• Could Plastic Pollution Become a Thing of the Past by 2040?

Environmental Laboratory

Could Plastic Pollution Become a Thing of the Past by 2040?

May 22 2023

According to the United Nations' Environment Programme (UNEP), the world is currently embroiled in a ‘plastics pollution crisis’ - but now, according to that very same Environment Programme, it is considered eminently possible that an 80% reduction in this pollution could be achieved before 2040.  

Of course, the requisite shift in market and industrial norms would be enormous. In a new report, titled "Turning Off the Tap: How the World Can End Plastic Pollution and Create a Circular Economy," analysts for the UNEP lay out the fault-lines of this earth-shaking shift: mainstream recycling at all levels and transform the production-consumption patterns of plastic. To achieve this, they lay particular emphasis on policy and outline a couple of simple, tried-and-tested ideas like mandating that all retailed bottles are refillable, the provision of handy public dispensers for plastic waste, and widespread recalls of the most offensive plastic-based products – three quick strategies which the report estimates could alone slash plastic waste by a third. In addition, the UNEP calls for recycling to be transformed into a stable, thriving, profitable sector in the hopes that this will bring waste down by a further 20% and diverting fossil fuel subsidies towards this industry could double the volume of recyclable plastics. The Environment Programme’s Executive Director, Inger Andersen, has thrown her support behind the idea of a circular plastics economy, prioritizing processes that keep plastics out of ecosystems and bodies but in the value-chain. Beyond amendments to plastic production, the report advocates for replacements like paper or compostable materials, particularly as alternatives to plastic-based wrappers, sachets, and takeaway utensils – such a substitution, it is estimated, could cull 17% of plastic pollution.  

It’s been suggested, not least by Andersen herself, that the successful pursuit of this new roadmap is likely to bring some sizeable economic benefits. In the first instance, the transition requires significant investment, to be dredged up by diverting funds ear-marked for plastic production and placing levies on virgin plastic products. But these costs, the UNEP contend, will pale in comparison to those necessitated by continued decline, estimating that whilst the transition will cost $65 billion, keeping up with the global plastics behemoth’s current trajectory would require around $113 billion. If all member-states of the United Nations implemented their suggestions, the authors estimate total savings (in up-front costs, like disposal, manufacture and recycling) at $1.27 trillion, with an additional $3.25 trillion saved in health conditions prevented, ecosystems spared, and litigations avoided. To top it all off, 700,000 new jobs are in the offing, particularly in lower-income jurisdictions.  

Of course, the widespread implementation of such measures is, for the moment, scarcely imaginable and even if all of them were to take effect tomorrow, an obstinate kernel of plastic pollution - that final 20% - would still amount to around 100 million tonnes of single-use and short-lived plastic waste being generated annually. To curtail the environmental impact of this remaining pollution, the UNEP suggest a suite of regulations for the design and disposal of plastics, ensuring that manufacturers are liable for any impacts caused by any microplastics originating in their products. 

Sketching a potential shape for the future of the global plastics industry, the UNEP’s report holds out hope for significant strides towards the solution of one of this century’s most urgent environmental puzzles. With international co-ordination, targeted policy, and industrial innovation, it suggests, plastic pollution could be dramatically curtailed. So, with this report at the front of their minds, negotiators from the UNEP will be participating in a second round of global treaty negotiations aimed at combating plastic pollution before it’s too late. According to the United Nations Environment Programme, a delay of just five years on significant change may mean 80 million more tonnes of plastic waste by 2040, corrupting more ecosystems, harming more wildlife and making more people sick. 


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IET 34.2 March 2024

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