Researchers call for zero plastic pollution target by 2040

A UK team of experts which advises the United Nations, G20 and World Bank has called for a zero target to be set for new plastic pollution by 2040.

The call on the United Nations to establish a target for the end of plastic pollution comes while leaders discuss the challenges of climate change at the COP27 summit in Egypt.

The team from Hampshire University have advised the United Nations Environment Programme, G20 and the World Bank on plastic policy, including the possible structure and content of a global agreement to tackle plastic pollution.

Professor Steve Fletcher, director of the Global Plastics Policy Centre at the University of Portsmouth, has made the plea for the UN to make the “bold pledge” in its upcoming legislation on plastic pollution.  

In March 2022, UN member states agreed on the adoption of a mandate for an International Negotiating Committee (INC) to develop a legally binding UN Treaty on plastic pollution. The INC will begin its work to deliver on the agreement during the second half of 2022, with the ambition of completing it by the end of 2024. 

Inger Andersen, executive director of the UN Environment Programme, said the agreement is the most important international multilateral environmental deal since the Paris climate accord. However, Hampshire University experts have called for the treaty to include ambitious targets regarding the problem of plastic pollution. 

“The treaty’s target must be ambitious and meaningful, we are calling for the UN to aim for a minimum goal of 0 per cent new plastic pollution by 2040," he wrote in the journal Nature Reviews Earth And Environment.

“To achieve this, policymakers, businesses, researchers and wider society must go beyond the existing best available technology and practice and be radical in their thinking to develop a coordinated global strategy to tackle plastic pollution.”

The enduring nature of plastic products – often designed for single use – has led to a major waste issue, particularly involving plastic packaging for consumer and industrial goods. 

Between 1950 and 2017, plastic pollution grew from 2 million tonnes to 348 million tonnes, according to UN figures. This situation has turned plastic into a global industry valued at $522.6bn (£456.1bn), which is expected to double in capacity by 2040

One of the main challenges that comes with ending plastic pollution has been the ambiguity surrounding what this effort actually entails. According to the team, although 200 nations are committed to the development of the treaty, each country has different financial, social and political priorities and obstacles.

For this reason, the Hampshire University experts have stressed the need for a "single target and an agreed strategy”.

"Plastic is extremely useful, but mismanagement has led to a global pollution crisis that is exacerbating climate change," said lead author Antaya March. “A complete transformation to a circular plastics economy is needed to radically reduce or eliminate plastic pollution while supporting necessary use.”

March explained how plastic value chains typically pass through multiple jurisdictions with different laws, rules and norms. 

“At best, country-specific policies, such as bans on specific plastic products, do not have the reach to meaningfully affect global drivers of plastic pollution," she said. “At worst, they create international legal and policy inconsistencies that push plastic waste to places with the least capacity to deal with it safely."

The scientists estimated that current commitments to tackle plastic pollution will only decrease plastic entering the environment by approximately 7 per cent by 2040 compared with business as usual, a very far reach from the 0 per cent plastic the academics demand. 

The social, environmental and economic costs of plastic produced in 2019 alone are estimated to be at least $3.7tn (£2.7tn) over its projected lifetime, according to WWF statistics.

In contrast, a shift to a circular economy can reduce the volume of plastics entering oceans by over 80 per cent by 2040, reduce virgin plastic production by 55 per cent, reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 25 per cent and create 700,000 additional jobs, according to UN data. 

“It is a huge achievement that the development of a global legally binding treaty by the UN to end plastic pollution is underway," Fletcher said. 

“But to be effective, the global treaty requires new levels of transparency, disclosure and cooperation to support evidence-based policymaking that avoids the fragmented and reactionary policies of the past.

“A system change needs to arise that fundamentally alters the way we behave and interact with plastic.”

In February 2022, a poll commissioned by WWF showed the UN's aim to develop a global treaty to limit plastic pollution had the support of nearly 99 per cent of people surveyed

Currently, the UK exports around 60 per cent of the over 2.5 million tonnes of plastic packaging waste it creates, with Turkey being the main destination for this waste. To address this issue, MPs on the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Committee have recommended for the country to ban exports of all plastic waste from 2027

Last week, a UK-wide study found that around 60 per cent of home-compostable plastics do not fully disintegrate in home compost bins and end up in the soil.

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