‘Plastic straw will remain in soil for 100 years’

By Erik Solheim / K. P. Pravitha (pravithakunnath@gmail.com)

7 min read
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When the polluted skies
wake to suffocating dawns
and the earth below
dies a little
every day, and night
I too am guilty
When my discarded grocery bags
strangle the sea birds,
the fish in my river
jump no more in the sun
and die eating plastic trash,
I too am guilty

(From the SEED Pledge against plastic)

Green Politician

Following an extensive career focusing on environment, development and peace keeping missions, Erik Solheim is sometimes referred as Green Politician.

Erik Solheim dons several hats. He is a political leader, a minister, a peace negotiator, a diplomat and an activist all rolled into one. A self-confessed Green, he now befittingly heads the United Nation's Environment Programme.

He done his graduation in History and Social Sciences from the Oslo University. Erik served as the secretary of Norway's Socialist Left Party and represented it in the Parliament.

At the height of the civil strife in Sri Lanka he served as peace envoy thus playing a crucial role in facilitating the Oslo Peace Talks. Erik turned up as the messenger of peace in Myanmar, Nepal and Sudan as well.

He served as Norway's Minister of Environment and International Development. He piloted Norway's Nature Diversity Act, which is being considered as the most important legislation in that country in a century. His initiatives in the areas of climate and forest conservation in association with Brazil, Guyana and Indonesia were much appreciated. Erik did exemplary work for the conservation of rain forests.

Before being installed as UNEP chief in 2016, he had served as the chairman of the Development Assistant Committee of the Paris-based Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development and patron of the International Union for Conservation of Nature.

Author of three books, Erik has also been bestowed with a slew of recognitions including the "Champion of the Earth" of UNEP while Time Magazine selected him as the "Hero of the Environment."

Erik was in India, which hosted this year's World Environment Day celebrations. He also visited Kerala to attend Mathrubhumi's flagship environment conservation programme 'SEED' during which Erik spoke to us:

The plastic menace

Beat the plastic pollution was the theme for this year's global environment day. We are urging people across the globe to join hands in the endeavor to fight back the menace of plastic by reducing its usage.

The response from India has been exceptional. Participation of youngsters should be ensured in campaigns like these. The government is also playing its role through various initiatives like making schools plastic-free. The initiative on the part of Mathrubhumi through Seed is laudable.

We have to seriously consider whether we really need use and dispose plastic items. Take for instance the case of plastic straws, which at the best, are used for just 10 or 20 minutes but will remain for another 100 years degrading the nature. Same is the case with plastic bags and cups.

The world collectively uses around 500 billion plastic bags a year. Plastic accounts for 10 per cent of the entire waste generated. Out of which, use and dispose items account for 50 per cent. The production of plastic across the world is likely to double in the next 15 years. It is estimated that 13 million plastic get drained into the ocean every year killing its inhabitants.

Addressing the plastic menace will help counter the challenge of climate change to a great extent and help conserve the biodiversity. This will help the mankind in the long run. Avoiding plastic cups, bags and straws will go a long way in achieving this.

The manufacturers of plastic products should be held responsible for their recycling as well. Scientific disposal of plastic alone will not do. Awareness and alertness on the part of the people is even more critical. A change in the mindset is the need of the hour for which traders, government and the people should act united.

Is global warming a hoax

That it is a hoax is the personal opinion of the American President Donald Trump. No other countries have backed it. In fact, there has not been even a statement in solidarity of that opinion. India, China and Europe are presenting a collective front in the fight for the environment.

American trade and industry is also supporting this fight for environment. Industry giants like Google, Microsoft and Amazon are in the forefront to protect the nature. The shift to eco-friendly energy resources like Solar is a move in this direction. American citizens are also partners in these endeavours. It is noteworthy that action comes from the part of the people and not from the White House. People are aware of the fact that remaining aloof from a global mission will damage their country.

California is set host a meeting on climate this September. I will be meeting Mr. Trump during my visit there to attend the meeting. The meeting will have an environment-friendly agenda to deliberate on ways to control the emission of greenhouse gases.

Can’t turn a blind eye

Cyclones are ravaging places. Earth is reeling under scorching heat. Land is being engulfed by rivers. There are many ways in which climate change and global warming threatens the mankind. Turning a blind eye to these warnings will amount to cruelty to the future generations.

Unprecedented cyclones devastated many places in the world last year while extreme drought hit many areas including Africa. In places like Kerala, it will be reflected in the pattern of rain and rise in ocean level. The situation is turning grimmer by the year.

For the earth and its people

United Nation's development motto is the well-being of the earth and all its creatures. UN's 17 sustainable goals aimed at giving a new direction to the world cover a host of areas including climate, water, health sanitation, poverty alleviation, education, and infrastructure development. It touches up on every issue affecting the people. Conservation of the earth means protection of oceans, mountain ranges and its rich biodiversity. That, in effect, means protection of the people.

Deliverance from poverty is one of the primary objectives. Conservation of the nature creates an atmosphere for the sustenance of life. Climate change, pollution and depletion of biodiversity are problems faced by the entire world and so is poverty-induced inequality and resultant conflicts.

Waste primary concern of India

India needs to focus on projects aimed at controlling pollution. Plastic waste is very much a threat to India as it is to the rest of the world. Rivers are like Ganga, which are threatened by pollution, should be revived and water flow should be restored. Equally important is the conservation of wildlife and rare flora and fauna. Eco-friendly energy sources like solar energy should be promoted.

The model set by Kochi International Airport in generating solar energy can be emulated by others. It is exciting to know that the energy needs of a large airport are being met through solar power. State government should promote such initiatives.

Countries like Germany have very efficient waste management systems. Countries like China are also developing similar models. Good models will be supported by the UN. India is in the process of making its rivers and beaches spread over 19 States, including Kerala, free of waste.

Cooperating with Kerala

Discussions were held with the chief minister over possible cooperation with the State in a few areas. UNEP can extend technical expertise and guidance in waste treatment. Freeing rivers of waste is another potential area of cooperation. Rivers and other water bodies need to be conserved.

Kerala can be linked with countries that have effectively implemented conservation of rivers. The State can experiment with such models.

Kerala is as beautiful as my home country Norway and it should be preserved that way. The State has registered enviable achievements in the field of education and health care.

Eco-friendly development

Development should not be at the cost of environment. The Nature Diversity Act implemented in Norway is a step in this direction and it evoked great response.

Care should be taken to ensure that all development works in the country go hand-in-hand with the environment. Development and environment need not be seen separately. Those who realize the significance of environment will be equally adept at formulating development without any loopholes. An atmosphere that enables everyone to live in peace and happiness with adequate food needs to be created.

Peace is the foundation

Environment and development are closely knit with peace. The peace missions in places like Sri Lanka help reaffirm this insight. Norway was selected as mediator in the Lankan civil war as it was a geographically far away from the strife-torn country. I was a Parliamentarian at the time when I was send there as a peace envoy. Knowledge about South Asia and interest in affairs over led to my choice.

I held consultations with LTTE leader Prabhakaran as part of the peace mission. I first visited Sri Lanka as part of the mission but never returned there after that out of concerns that it might give rise to needless controversies. However, I will be visiting the country later this year or next year in connection with UNEP.

I was part of similar peace missions in Myanmar and Nepal as well. Situation has improved in Myanmar though problems exist in certain areas. It is painful to hear about the Rohingya issue, which remains a complex one.


Mathrubhumi's efforts towards conservation of nature are laudable. The children associated with the programme should be encouraged and motivated. You (Mathrubhumi) can do thousands of things. Let's avoid everything that wounds the earth.

The change in life style has accelerated the pace of pollution. The older generation led a life closely in sync with the nature. It is significant that Seed members took an oath against plastic on the tenth anniversary of the programme. Seed is a model that needs to be emulated by others.

Fish eats the plastic dumped into sea and that it turns get transferred into human beings when they consume it. Animals are also dying on consuming plastic.

Trees are being cut down in the name of development. We are illegally looting the nature's wealth. We cannot be mute spectators to this. Everything that the nature is deprived of is invaluable to it. New trees have to come up. Animals should also be able to travel safely along the big roads we build and they should also be allowed to cross the roads safely just as we do.

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