Plastic: The New Human Diet

Recent studies indicate that more than 5 grams of plastic (like eating your credit card) enter our bodies weekly through food, beverages, clothing, and personal care products, among others; with a harmful impact on our organs, health, and to other ecosystems.  To raise awareness of this reality, Audubon Americas held the second National Plastic Symposium in Panama.

The focus of this second edition was to promote national and international best practices and build alliances through disruptive, interactive, and collaborative activities, fostering learning and reflection for the more than 200 attendees, representing civil society, academia, private companies, government, multilateral organizations, and students who participated in the different formats offered by the event. 

To raise awareness of this dramatic reality, within the framework of the Blue Natural Heritage (BNH) Project, Audubon Americas held the second National Plastic Symposium in Panama on March 11th and 12th. This innovative event sought to identify effective solutions for the protection of marine coastal biodiversity. 

Two disruptive days to raise awareness  

The first day consisted of three segments, separated by unconventional activities to stimulate attendees' reflection. 

In the morning, a series of 15 TED Talks and PechaKucha presentations offered a platform for experts to share key information about the impact of plastic across different sectors. Among the noteworthy speakers was Marisol Landau, a recycling pioneer in Panama, who explained the evaluation of plastic's role in the environmental crisis, emphasizing the dilemma between convenience and consciousness, concluding that "recycling is not the solution." Additionally, Dr. Nicolás Olea, a distinguished professor at the University of Granada, delivered an eye-opening presentation on the human health impacts of plastic exposure. He elucidated the dangers we face due to what he calls "the plastic orgy," referring to unconscious and conscious misuse of plastic, in clothing, synthetic grass, personal care products, among others, as well as the repercussions of microplastic presence in vital bodily systems, including the heart, bloodstream, placenta, and even breast milk. 

During lunch, participants were taken aback by real "ghost nets" (those that have been abandoned, lost or discarded in rivers, lakes, and oceans) that obstructed their path and impeded access to food, mirroring the plight of countless birds and fish impacted by the negligent disposal and abandonment of these traps in our oceans. 

In the afternoon, four panels of experts shared their experiences on best practices in communication strategies, education programs, and success stories worldwide for responsible plastic management, as well as the challenges and opportunities in organizations promoting extended producers’ responsibility. 

Throughout the day, 12 Panamanian initiatives offering sustainable solutions to the market had the opportunity to showcase and offer their products and services through the so-called "Circular Market." Examples include preloved fashion; plastic-free children's and feminine hygiene products; sustainable packaging and wrapping; "upcycled" hospitality industry items; composting services, and computer repairs; among others. 

To wrap up the first day, a purpose-driven networking evening, called #HablemosSinFiltro (Let's Talk Without Filter), was organized. Six organizations, in collaboration with the United Nations Development Program's Solution Laboratory (UNDP), shared invaluable insights from their past mistakes, which became Volume 2 of the Plastic Circle. This UNDP initiative seeks to connect and integrate diverse visions and Panama's plastics circularity ecosystem stakeholders, facilitating discovery, collaboration, and collective action to accelerate the changes needed to create a world free of plastic pollution. 

Among the accomplishments of this second symposium is the dedication to sustainability, exemplified by its commitment to achieving zero waste to landfill, thanks to strategic partnerships forged within the event framework. This initiative was materialized using reusable and recycled materials in execution, decoration, and disruptive activities, as well as composting, co-processing, and recycling of generated waste, including that of suppliers, to minimize environmental impact throughout the chain.  

Additionally, the symposium provided an ideal space for reflection and learning through playful activities designed to actively engage participants, on which they had to manage their waste, carry it during a rally, and answer uncomfortable questions. One of the most impactful activities asked participants to eat plastic, challenging them to eat a candy with wrapping on it. The purpose was to reveal that when we are conscious, we refuse to eat it, even though we consume about 5g of plastics per week. (The wrapping is Agar-Agar, a neutral-tasting seaweed-based vegetable gelatin).

The second day was dedicated exclusively to providing training and supporting the development and/or continuation of over 30 projects, research proposals, and theses related to innovative plastic solutions. A total of 54 participants were accompanied by experts who worked to provide feedback and improve specific project proposals. These sessions provided an opportunity for applicants to compete for up to $10,000 US in seed capital and mentoring to carry out their projects effectively and sustainably. 

Advancements and new goals  

In its first edition in 2022, the National Plastic Symposium focused on rethinking plastic and moving towards comprehensive management to reduce the pollution it generates. This second edition focused on expanding the results of the first meeting and mapping ongoing national and international solutions, having fostered alliances among different actors. Furthermore, the symposium actively showcased and sought endorsement for the BNH project's efforts aimed at bolstering Panama's stance within the Intergovernmental Negotiating Committee on Plastic Pollution (INC). Additionally, emphasis was placed on the formulation of strategies for the National Marine Waste Action Plan 2022-2027 (Panama). 

It is worth noting that these activities and events aim to elevate the importance of Panama's coastal natural capital, for which since 2021, the National Audubon Society team, in collaboration with its local partner, Sociedad Audubon de Panamá, has been generating robust scientific research to support the assessment, protection, and improvement of marine-coastal ecosystems. This crucial work has been made possible through the backing of the UK's Blue Carbon Fund, administered by the Inter-American Development Bank (IDB). 

To see the presentations and panels of this second version of the National Plastic Symposium in Spanish, follow this link