Special interview with Dr. Keith
Alverson, specialist active at the
forefront of the marine, climate,
and environmental fields: What
you can do now, and what the
world must start doing to reduce
plastic waste.

  • Dr. Keith Alverson

Dr. Keith Alverson served as Director of the International Environmental Technology Center of the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP-IETC) from July 2016 to December 2020. Since retiring from UNEP, he has been working as an independent consultant in the field of oceans, climate, and the environment.

Special interview with Dr. Keith <br>Alverson, specialist active at the <br>forefront of the marine, climate, <br>and environmental fields: What <br>you can do now, and what the <br>world must start doing to reduce <br>plastic waste.

We spoke with Dr. Keith Alverson, former director of the International Environmental Technology Center of the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP-IETC), about plastic pollution and the frameworks in place to address it.

There has been a shift away from using plastic bags. Has this helped to reduce plastic pollution?

You’re absolutely right that in the past several years, people have become much more conscious and informed about the issues caused by plastic pollution. Unfortunately, despite these efforts, the amount of plastic used by people globally is on the rise, while plastic trash continues to leak into the marine environment, waste that never saw a garbage truck or a waste management system. Some countries have no regulations whatsoever.

How much plastic makes its way into the ocean?

In the 1950s, plastics were not a fixture of our daily lives. It’s only since entering the twenty-first century that plastic pollution began increasing at an alarming rate. From our calculations, eight million tons of plastic leak into the ocean every year. If you think of this in terms of jumbo jets, that’s about the same weight as fifty-thousand planes. This is an astounding figure that defies the imagination, but some researchers say it’s actually even higher.

How can we go about bringing these numbers down?

The first big step is monitoring (visually, empirically) plastic waste flows, specifically, how much plastic trash is being collected, and how it’s being processed, as well as how much of a backlog of unprocessed trash there is. This will help us clarify the environmental load, and come up with more efficient strategies, so that we can address the problem from an informed perspective. But rather than wait for all the data to come in, it goes without saying that we need to take steps now, to reduce plastic waste today. The choices that we make as individuals are instrumental in eliminating plastic waste. Collectively, we have the power to make an enormous difference.

Who should be in charge of monitoring things?

Company behavior is important. Industry needs to take the initiative. For UNIQLO, this would mean calculating how much plastic is used in the supply chain, how much disposable plastic packaging is used for the products, and how much plastic is used in the clothes themselves. Just like estimating greenhouse gas emissions.

Who should be in charge of monitoring things?

Monitoring greenhouse gas emissions is the first step to building a reduction strategy.

Precisely. A clothing manufacturer can estimate the energy consumed while producing the materials and the products, as well as the energy used for offices and stores, the energy used by motor vehicles and boats for shipping, and the energy used by consumers, like when they wash their clothes. This data forms the basis of any concrete strategy for reducing greenhouse gas emissions. Research and monitoring give us the tools we need to formulate a smart response.

Would it be better to abstain from plastics altogether and make clothes exclusively from natural materials?

All materials have their pros and cons. If UNIQLO were to switch only to making things from cotton, that also will have environmental impacts. Growing cotton requires lots of water. A case in point is that the Aral Sea, a saltwater lake situated between Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan, has lost more than half of its surface area and much of that loss has been because of diversion of water to irrigate cotton fields. What made the water levels plummet in the Aral Sea was cotton cultivation, which requires massive irrigation systems. No matter what material you choose, there will be both known as well as unintended consequences on the environment.

It sounds like the best strategy is finding ways to reduce environmental impact throughout the clothing production process.

Human beings can’t survive without extracting foods and materials from nature. But there are ways we can reduce the burden. My personal opinion is to move away from the very cheap disposable kind of clothing towards quality clothing that people use longer. This means increasing the number of high-quality items that are built to last, for years of use and reuse, and reducing the total demand for materials over time. This sort of change would vastly decrease the environmental load.

The problems caused by microplastics have been receiving increased attention.

Microplastics are everywhere. In the waters of our oceans, rivers, or lakes, in ice in the polar regions, in droplets in the air. They have even been found in human blood. It’s a systemic problem, but we do not yet really know the impacts. Since we can say for sure that microplastics pose a biological concern, however, this makes it all the more crucial that we continue observing, investigating, and researching in order to devise new ways of preventing them from leaking into the environment. UNIQLO has developed a number of synthetic materials. I’d love to see that technical ability applied to the development of materials that help reduce environmental impact.

The problems caused by microplastics have been receiving increased attention.

What’s an example of a source of plastic waste that has been overlooked?

Cigarette filters. These single-use plastic products are supposed to lower the amount of toxins breathed in by the smoker, but filters arguably make smoking more dangerous because people inhale deeper. Vast quantities of cigarettes are tossed into the street, but it’s the filtered ends that flow into the ocean. These filters are a main source of plastic litter, and they’ve never been regulated.

What other aspects of plastic pollution deserve increased attention?

We now have technologies at our disposal that allow us to burn plastic trash without releasing carcinogenic substances into the atmosphere, but some countries have yet to implement these technologies and rely on open burning. The next step is to foster a robust understanding of the chemicals present in plastics, and their impact on the environment, so that we can develop global standards for burning plastic waste.

It sounds like reducing plastic waste requires international cooperation.

Precisely. This is the sort of problem that goes beyond the individual, transcending borders. We need to solve it as a global community. UNEP is exploring the possibility of establishing international conventions for plastics, as a way of strengthening efforts to reduce marine plastic pollution. But it’s crucial for folks to understand that the UN cannot make problems go away simply by establishing conventions. Problems are solved when individuals, localities, corporations, nations, and international organizations come together and join forces.