UN Provides Blueprint for 80% Cut to Global Plastic Pollution by 2040

Global plastic pollution can be reduced by 80% by 2040 if countries and companies make far-reaching changes using existing technologies, according to a report published Tuesday by the United Nations Environment Program.

Turning Off the Tap: How the World Can End Plastic Pollution and Create a Circular Economy comes less than two weeks before the start of a second round of negotiations in Paris on a legally binding global plastics treaty. While the required shifts outlined in the report are significant, UNEP stresses that they are practical, relatively inexpensive, and would yield benefits valued at more than $4.5 trillion.

Research has shown that plastic pollution is a life-threatening crisis poised to grow worse unless governments intervene to prevent fossil fuel and petrochemical corporations from expanding the production of single-use items.

“The way we produce, use, and dispose of plastics is polluting ecosystems, creating risks for human health, and destabilizing the climate,” UNEP executive director Inger Andersen said in a statement. “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,” said Andersen, “we can deliver major economic, social, and environmental wins.”

The report proposes a four-fold “systems change” to address “the causes of plastic pollution, rather than just the symptoms.” As UNEP summarizes, it consists of the following:

Reduce: By first eliminating problematic and unnecessary plastics, policymakers can reduce the size of the problem.
Reuse: Promoting reuse options—including refillable bottles, bulk dispensers, deposit-return schemes, packaging take-back schemes, etc.—can reduce 30% of plastic pollution by 2040. To realize its potential, governments must help build a stronger business case for reusable items.
Recycle: Reducing plastic pollution by an additional 20% by 2040 can be achieved if recycling becomes a more stable and profitable venture. Removing fossil fuels subsidies, enforcing design guidelines to enhance recyclability, and other measures would increase the share of economically recyclable plastics from 21 to 50%.
Reorient and Diversify: Careful replacement of products such as plastic wrappers, sachets, and takeaway items with products made from alternative materials (such as paper or compostable materials) can deliver an additional 17% 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,” UNEP explains. “This can be addressed by setting and implementing design and safety standards for disposing of non-recyclable plastic waste, and by making manufacturers responsible for products shedding microplastics, among others.”

According to the agency: “Theshift to a circular economy would result in $1.27 trillion in savings, considering costs and recycling revenues. A further $3.25 trillion would be saved from avoided externalities such as 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, significantly improving the livelihoods of millions of workers in informal settings.”

Although UNEP’s recommendations necessitate a substantial investment, it is “below the spending without this systemic change: $65 billion per year as opposed to $113 billion per year,” the agency notes. “Much of this can be mobilized by shifting planned investments for new production facilities—no longer needed through reduction in material needs—or a levy on virgin plastic production into the necessary circular infrastructure. Yet time is of the essence: a five-year delay may lead to an increase of 80 million metric tons of plastic pollution by 2040.”
While many progressive advocacy groups are likely to welcome UNEP’s overall message that readily available solutions, backed by strong regulatory instruments, can help bring about a transformation from a “throwaway” society to a “reuse” society, the agency is facing criticism for its promotion of burning plastic waste in cement kilns.

“Burning plastic waste in cement kilns is a ‘get out of jail free card’ for the plastic industry to keep ramping up plastic production by claiming that the plastic problem can be simply burned away,” Neil Tangri, science and policy director at the Global Alliance for Incinerator Alternatives (GAIA), said in a statement. “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.”

Larisa de Orbe of the Mexican environmental justice groups Red de Acción Ecológica and Colectiva Malditos Plásticos echoed Tangri’s argument.

“To tackle the plastic crisis, waste should not be burned, but its production should be drastically reduced, and single-use plastics should be banned,” said Orbe. “Environmental authorities in Mexico and the [U.N.] Human Rights Rapporteur on Toxic Substances have recognized that the burning of waste in cement kilns has caused environmental disaster and the violation of human rights in the territories and communities near these activities.”

Imports of plastic waste into Mexico grew by 121% between 2018 and 2021. As GAIA noted, a large portion of that “is suspected to be burned in cement kilns, which operate with few controls or emissions monitoring systems.”

Linda Birnbaum, former director of the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences and National Toxicology Program, called the U.N.’s promotion of burning of plastic waste in cement kilns “an irresponsible choice that has significant health implications for the communities living nearby.”

“Burning plastic waste releases dioxins that stay in the environment forever, and are linked to cancers, reproductive, and developmental impairments,” said Birnbaum. “These are the very same chemicals that are threatening the residents of East Palestine, Ohio.”

Ahead of the first round of global plastic treaty negotiations in December, civil society organizations, scientists, and other advocates demanded robust rules to confront the full lifecycle impacts of the plastic pollution crisis.

After talks opened, the Break Free From Plastic (BFFP) alliance, comprised of more than 100 groups, emphasized the need to limit the ever-growing production and consumption of plastic and hold corporations accountable for the ecological and public health harms caused by manufacturing an endless stream of toxic single-use items.

The coalition launched a petition outlining what it described as the “essential elements” of a multilateral environmental agreement capable of “reversing the tide of plastic pollution and contributing to the end of the triple planetary crises of climate change, biodiversity loss, and pollution.” According to experts associated with BFFP, an effective pact must include:

-Significant, progressive, and mandatory targets to cap and dramatically reduce virgin plastic production;
-Legally binding, time-bound, and ambitious targets to implement and scale up reuse, refill, and alternative product delivery systems;
-A just transition to safer and more sustainable livelihoods for workers and communities across the plastics supply chain; and
-Provisions that hold polluting corporations and plastic-producing countries accountable.

While the U.N.’s Intergovernmental Negotiating Committee meetings in December (INC-1) and those scheduled to begin later this month (INC-2) mark the first time that governments have met to develop global regulations to restrict plastic production, the United States and the United Kingdom—the world’s biggest per-capita plastic polluters—have so far refused to join a worldwide treaty aimed at curbing the amount of plastic waste destined for landfills and habitats, though both countries are reportedly now open to the idea.

Kenny Stancil

Originally published
by Common Dreams
May 16, 2023

  • author's avatar

    By: Common Dreams

    Common Dreams works diligently to uncover and publish honest, independent news and information that you can rely on. Every day.

    We publish a diverse mix of breaking news, insightful views, videos and press releases covering issues that resonate with progressives in every corner of the globe. We compile it all in one easy-to-access online location, and present it in a clean, uncomplicated format, uninterrupted by pop-ups, advertising or gimmicks.

  • author's avatar

    Visit the author’s website