Uniting in the fight against plastic pollution means embracing digital solutions, supporting greener policies, investing in education, and always choosing paper over plastic.

Plastic waste has become an overwhelming environmental challenge, with devastating impacts on our ecosystems, wildlife, and human health. For this year’s Earth Day, celebrated on April 22, the theme is “Planet vs. Plastics.” EARTHDAY.ORG is leading the charge, demanding a 60 percent reduction in the production of all plastics by 2040 and an end to the plastic-intensive fast fashion industry. 

Taking urgent action against plastic pollution

Businesses and governments around the world are heeding this call, recognizing the urgent need for systemic change. Digital solutions can play a crucial role in driving this transformation. Technologies like AI, machine learning, and digital twins can help companies optimize their operations, detect inefficiencies, and reduce plastic consumption[i], according to the World Economic Forum.

At the same time, greener economic policies are essential to create the necessary incentives and regulations to phase out single-use plastics. Governments are aligning with the UN's Sustainable Development Goals[ii] and implementing frameworks to push businesses towards more sustainable practices. This collaborative approach, involving both the public and private sectors, is crucial to building a plastic-free future.

Education and skills development are also key to this transition. UNESCO has reported that across industries, we are seeing a surge in demand for sustainability-related competencies, including understanding responsible business practices and navigating local and global regulations[iii]. Equipping the workforce with these skills will be vital to driving meaningful change.

When I heard that there is more plastic in the ocean than fish, that made it very visible.

Bengt Holmström, a Nobel Laureate and expert in contract theory, has long since been worried not just about climate change but about plastic specifically, making this year’s theme near and dear to the economist.

“I'm very worried about plastic,” he says. “When I heard that there is more plastic in the ocean than fish, that somehow made it very visible. I think we are all responsible.”

Shifting perspectives on responsibility and climate economics

While statistics that drum up visualizations of plastic permeated oceans can help generate a response, taking responsibility is something different. Holmström says that economics has an important role to play in fighting climate change as it is what economists refer to as a commons problem. The issue that arises with something like climate change as a commons problem is any good that one does benefits everybody. Because of this, incentivizing people to do the socially valuable thing, unfortunately, can become tricky.

“We are all part of the same planet,” he says. “The problem is that the socially valuable thing which is about value for everybody – mostly without incentives to do so – means I will just think about myself and do as much as I feel is necessary.”

In some cases, you just have to prohibit certain things that are really damaging.

This also applies to the geopolitical landscape, according to Holmström.

“In that regard, for instance, China is very important. Even if the rest of the world did nothing, China will have to do something because they are having a hard time breathing, so they have an incentive. They will have to do it for their own right,” he says.

“A lot of countries will have to be nudged into it and in that respect I believe in taxation. It's both positive in the sense that if you grow more trees that absorb the carbon footprint then you should be rewarded for it. And if you spew out carbon monoxide into the atmosphere and other pollutants, then you should pay for it.” 

Inspiring youth-led environmental activism and collective action

Despite the current state of the planet, Holmström has faith, particularly in the younger generations.

“There’s more awareness, especially in the young people because it’s their future,” he says. “The awareness of the use of plastic has risen, so I know young people who try to avoid using plastic and by the way I don't use it myself as much,” he says. “If I have choice between paper and plastic, I take paper bags. These things, when you add them up, can make a big difference.”

If anything he’s surprised more mobilization hasn’t happened, with the younger generation putting more pressure on the older generations and on the companies for the various forms of pollution. “If there is enough pressure,” he says. “I’m certain companies will follow suit. The pressure also comes from the young employees.”

“I believe in humankind,” he continues. “If you get the sense that this is valuable and you get the feeling that I’m doing good if I do this, I believe – being a person who has studied incentives – these non-financial incentives for the ordinary citizen in quite powerful and important. Every person matters in this game.”

If you aren’t already, honor this year’s Earth Day theme by opting for the paper over the plastic. After all, we should all aspire that our oceans are filled with fish, not plastics.  

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