Fighting plastic waste high on the agenda for Commonwealth summit

People sort plastic bottles at a dumping site.

Tackling the global problem of plastic waste is high on the agenda at the 2018 Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting (CHOGM), which is being held in London this week.

In show of commitment to the cause, Britain pledged to contribute 61.4 million GBP (approx. Rwf74 billion) towards reducing plastic waste in all Commonwealth partner states, particularly through preventing plastic waste from contaminating the world’s oceans.

The goal is to cut out all avoidable waste by the year 2042.

This follows a growing global movement to eradicate the extraordinary amount of single-use plastic humans throw away.

In January, the European Union declared war on plastic waste, aiming to convert all packaging to reusable or recyclable material. UK Prime Minister Theresa May declared a forthcoming ban on the sale of plastic straws and cotton buds, noting the astonishing number (over 8 billion) straws thrown away in the UK every year.

Speaking at the summit, May emphasised Britain’s role as a global leader in the fight against climate change, citing environmental policies such as the charge on plastic bags and a possible deposit return scheme for drink containers.

“Alongside our domestic action, this week we are rallying Commonwealth countries to join us in the fight against marine plastics,” May said in a speech made at the summit, announcing Britain’s substantial investment for “global research and to improve waste management in developing countries.”

Rwanda, which is also part of the Commonwealth club, has made strides towards waste reduction.

This year marks the tenth anniversary of the ban on non-biodegradable polythene bags in Rwanda, a policy which has been strictly enforced, to the near complete eradication of plastic bags.

Glass bottles are reused by stores, restaurants and bars or else customers are charged a fee.

Rwanda is also a global leader in reforestation and restoration of degraded ecosystems. Forests, including Nyungwe, Gishwati and Mukura, have been restored and turned into national parks.

Rehabilitation of land in Rugezi that had been devastated by human environmental impact has led to increased hydropower in the area and a boost for the fishing industry, according to the World Economic Forum. The establishment of the Green Fund helps to avail investment funds to the strongest environmental projects, private and public.

Meanwhile, Britain is reeling from a ban by the Chinese government of plastic waste imports that began on January 1 this year. While it previously exported around 500,000 tonnes of waste every year to China, Britain is now forced to find an alternative solution for its waste accumulation. In 2016 China received 7.3 million tonnes of plastic – over half the world’s waste.

The ban therefore affects countries across the globe, including Australia, which has been forced to bury much of its surplus waste, according to Bloomberg Technology.

Leaders in the British recycling industry admitted they had “no idea” how to solve the increasing waste crisis.

“Around 40 per cent (of Victoria’s recyclable material) goes overseas. If it doesn’t go overseas then where does it go? It just stockpiles.” Peter Anderson, CEO of Victoria waste management association said in a statement. Potential solutions proposed have included burning it all, a process that would emit excessive toxic fumes into the air, including harmful carcinogens.


The new widespread waste crisis comes at a time shortly after scientists conveniently, and accidentally, discovered a mutant enzyme that decomposes plastic waste within days rather than the natural time period of centuries.

The enzyme, called PETase, is still in the early stages of development but scientists from Britain and the US predict the enzyme could soon be used on an industrial scale.

The extreme excess of plastic waste in the world makes the sustainability goal at the Commonwealth meeting that much more urgent.

World leaders increasingly face the issue of plastic, both as a pressing issue of surplus waste presently and as a shocking prospect for the future if produced at the same rate.


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