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Individuals hold the power on plastic

Individuals are the most significant potential drivers of change to the growing problem of plastic waste and pollution, a senior United Nations expert says.

Speaking on the side-lines of the Pacific Environment Forum, Dr. El-Habr, from the United Nations Environment Programme (U.N.E.P) said pressure always comes from the public and that the dynamics of the free market mean people will be provided what they want.

“Every single individual act counts,” Dr. El-Habr said.

“Of course a person cannot change the world but if you don’t request a straw when you ask for a drink, and I don’t use a straw, add us one by one and we make a huge difference. 

“At the end of the day, you find out there is no market for your product, so unless we collectively understand this, there won’t be any changes.”

Dr. El-Habr is the Coordinator of the Global Programme of Action for the Protection of the Marine Environment from Land Based Activities.

He has worked in U.N.E.P for 30 years, and has overseen dozens of national, regional and international efforts to curb plastic pollution, and believes the multi-lateral organisation has done a lot to curb environmental damage.

“I am one of those who are convinced that the United Nations have helped countries put together the needed policies to address environmental issues,” he said. 

But still, he concedes, the U.N cannot succeed alone.

“The commitments of the countries to come together and agree on global issues need to be there.

“Also, the commitments of countries to change their legal laws and enforce them, and really comply with what they have committed to when signing these [agreements]  is a matter of urgency, otherwise things can stay as they are.”

And even when some countries have barriers to meeting those international environmental agreements, the U.N will step in to help them. 

But those efforts won’t go all the way to cutting plastic from everyday life until everyday people choose to cut it out, Dr. El-Habr said.

No one but the public can force a government to ban plastic or force companies to stop producing, he said.

“It’s the public who put pressure on the government to make these changes. This is how it works.”

The United Nations, nor any other country or organisation can pressure companies to stop producing wasteful products, headed for landfill almost immediately after they are used once, Dr. El-Habr said.

“You cannot have a third party come and tell an independent government, you are not doing the right thing.

“The U.N was established to bring together countries under the U.N flag to cooperate, but not to be the police of the world,” he said.

And the private sector needs to be partners in the process.

“You cannot play against the private sector because they are the engine of the economic growth in some countries.

“It’s the whole economy that is at stake and a country will not kill its own economy overnight because this is what is best. 

“That is why with any solution, we believe, there is a need for cooperation between governments, private sector and the non-government organisations.”

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