Sea turtle eating plastic

Global cap on plastic pollution required to tackle waste problem, scientists say

Image credit: Alamy

Scientists have called for a global cap on plastic production to help reduce its environmental impact and boost recycling rates.

In March, the UK signed a legally binding UN treaty alongside other member states designed to ultimately end plastic pollution.

In a letter to the journal Science, an international group of scientists said the issue should be tackled at its source by regulating, capping and ultimately phasing out the production of new plastics.

“Even if we recycled better and tried to manage the waste as much as we can, we would still release more than 17 million tons of plastic per year into nature,” said Melanie Bergmann of the German Alfred-Wegener-Institute, the initiator of the letter. “If production just keeps growing and growing, we will be faced with a truly Sisyphean task.”

A research project from 2020 found that plastic emissions can only be cut by 79 per cent over the next 20 years if all solutions available today are implemented, including replacing some plastics with other materials, and improved recycling and waste management.

“The exponentially growing production is really the root cause of the problem, and the amounts of plastics we have produced thus far have already exceeded planetary boundaries,” said Bethanie Carney Almroth of the University of Gothenburg, Sweden. “If we don’t tackle that, all other measures will fail to achieve the goal of substantially reducing the release of plastic into the environment.”

The letter calls for a phase-out of new plastics from fresh feedstocks as part of a systemic solution to end plastic pollution.

Along with measures to address the consumption and demand side of the problem — such as taxes – it also states that the approach must cover the supply side, meaning the actual amount of plastics produced and put on the market.

Gradually cutting the production of new plastics will come with many societal, environmental and economic benefits, the letter reads.

Sedat Gündoğdu of the Cukurova University, Turkey, said: “The massive production also feeds the plastic waste transfer from the Global North to the South. A production cap will facilitate getting rid of non-essential applications and reduce plastic waste exports.

“We gain a lot of benefits from plastics but reducing production will increase the value of plastics, boost other measures to curb plastic pollution, help tackle climate change and promote our transition to a circular and sustainable economy,” added Martin Wagner, an ecotoxicologist at the Norwegian University of Science and Technology.

Earlier this week, researchers revealed that they had used machine learning to develop an enzyme that can break down plastics in a matter of hours.

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