts and scholars in the field of bamboo and rattan research to unlock their potential and develop mainstream technologies to replace plastics.