The United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) on Monday announced the 2023 ‘Champions of the Earth’, honouring a city mayor, a non-profit foundation, a social enterprise, a government initiative and a research council for their innovative solutions and transformative action to tackle plastic pollution.
Since its inception in 2005, the annual ‘Champions of the Earth’ award has been given to trailblazers at the forefront of efforts to protect people and the planet.
It is the UN’s highest environmental honour and including this year’s five Champions, the award has recognised 116 laureates, 27 world leaders, 70 individuals and 19 organizations.
The UNEP received a record 2,500 nominations this cycle, marking the third consecutive year that nominations have reached a high-water mark.
“Plastic pollution is a deeply concerning strand of the triple planetary crisis. For the sake of our health and planet, we must end plastic pollution. This will take nothing less than a complete transformation, to reduce the amount of plastics produced and eliminate single-use plastics; and to switch to reuse systems and alternatives that avoid the negative environmental and social impacts that we are witnessing with plastic pollution,” said Inger Andersen, Executive Director of UNEP.
“As negotiations to develop an international legally binding instrument on plastic pollution progress, this year’s Champions of the Earth demonstrate that innovative solutions are available that can inspire us to rethink our relationship with plastic,” said Andersen.
UNEP’s 2023 Champions of the Earth are: Mayor Josefina Belmonte of Quezon City, Philippines, honoured in the Policy Leadership category, is driving environmental and social action through a raft of policies to combat the climate crisis, end plastic pollution and green the urban enclave. Her initiatives include bans on single-use plastics, a trade-in programme for plastic pollution, refill stations for everyday essentials and advocacy for strong global policymaking on plastics.
Ellen MacArthur Foundation of Britain honoured in the Inspiration and Action category. It has played a leading role in mainstreaming a lifecycle approach, including for plastics. The foundation has published reports and established networks of private and public sector decision makers, as well as academia, to develop lifecycle initiatives and solutions to the climate crisis, biodiversity loss, plastic pollution and more. It leads the Global Commitment with UNEP.
Blue Circle of China honoured in the Entrepreneurial Vision category. It uses blockchain technology and the internet of things to track and monitor the full lifecycle of plastic pollution — from collection to regeneration, re-manufacturing and re-sale. It has collected over 10,700 tonnes of marine debris, making it China’s largest marine plastic waste programme.
José Manuel Moller of Chile, also honoured in the Entrepreneurial Vision category, is the founder of Algramo, a social enterprise dedicated to providing refill services that reduce plastic pollution and lower the costs of everyday essentials. Moller also works to prevent, reduce and sustainably manage waste through his role as Vice Chair of the UN Advisory Board of Eminent Persons on Zero Waste, an initiative set up in March 2023.
The Council for Scientific and Industrial Research of South Africa honoured in the Science and Innovation category. It uses cutting-edge technology and multidisciplinary research to develop innovations to tackle plastic pollution and other issues. It is a pioneer in identifying sustainable alternatives to conventional plastics, establishing opportunities for local manufacturing and economic development and testing plastic biodegradability.
Plastic has transformed everyday life and produced many benefits to society. But humanity produces around 430 million tonnes of plastic every year, two-thirds of which quickly becomes waste. The addiction to short-lived plastics has created what experts call an environmental nightmare. Every year, up to 23 million tonnes of plastic waste leaks into aquatic ecosystems, polluting lakes, rivers and seas. By 2040, carbon emissions associated with the production, use and disposal of conventional fossil fuel-based plastics could account for nearly one-fifth of global greenhouse gas emissions under the most ambitious targets of the Paris climate change agreement. Chemicals in plastic can also cause health problems in humans.