• Is plastic production about to rapidly decelerate?

Environmental Laboratory

Is plastic production about to rapidly decelerate?

Aug 23 2023

The world is in the midst of a momentous shift regarding the production and consumption of plastics. From everyday conveniences to dire environmental consequences, plastic has woven itself into the fabric of modern civilization. But is the tide of plastic production about to turn?  

Since its widespread introduction in the 1960s, plastic production has skyrocketed, rising 30-fold to about 430 million tonnes annually. This staggering amount eclipses the total weight of all 8 billion human beings on Earth. If left unchecked, estimates predict that plastic consumption could nearly double by 2050. 

Recent international efforts offer a glimpse of hope that the seemingly unstoppable rise in plastic production (and therefore, plastic waste) may soon be curtailed, or even reversed. At a meeting in Paris, governments around the world agreed to draft a treaty aimed at controlling plastics. The United Nations (UN) predicts that this treaty could slash production by an incredible 80% by 2040. 

The urgency for such a treaty is palpable. Plastic pollution in the oceans is set to double by 2040, and the production of single-use plastics alone emits more greenhouse gases than the entire United Kingdom. The discovery of microplastics in human organs adds to the alarm, signaling the unknown consequences for both human health and the environment. 

The negotiation process for the treaty is complex and fraught with challenges. Governments began to rally against plastic pollution in March of the previous year, calling for an end to this environmental hazard and scheduling multiple negotiating meetings. Three more such "plastic summits" are planned before the year's end. 

The treaty is backed by immense public concern, translating into political pressure. The United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) assures that an 80% reduction can be accomplished through proven practices, including eliminating unnecessary single-use plastics, promoting reuse, and encouraging the utilization of sustainable biodegradable materials. 

Business support has also been robust, with companies like Unilever and Coca-Cola among a 100-strong Business Coalition pushing for robust regulatory measures. 

The High Ambition Coalition, including all G7 countries except Italy and the US, leads the charge. Even Japan, initially opposing a strong treaty, recently switched sides to support it. 

Despite these positive signs, formidable opposition remains from influential plastic-producing nations such as China, India, and the US. The industry's reliance on fossil fuels and an intention to expand production to offset losses to clean energy sources adds to the resistance. 

Contentious issues include whether global rules should be binding or voluntary, a focus on limiting production versus recycling, and decision-making processes. 

UNEP's report outlines practical and affordable measures to cut global plastic pollution by 80% by 2040. These include eliminating unnecessary plastics, boosting recycling, and replacing plastics with greener alternatives. 

The changes could yield benefits worth trillions of dollars between now and 2040 by reducing damage to health, climate, and the environment. For instance, increased reuse and recycling could significantly reduce pollution, and taxing virgin plastic could make recycling more economically attractive. 

The repercussions of unchecked plastic pollution are staggering. Plastic contaminates everything from the peak of Mount Everest to the ocean's depths. Microplastics enter human bodies through food, water, and air, affecting both wildlife and human health. 

Economically, the costs of plastic pollution could be between six to nineteen billion dollars per year, with risks of up to $100 billion annually if governments impose waste management costs on businesses. 

As the world gears up for the critical UN Climate Conference, COP26, and further rounds of negotiations on the global plastic treaty, the report's insights emphasize that plastic pollution is a climate issue as well. 

The proposed reduction in plastic pollution would prevent over 500 million tons of CO2 emissions per year, equivalent to Canada's emissions. It could also create 700,000 jobs, primarily in low-income countries. 

However, the report also warns against relying solely on recycling or adopting potentially harmful alternatives like bio-based plastics. 

A transformation across the entire value chain is needed, along with investments in robust monitoring systems, a shift to circular approaches, and the exploration of viable alternatives. 

In the words of UNEP’s Executive Director, Inger Andersen, the assessment provides the “strongest scientific argument to date for the urgency to act.” 

The coming plastic production deceleration represents a significant milestone in global environmental stewardship. The successful negotiation and implementation of the plastic treaty could place it alongside the historic Montreal Protocol, a landmark success in environmental diplomacy. 

Yet, this is not a foregone conclusion. Opposition remains robust, and the path forward is laden with obstacles. The global community stands at a crossroads. The choices made in the coming months will shape not only the future of plastics but the overall health of the planet and its inhabitants. The world is watching, waiting, and, perhaps most importantly, hoping for a future where plastic no longer overshadows the balance of nature. 


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IET 34.2 March 2024

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