Plastic pollution is already a big problem. This year it just got bigger

Here’s what the small Alpine town of Davos could be discussing today, but won’t.

The use of traditional materials to replace plastic waste. More specifically, the annual meeting of global political and business elites could consider tangibles. For instance, the kulhar, the unglazed earthenware pots South Asians have been using as food containers for hundreds of years. Polyethylene-lined takeaway coffee cups are adding to a simply enormous mountain of barely bio-degradable waste, but kulhars melt back into the earth from which they came.

The jury is out on the kulhar, as it would probably fail strict Western health and safety regulations, but it still bears thinking – and talking about – as an idea. Isn’t that what Davos, or the World Economic Forum as it is properly known, is supposed to be about? In the words of one Davos veteran, the high-achievers who converge on the Swiss conclave for the best part of a week in January year after year, are almost like factory workers, except that they’re manufacturing conventional wisdom.

In 2018, the conventional wisdom that urgently needs manufacturing is the sheer unsustainability of the way we live. In a world increasingly beset by the problem of waste disposal, it is no longer possible to promote a culture of careless consumption as an indicator of economic development. In developed and developing countries alike, it is no longer possible to mindlessly use and throw away hundreds of millions of plastic-lined coffee cups, buy gazillions of microwaveable meals in plastic trays, fruit and vegetables uselessly shrouded in layers of plastic wrap and chug water from the recyclable-but-rarely-recycled one-million plastic bottles sold around the world every minute.

Plastic pollution, as the world’s rising production and consumption of the material is called, is already an enormous problem. This year, it became even bigger. China, the largest market for global waste, has banned the import of 24 kinds of rubbish. Now that China won’t take the world’s household plastic waste, unsorted paper, recycled textiles, slag and so on, how on earth to deal with it?


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The obvious answer is not to generate so much waste. That’s where products such as the kulhar might come in, though they are not a ready-made solution. Two leading designers – an Indian and a Brit – tell me that the kulhar is such a low-fired drinking cup it “absorbs everything” and won’t pass muster with the food police, especially in the western world.

But modern India too is a case in point. There, the kulhar is traditional to bazaar food culture – to serve tea, yoghurt, desserts, after which it is satisfyingly and easily disposed off by smashing it to the ground. But Indian Railways, one of the world’s biggest transport networks, tried and failed three times over the past 30 years to introduce the kulhar in place of the cheaper, more easily transportable and more hygienic polystyrene-coated cup.

Is environmentalism best pursued only when it makes economic sense? That is another way of asking the kulhar question, the sort of issue that needs to be considered at forums such as Davos. And who better to ask perhaps than Indian prime minister Narendra Modi, a star turn at the conclave, and a former tea-seller at Gujarat's Vadnagar railway station? Mr Modi has long trumpeted his early work life as a political advantage. When it comes to bio-degradeable clay cups and the world’s growing problem of plastic waste, he can probably provide valuable insights unavailable to others.

But who are the others? According to the Davos 2018 programme, its “New consumption frontiers” session tomorrow, assesses the “reinvention of waste as a resource”. Along with a press conference on the consumption economy, that is the only time in the four-day jamboree the world’s waste problem is even discussed. At the session, a clutch of movers and shakers debate the annual $1.15-trillion of plastics, electronics and food thrown away around the world. The participants include the executive director of the UN Environment Programme, the founder of a California e-recycling company, Ikea’s new CEO and the chairman of China’s Energy Conservation and Environmental Protection Group.

There is little doubt the session will throw up pithy soundbites and possibly even some good ideas. But it’s unlikely there will be a call to action. Davos, like most governments, is just not addressing the inherent incompatibility of plastic waste and the lives to which we are accustomed. Instead, there have been attempts to stick a finger in the dike and pretend the tsunami of plastic waste won’t hit us. France has banned plastic cutlery, cups and plates. Britain has a five-pence charge on plastic bags at supermarkets and its prime minister recently pledged to eradicate avoidable plastic waste by 2042, even though she failed to specify legal measures to enforce the intention. The ban on plastic shopping bags has been implemented with varying levels of success in Morocco, Tunisia, Haiti, Ethiopia, Kenya, and some Indian and US states.

That is good but hardly enough. The kulhar question needs robust discussion.