Plastic bottles processing

Plastic pollution could be cut by 80 per cent by 2040 with policy shift, UN says

Image credit: Ecoalf

Plastic pollution could be reduced by 80 per cent by 2040 if countries and companies make policy and market shifts using existing technologies, the UN Environment Programme (UNEP) has said.

A new report, released ahead of a second round of negotiations in Paris on a global agreement to beat plastic pollution, suggests eliminating unnecessary plastics to reduce the size of the problem prior to significant market shifts based on products using reused and recycled materials.

Reuse options including refillable bottles, bulk dispensers, deposit-return-schemes and packaging take-back schemes that could cut up to 30 per cent of plastic pollution by 2040.

A further 20 per cent reduction in plastic pollution could be achieved if recycling becomes a more stable and profitable venture. To do this, the report recommends removing fossil fuels subsidies, enforcing design guidelines to enhance recyclability, and other measures to increase the share of economically recyclable plastics from 21 to 50 per cent.

It also suggests replacing products such as plastic wrappers, sachets and takeaway items with products made from alternative, compostable materials such as paper to deliver an additional 17 per cent decrease in plastic pollution.

Even with the measures above, 100 million metric tons of plastics from single-use and short-lived products will still need to be safely dealt with annually by 2040 together with a significant legacy of existing plastic pollution.

The report proposes addressing this by implementing design and safety standards for disposing of non-recyclable plastic waste, and by making manufacturers responsible for products shedding microplastics, among others.

“The way we produce, use and dispose of plastics is polluting ecosystems, creating risks for human health and destabilising the climate,” said Inger Andersen, UNEP executive director.

“This UNEP report lays out a roadmap to dramatically reduce these risks through adopting a circular approach that keeps plastics out of ecosystems, out of our bodies and in the economy. If we follow this roadmap, including in negotiations on the plastic pollution deal, we can deliver major economic, social and environmental wins.”

The report claims that the shift to a circular economy would result in $1.27tn in savings, considering costs and recycling revenues. A further $3.25tn would be saved due to indirect impacts such as improvements to health, climate, air pollution, marine ecosystem degradation and litigation-related costs.

This shift could also result in a net increase of 700,000 jobs by 2040, mostly in low-income countries, the report said.

While initial investment costs would be relatively high – around $65bn annually – much of this could be raised by shifting planned investments for new production facilities or a levy on virgin plastic production into the circular infrastructure.

UNEP said given the short timeline between now and 2040, “sub-optimal solutions” will need to be used to deal with that waste though further study was needed to weigh the impacts of increased greenhouse gas emissions or air toxics.

“Not only does this pose a grave climate and public health threat, it also undermines the primary goal of the global plastic treaty – putting a cap on plastic production,” said Dr Neil Tangri, policy director at Global Alliance for Incinerator Alternatives.

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