According to research from the United Nations Environment Program, by 2040, there could be an 80% reduction in global plastic waste if governments and businesses make significant changes.
The report, titled, “How the World Can End Plastic Pollution and Establish a Circular Economy by Turning Off the Tap”, comes less than two weeks before the second round of talks on a binding global plastics pact begins in Paris. Even though the essential changes detailed in the report are enormous, UNEP emphasizes that they are reasonably priced, and would result in benefits worth more than USD 4.5 trillion.
According to research, governments must stop fossil fuel and petrochemical companies from increasing the manufacturing of single-use items to prevent the catastrophe of plastic pollution from worsening.
In a statement, UNEP executive director Inger Andersen stated, “The way we create, use, and dispose of plastics is degrading ecosystems, generating hazards for human health, and destabilizing the climate.”
According to the UNEP research, “a circular approach that keeps plastics out of ecosystems, out of our bodies, and out of the economy lays forth a plan to minimize these hazards drastically.”
“We can achieve significant economic, social, and environmental gains if we adhere to this road map, said Andersen, notably during discussions on plastic pollution,” it stated further.
To address “the causes of plastic pollution, rather than merely the symptoms,” the paper suggests a four-fold “systems shift.”
According to UNEP, policymakers can lessen the scope of the issue by reducing harmful and pointless plastics, followed by encouraging reuse alternatives, such as refillable bottles, bulk dispensers, deposit-return programs, packaging take-back programs, etc.
If recycling becomes a more reliable and lucrative business, it will be possible to reduce plastic pollution by 20% by the time 2040 arrives. The percentage of economically recyclable plastics would rise from 21% to 50% by removing subsidies for fossil fuels, implementing design standards to improve recyclability, and other initiatives.
Also, substituting items like plastic wrappers, sachets, and takeout containers with objects made of substitute materials (such as paper or biodegradable materials) can result in an extra 17% reduction in plastic pollution.
By 2040, 100 million metric tons of plastic from single-use and short-lived products will still need to be safely disposed of each year, together with a sizable legacy of past plastic pollution, according to UNEP. This can be resolved, among other things, by establishing and executing design and safety standards for the disposal of non-recyclable plastic waste and holding manufacturers accountable for goods that shed microplastics.
The organization states, “Considering costs and recycling earnings, the change to a circular economy would result in savings of USD 1.27 trillion. Additional externalities that would not have occurred, such as those associated with litigation and those connected to health, the environment, air pollution, and marine ecosystem deterioration, would save USD 3.25 trillion. Additionally, this change could lead to a net gain of 700,000 employment by 2040, mainly in low-income nations, greatly enhancing the standard of living for millions of workers in informal settings.”
Even though UNEP’s recommendations call for a sizable expenditure, the organization adds that it is “below the spending without this systemic change: USD 65 billion per year as opposed to USD 113 billion per year.”
Furthermore, “A large portion of this can be mobilized by redirecting planned expenditures for new manufacturing facilities—now unnecessary due to a decrease in material needs—or a tax on the creation of virgin plastic into the necessary circular infrastructure. However, time is of the essence since, by 2040, an additional 80 million metric tons of plastic pollution may result from a five-year delay.”
The UNEP is receiving criticism for advocating the burning of plastic waste in cement kilns. However, many progressive advocacy groups will likely support the agency’s message.
The Global Alliance for Incinerator Alternatives (GAIA)’s science and policy director, Neil Tangri, said that burning plastic waste in cement kilns is the plastic industry’s “get out of jail free card” to continue ramping up plastic production.
Linda Birnbaum, a former head of the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences and National Toxicology Program, criticized the UN’s advocacy of burning plastic trash in cement kilns as “an unwise choice that has serious health ramifications for the communities living nearby.”
Before the first round of discussions on a global plastic treaty in December 2023, civil society organizations, scientists, and other supporters pushed for strict regulations to address the full range of effects of the plastic pollution disaster.
The Break Free From Plastic (BFFP) alliance, comprised of over 100 organizations, highlighted the need to hold corporations accountable for the ecological and public health harms caused by producing an endless stream of toxic single-use items after the talks opened.
The organization started a petition describing the “fundamental features” of a global environmental accord that would “reverse the tide of plastic waste and contribute to the resolution of the triple planetary crises of climate change, biodiversity loss, and pollution,” according to the petition.