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Beating plastic pollution: Role of Gen Z crucial

Jun 17, 2023

Today, June 5, is the 50th anniversary of World Environment Day. The world has made remarkable progress in the last 50 years in improving human life; but, at the cost of the environment and biodiversity. In 1972, a year before we celebrated the 1st World Environment Day, the UN Conference on the Human Environment was the first-ever global summit where the environmental crisis was recognised and the foundation for a cohesive action was initiated to protect the planet. Since then, June 5 is celebrated as a day of awakening for our environment. Surprisingly, in the same year 1972, the first scientific findings of marine plastic pollution in the Sargasso Sea was published in the journal "Science" although plastic pollution was first noticed in the ocean by scientists carrying out plankton studies in the late 1960s. But what did we do despite knowing the impact of plastic pollution on our environment and ecology? What and how much we have achieved in the last five decades is a time for serious introspection.

The theme of World Environment Day 2023 is #BeatPlasticPolution." It was also the theme of the World Environment Day in 2018, when India was the host country. Five decades of environmental activism, and the last five years of dialogues and action particularly on plastic pollution have definitely brought in many regulatory changes and brakes on plastic pollution. However, they appear inadequate looking at the size and complexity of the problem.

The production of plastic has grown drastically in the last five decades reaching around 400 million tones per year, according to a report by the United Nations Environment Programme(UNEP). When we think about plastic pollution it evokes an imagery of plastic carry bags, discarded plastic bottles, abandoned fishing gear, plastic straws, plastic caps, cups, plates, discarded toys, packaged food wrappers, styrofoam, packaging materials, and pens, etc. Unfortunately, what is overlooked is the invisible plastic pollution caused by the fashion industry. Plastic fashion today is ubiquitous and found everywhere – in our clothes, bed sheets, towels, carpets, curtains, cushions, sportswear, active wear, work wear, shoes, bags, briefcases, backpacks, safety belts, car tyres, hairbands, hairclips and hangers. The fashion industry produces around 100 billion pieces of garments every year and almost two-thirds of textile fibers produced today are basically plastic in the form of polyester, nylon, acrylic, and elastane. Clothing retailers like H&M, Zara, Uniqlo, Gap, and Forever 21 make low-priced fashion clothing predominantly made out of man-made fibre to satisfy the needs of the new generation of consumers. And the fashion industry is the second-largest polluting industry responsible for about 10% of global carbon emissions and 35% of microplastic pollution in our oceans.

Plastic and microplastic pollution is found in all ecosystems, from ocean to mountains to cities and rural areas, a significant quantity is coming from the fashion production and consumption.Every piece of plastic we have ever touched is still on earth and difficult to say how long it will take to degrade.

Single-use plastics are the most commonly discarded type of plastic made almost exclusively from fossil fuels. These "throwaway" plastics often end their short lifecycle polluting the oceans, being burned or dumped into landfills. In a similar fashion consumers treat the cheap fossil fuel based fast fashion as disposable and discarding them just after few wears.

The reappearance of the theme #BeatPlasticPollution is an indication of how the plastic crisis has become an important challenge in front of us. In the last couple of years, several initiatives have emerged to tackle the problem in the form of technological innovations, legislations, regulations, bans and incentives. From India to America, the Governments at all levels are imposing bans and implementing recycling innovations. They are evaluating and reviewing the promises made by the brands and manufacturing about sustainability before they take their buying decisions. And they have also understood the phenomena of convenience, safe play and greenwashing by the industry. For example, they know that the 3Rs – reduce, reuse and recycle is smartly used by the industry as a solution to the problem. The industry and countries are afraid of putting a complete ban on the evil – single use plastic or plastic-based fast fashion. They also know that textile recycling is a myth and not a feasible solution to the problem as it is not economical and has further environmental cost. The available technology is also not equipped as a viable option for fibre-to-fibre recycling at a commercial scale. This is why less than 1 percentage of fibre-to-fibre recycling has been made possible. The so-called recycling of textile fibre is actually coming from the discarded PET bottles.

It is an interesting aspect of our time that five generation of people are living together with major differences in their worldviews, beliefs, habits and lifestyle. In numerous surveys and reports it is found that Gen Z is different than the previous generations as far as their concern for environment and sustainability is concerned. This cohort comprises around one- third of the world population colloquially known as Zoomers, born between 1996 to 2010, succeeding the Millennials (Gen X) and preceding the Generation Alpha. According to reports, this generation of highly informed but restless consumers is the biggest influencers for sustainable fashion. And surprisingly, Gen Z is also the largest consumer base for fast fashion. The climate anxiety and aspiration for sustainability is at conflict with Gen Z love for fast fashion. This is the biggest challenge before the fast fashion brands while fulfilling this double-edged and conflicting needs of this generation. As defenders of sustainable living, Gen Z also influences other generations, particularly the millennial and Gen X. This is why the fast-fashion behemoths advertise their sustainable interventions and collections everywhere in print, online, and on social media to appeal to Gen Z. Realising the influence of this generation on all other co-existing generations, it is time to further educate, motivate and engage Gen Z to be more radical in their approach to gain control over plastic production, use and pollution.

For a global problem we must have a global solution.

Everyone has a role to play in addressing plastic pollution. While thinking about which actions will be most effective, we must put much emphasis on awareness, education and behavioural changes of people across the world. And in this Gen Z can play a critical role as a change agent along side the regulatory and policy actions.

(The author is a professor and practitioner of sustainable fashion at National Institute of Fashion Technology, Bhubaneswar)