Cutting Global Plastic Pollution by 80% by 2040 is Within Reach, UN Says
Plastic Pollution
The UNEP report sets the stage for the second round of international negotiations on a global treaty to fight plastic pollution, set to begin in Paris on 29 May.

Cutting global plastic pollution by 80% by 2040 is within reach if countries and companies commit to deep systemic changes in the way the world consumes and produces plastics, according to a United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) report released on Tuesday.

The roadmap set out by the report is remarkably low-tech: reuse, recycle, and replace plastic products where greener solutions exist. With nearly 500 million tons of plastic being produced every year, and only 9% of it being recycled, the first step to addressing the plastic crisis is to make less of it, UNEP said.

“The way we produce, use and dispose of plastics is polluting ecosystems, creating risks for human health and destabilizing the climate,” said UNEP Executive Director Inger Andersen. “This 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.”

By eliminating unnecessary plastics like excessive supermarket packaging, boosting the use of reusable bottles and containers, and finding greener alternatives to single-use plastics, government and industry could drive plastic pollution down to 40 million tons per year in 2040. In a business-as-usual scenario, plastic pollution would jump to 227 million tons in that same period.

Achieving this 80% reduction in plastic pollution could cut global carbon dioxide emissions by 500 million tons annually, equivalent to the emissions of Canada, and result in a net increase of 700,000 jobs by 2040, mostly in low-income countries, the report estimated.

The shift to a circular plastic economy would also prevent social and environmental damages valued at $3.2 trillion, according to UNEP. These savings account for impacts on health, climate, air pollution, water supplies and damage to ocean ecosystems, among other externalities.

“When you take all those [health costs] along with the cleanup costs of plastic pollution, you get in the range of $300 billion to $600 billion a year,” Steven Stone, deputy director of UNEP’s industry and economy division and lead author of the report told WIRED. “This report is a message of hope – we are not doomed to incurring all of these costs.”

Solutions in report do not solve everything

“Even with the market transformation approach described [in the report], a significant volume of plastics cannot be made circular in the coming 10 to 20 years,” the report said.
The authors of the UNEP report acknowledge the circular economy approach is not a panacea. Even under the best-case scenario, largely viewed as theoretical by environmental groups, 136 million metric tons of plastic will end up in landfills, incinerators and the environment by 2040.

Meanwhile, recycling – which the report relies on for 20% of the projected reduction in plastic pollution by 2040 – has until now proven ineffective when it comes to plastics, a problem projected to continue as the chemical make-up of plastics becomes increasingly complex, making them harder to recycle.

Recycling capacity has also failed to scale fast enough to keep pace with booming plastic production. The 2023 Plastic Waste Makers Index, an annual report of reference that tracks the activities of companies responsible for plastic production and pollution, called recycling “at most, a marginal activity for the plastics sector.”

“Despite rising consumer awareness, corporate attention, and regulation, there is more single-use plastic waste than ever before,” the index found. “Single-use plastic is not only a pollution crisis but also a climate one.”

The UNEP report comes just weeks ahead of the second of five rounds of international negotiations on a treaty to confront plastic pollution, set to take place in Paris later this month. The first round of negotiations, which took place in Uruguay in March of last year, was attended by over 2,000 experts and delegates from more than 150 countries determined to make their mark on the landmark treaty.

Jyoti Mathur-Filipp, the executive secretary of the Intergovernmental Negotiating Committee for plastics convening the negotiations, will present a zero-draft of a legally binding agreement at the meetings in Paris, which start May 29.

“This miracle material, [plastic], has in fact become a disastrous material insofar as the way we use and dispose of it,” Andersen said. “We need to take a full lifecycle approach to plastics. If we follow this [UNEP] roadmap, including in negotiations of the plastic pollution deal, we can deliver major economic, social and environmental wins.”

Familiar battle lines at a critical juncture for plastic pollution fight

Plastic threads rest on a coral reef off the coast of Wakatobi National Park, Indonesia.

Plastics are everywhere. They are in our clothes, food, drinking water, blood and air. Microplastics have scaled Mount Everest, a feat achieved by just 4,000 human climbers in history, independently formed island-state sized garbage patches, and are set to outnumber fish in the world’s oceans by 2050.

Ingested microplastics are starting to alter the behaviour of cells in the internal organs of humans and animals. Their invasion of the world’s oceans is suffocating phytoplankton, interfering with the ability of oceans to work as a carbon sink.

Yet last year’s meeting in the coastal Uruguayan city of Punta del Este was the first time the world agreed on the notion of plastic pollution as a global crisis on the level of climate change and biodiversity loss, and that something should be done about it.

While recent successes on the climate and biodiversity fronts provide reason for optimism, the first round of negotiations saw the emergence of clear and familiar battle lines that foreshadow a rocky road between Paris and the final agreement, set to be ratified in 2024.

The self-styled High Ambition Coalition to End Plastic Pollution, a group of 50 countries led by Norway and Rwanda who want to end plastic pollution by 2040, sit on one side of the negotiating table. They want the outcome of the plastic treaty negotiations to be a legally binding instrument to achieve that goal.

Top 20 global producers of single-use plastics remain effectively unchanged since the first Plastic Waste Makers Index was published in 2019.

The world’s largest energy, chemical and plastics producers – flanked by fossil-fuel-producing countries like the United States, China and Saudi Arabia – sit across from them. They are pushing for the global agreement to focus on voluntary commitments determined at the national level, rather than binding global standards.

This coalition also placed a heavy emphasis on recycling as a core building block of the international accord, a premise which has long been promoted by the plastics industry. Similar to the concept of the “environmental footprint” pushed by British Petroleum to deflect the blame for climate change from oil giants to everyday people, recycling allows plastic producers to blame the careless consumer for failing to recycle properly.

The presence of industry groups like the American Chemistry Council – which includes ExxonMobil, Shell and Dow among its near 200 members – has brought renewed criticism from environmental and human rights groups, who have grown exhausted with the UN allowing the companies responsible for environmental crises to attend high-level international negotiations intended to solve them.

ExxonMobil, the world’s largest plastic producer, touted “one of the largest advanced recycling facilities in North America” in an April earnings call where it announced a record $56 billion in annual profits. The facility can process over 80 million pounds of plastic waste per year, the company said. In 2021, Exxon produced 13.2 billion pounds of plastic polymers – 165 times what its new facility can process annually.

“What we know from historians is that since the 1950s, the industry has developed a very sophisticated system to defend their products, and that system includes lobbyists, consultants, but also scientists – and that’s what’s concerning me most,” Martin Wagner, a biologist specialized in the environmental impacts of plastics and synthetic materials at the Norwegian University and Science and Technology told Plastisphere.

“What the chemical industry has learned from the tobacco industry is that … manufacturing doubt and preventing scientific consensus on one of their products is [very powerful],” Wagner said. “Given the history of the sector to lobby for regulation that is not in any way restricting their business, I think the plastic industry’s role in negotiations should be as minor as possible.”

Image Credits: QPhia.

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