By Joyce Ojanji

With up to 23 million tonnes of plastic waste leaking into the aquatic ecosystems, polluting lakes, rivers and seas annually, the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) has awarded five nominees for the 2023 Champions of the Earth environmental honour for their innovative solutions and transformative action to tackle plastic pollution.

Mayor Josefina Belmonte of Quezon City, Philippines is honoured in the Policy Leadership category for 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 from the United Kingdom is honoured in the Inspiration and Action category for playing 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 from China has been honoured in the Entrepreneurial Vision category for using 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 from Chile has also been honoured in the Entrepreneurial Vision category. Moller is the founder of Algramo, a social enterprise dedicated to providing refill services that reduce plastic pollution and lower the costs of everyday essentials. He 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.

In addition, the Council for Scientific and Industrial Research from South Africa has been honoured in the Science and Innovation category for using 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 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.

According to Andersen, as negotiations to develop an international legally binding instrument on plastic pollution progresses, this year’s Champions of the Earth demonstrate that innovative solutions are available that can inspire us to rethink our relationship with plastic.

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 planet. It is the UN’s highest environmental honour. Including this year’s five Champions, the award has recognized 116 laureates: 27 world leaders, 70 individuals and 19 organizations. UNEP received a record 2,500 nominations this cycle, marking the third consecutive year that nominations have reached a high-water mark.

To #BeatPlasticPollution, experts say humanity must reduce and eliminate unnecessary and problematic plastics, find environmentally sound alternatives to the material, develop innovative models for re-using plastics and adopt what is known as a life-cycle approach to plastic pollution.