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Comment: We, the many, hold the key to sustainability

by Guest on Aug 9, 2017

Dr Abdulwahab Al-Sadoun, secretary general, the Gulf Petrochemicals and Chemicals Association (GPCA).
Dr Abdulwahab Al-Sadoun, secretary general, the Gulf Petrochemicals and Chemicals Association (GPCA).

The recent decision of White House to reverse its commitment to the Paris Climate Agreement has reminded all of us of a valuable, incontrovertible fact. If, over the next thirty years, we are to take the steps necessary to successfully transition to a more sustainable, less resource-intensive economy and avoid irreversible damage to our environment, it will be thanks to the actions of the many, not of the few.

The US Administration’s policy shift has, in fact, thrown the ball back in our court. It has put the responsibility on us all to behave in a way that is consistent with our view of both the resource and environmental challenges we face.

Rather than disappointment, we as responsible citizens should feel emboldened and encouraged, to redouble our efforts to shift the global economy away from take-make-dispose model to one more closely aligned with the principles of a circular economy.

Plastic as an example

The real key to a successful economic and behavioural transformation is education. Plastic is a good example about the need to create greater awareness among people about recycling and the contribution of plastic to sustainability.

Currently, as many as one in five GCC residents believe plastic is a non-recyclable material. That is an incredibly high percentage of people that remain totally unaware of advances made to capture the full economic benefits of plastics. This knowledge gap results in mounting waste crises, perpetuates the misconception that plastic – and not people – are to blame, and damages the credibility of a sector that has for so long, delivered so much.

To ignore that behaviour is the problem is to misrepresent the facts. Plastic does not pollute – people do. And to overcome the knowledge deficit that misguides this argument, more time, resources and energy must be invested in ensuring that not only do we all recognise the responsibility incumbent upon us to embed sustainability into our habits, but also to ensure that we understand how to take the steps necessary to make a difference.

The economic side

Since its introduction over 100 years ago, plastic has become a mainstay of the global economy and a positive contributor to lives many of us lead today. The plastics industry has also been the catalyst behind new thinking around a circular economy that can drive a shift in the way we perceive all of our resources – both natural and man-made – and encourage positive long-term behavioural changes in all of us.

What can often be lost amid the demonization of plastic is the critical role it plays in creating the increasingly prosperous, healthier, happier and more accessible world around us. It provides us with access to fresh drinking water, aids reliable energy conservation and is used to develop safe healthcare products. It is fundamental to everything from children’s toys and aerospace to the automotive and technology industries.

Even food, the most basic human requirement, is protected from going to waste largely due to innovation in plastics packaging, food wastage being the third largest contributor to greenhouse gases. Plastic is also significantly lighter than alternatives, which makes it easier and more efficient to transport, resulting in a much lower carbon footprint.

According to some estimates, using plastic packaging for all products could reduce an average truckload by around 800kg, save up to two litres of diesel per 100km and decrease CO2 emissions by 5kg.

Compared to other traditional materials, plastic is environmentally superior, thanks to its contribution to resource efficiency. According to the 2016 International Trucost Study, the environmental cost of plastics in consumer goods is almost four times less than if plastics were replaced with alternative materials.

Did you know that plastics for packaging require four times less energy to produce than paper, significantly less water with fewer pollutants, and 91 percent less energy to recycle?

Responsible resource consumption

As an organisation, the Gulf Petrochemicals and Chemicals Association (GPCA) advocates responsible resource consumption. In line with that, our position on lightweight plastic bags is consistent with a growing consensus that they are wasteful and should continue to be discouraged.

Fifteen percent of regional citizens polled in a recent GPCA study supported moves to charge for plastic bags as one form of discouragement. A better alternative is heavy duty plastic bags. Stronger, more versatile and far likelier to be reused, heavy duty plastic bags are far less likely to end up in landfill.

Recycled plastic bags reinvent themselves across industries, emerging as piping, in road works and across the construction industry. In a circular economy, the benefits of plastics far outstrip those of any other material, and no alternative is more versatile than plastics.

Our data suggests that willingness is growing among citizens to recycle more, but accessibility of facilities and a lack of education remain barriers. Forty percent of the GCC residents are in favour of increasing the amount they recycle and 21 percent have called for more facilities.

The 2017 edition of GPCA’s Waste Free Environment campaign was further evidence of the power of collective action. 28,000 participants and volunteers from 13 countries came together, unified by a desire to act on waste, and collected 80 tons of waste. It was another example of the power of collective action.

We must continue to seek and encourage the leader within us to positively shape the way we, our industries, businesses and governments face up to the threat and tremendous opportunity presented by the circular economy. Sustainability is no longer nice to have, it is an imperative. And no policy reversals or counter narratives will ever change the unavoidable truth that we, the many, hold the key.


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