Confronting plastic pollution: boosting reusable options like refillable bottles, bulk dispensers, deposit-return schemes, and packaging take-back schemes could trim plastic pollution by 30% by 2040.
Plastic pollution could plummet by as much as 80 percent by 2040 if significant policy alterations and market shifts are made by nations and companies utilizing existing technologies, a fresh report from the UN Environment Programme (UNEP) suggests. Released in the lead-up to the second phase of talks in Paris on an international pact to curb plastic pollution, the report sheds light on the scope and specifics of the required changes to eradicate plastic pollution and usher in a circular economy.
The report, entitled Turning off the Tap: How the world can end plastic pollution and create a circular economy, provides an in-depth study of tangible practices, market transitions, and policies that could shape governmental decisions and corporate initiatives.
Inger Andersen, the Executive Director of UNEP, articulated, “The manner in which we manufacture, utilize, and discard plastics is contaminating ecosystems, posing risks to human health, and destabilizing our climate.” She added, “This UNEP report delivers a strategic plan to mitigate these risks dramatically by embracing a circular approach that prevents plastics from entering ecosystems, our bodies, and maintains them in the economy. By following this strategic plan, including during discussions on the plastic pollution pact, we can realize substantial economic, social, and environmental gains.”
Necessary market adjustments for transitioning toward a circular economy
The report presents a roadmap to cut global plastic pollution by 80% by 2040. It begins with eradicating problematic and unnecessary plastics, which would shrink the issue’s scale. The report then outlines three significant market shifts – reuse, recycle, and reorient and diversify products:
Reuse: Boosting reusable options like refillable bottles, bulk dispensers, deposit-return schemes, and packaging take-back schemes could trim plastic pollution by 30% by 2040. Governments’ support in making a stronger business case for reusables is essential.
Recycle: A further 20% reduction in plastic pollution by 2040 is achievable if recycling becomes a more stable and profitable business. Actions such as removing fossil fuel subsidies and enforcing design guidelines to improve recyclability would expand the share of economically recyclable plastics from 21% to 50%.
Reorient and Diversify: Strategically replacing plastic items like wrappers, sachets, and takeaway items with alternatives made from different materials could lead to an additional 17% decrease in plastic pollution.
Even after implementation, the plastic pollution problem still daunting
Even after implementing the aforementioned measures, an annual 100 million metric tons of single-use plastics and short-lived products will still need to be managed safely by 2040, alongside a significant volume of existing plastic pollution. Addressing this could involve setting and implementing design and safety standards for disposing of non-recyclable plastic waste and making manufacturers accountable for products shedding microplastics.
The transition to a circular economy could result in savings of USD 1.27 trillion when considering costs and recycling revenues. Avoiding external costs like health, climate, air pollution, marine ecosystem degradation, and litigation-related expenses could save an additional USD 3.25 trillion. This transition could also lead to a net increase of 700,000 jobs by 2040, largely in low-income countries, significantly improving livelihoods for millions of informal workers.
Timely action is critical
Investment costs for the proposed systemic change are considerable but less than the costs without such systemic changes: USD 65 billion per year versus USD 113 billion per year. Shifting planned investments from new production facilities – which are no longer needed due to reduced material needs – or a levy on virgin plastic production could fund necessary circular infrastructure. But timely action is critical as a five-year delay could result in an additional 80 million metric tons of plastic pollution by 2040.
Operational costs are the most significant in both a throwaway and circular economy. However, Extended Producer Responsibility (EPR) schemes, facilitated by regulations ensuring plastic designs are circular, can cover these operational costs, ensuring the system’s circularity by requiring producers to finance the collection, recycling, and responsible end-of-life disposal of plastic products.
Internationally agreed policies can exceed national planning and business action’s limits, underpin a thriving circular global plastics economy, unlock business opportunities, and create jobs. Potential measures could include agreed criteria for banning certain plastic products, a cross-border knowledge baseline, and rules on necessary minimum operating standards of EPR schemes.
The report suggests a global fiscal framework could be part of international policies, enabling recycled materials to compete on an equal footing with virgin materials, create economies of scale for solutions, and establish monitoring and financing mechanisms.
Importantly, policymakers are urged to adopt a holistic approach that combines regulatory tools and policies addressing actions across the life cycle, which are mutually reinforcing toward the goal of economic transformation. For instance, design rules to make products economically recyclable can be paired with targets for including recycled content and fiscal incentives for recycling plants.
Specific policy considerations addressed in the report include design, safety, and compostable and biodegradable plastics standards; minimum recycling targets; EPR schemes; taxes; bans; communication strategies; public procurement; and labeling.