Thinking twice about single-use plasticsThe government should create and implement stricter rules about the consumption of such materials.
In an era driven by a sustainable future, our everyday behaviour must be motivated to achieve prosperity while protecting the planet. We must adopt changes in daily life, yet we fail to do so. The same tendency follows in the constant use of single-use plastics (SUPs), which are materials designed to be used only once before being recycled or discarded. We use single-use plastic materials in the form of grocery bags, bottles, food packaging, takeaway containers, straws, cutlery, decorative items, and balloons, thereby contributing to the generation of more waste and more pollution. The chemical components in SUPs can also adversely affect reproductive health, metabolic alteration, immune system and brain development.
The future of SUPs does not look appealing if we are to look at the recent trend. The global production of plastics is estimated to have substantially increased from 270 million metric tons in 2010 to 367 million metric tons in 2020. In the urban areas of Nepal, there is a critical plastic pollution problem because it is used in sectors such as agriculture, hospitality, health, economics, packaging and consumer goods. Around 16 percent of the total urban waste is estimated to comprise plastics. In the Kathmandu valley alone, around 4,700,000 to 4,800,000 plastic bags are used daily. It is not that there was no attempt to ban SUPs, but the campaign dropped after the country was affected by the massive earthquake in 2015. Additionally, the Covid-19 pandemic increased its usage in the forms of masks, face shields, gloves and health equipment.
Where are single-use plastics disposed of after their usage? They often end up in disorganised dumping sites, landfills and roadsides. The United Nations adopted Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) in 2015 as an urgent call for action in global partnerships to manage this menace. As a UN member state, Nepal is also a part of the global initiative. Goal 12 under SDG prioritises reducing ecological footprint by 2030 by cutting down waste generation through prevention, reduction, recycling and reuse. According to Nepal's SDGs Status and Roadmap (2016-2030), under the target 12.4, the Nepal government aims to reduce plastics usage (per capita in grams per day) from 2.7 in 2015 to zero in 2030.
To reduce the consumption of SUPs, it is essential to understand individual behaviour regarding what motivates people to reduce SUPs that can help promote behaviour oriented towards damaging the environment less. Motivation is defined as what causes someone to act in a specific way. Many influencing factors can initiate motivation, such as knowledge, attitude about environmental concerns, habits, sense of responsibility, social awareness, and perception about one's ability to make a difference. These motivating factors influence an individual's willingness and effort to reduce SUPs in daily life.
A notable feature of SDG 12 is transforming consumption patterns both individually and collectively to reduce environmental impacts. However, even if someone has a strong motivation, there can be structural obstacles that can reduce the motivation to minimise the usage of SUPs. To overcome these, diverse actors can play an important role. First, the government should play an active role in creating and implementing stricter rules about SUPs consumption. Second, there is an urgency to increase the production and supply of alternatives to SUPs in the Kathmandu valley. It is possible to create alternative goods with cost-effective raw materials and those that leave a smaller environmental footprint, which the entrepreneurs could promote. Third, the manufacturers should label requirements so that consumers are informed about the plastic content of products that can harm nature if littered in the environment, along with disposal options. Such personalised information can help guide people's SUPs consumption through relevant information. Fourth, social media usage such as Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, WhatsApp and Viber should be used to make people more informed about the necessity of producing and using alternatives to SUPs by both the public and the private sectors.
Bringing these barriers to attention will be essential to create situations enabling behavioural change for solving the high utilisation of SUPs in Kathmandu valley. Subsequently, removing these barriers can influence or reinforce an individual's motivation to help them influence behaviour change and decision making to reduce the usage of SUPs. This process seems possible because the Covid-19 pandemic compelled everyone to re-consider our existing behaviours to remain healthy and safe. The same process can be applied to embrace a long-term behavioural change to achieve a sustainable future.
Understanding individual motivations and solving structural barriers can also be a starting point to strengthening national policies by incorporating behaviorally informed policies that can help transform the current use of SUPs. These policies and practical interventions would better align with human decision-making about reducing SUPs. This would improve environmental conditions, waste management issues and health conditions in Kathmandu valley and replicate in other provinces. Finally, the focus on understanding and improving individual behaviour can lead to the increased effectiveness of interventions to achieve SDG 12 at the local and, consequently, global level.