As much as 80% of plastic waste can be eliminated within less than two decades.
Plastic pollution is a scourge on the planet, having spread from mountaintops all the way to the bottom of the seas. It has also entered our bloodstream in the form of microplastics that pose potential health risks.
Yet we can reduce plastic pollution by 80% within two decades if we alter production and consumption methods through existing technologies, according to the UN Environment Program (UNEP).
In its new report Turning off the Tap, the UN agency offers a solutions-based analysis of practices, market shifts, and policies that can inform government thinking and business actions. The experts behind the report suggest eliminating especially problematic and unnecessary plastic products in tandem with the triple actions of reuse, recycle and reorient/diversify:
- Reuse: Promoting reuse options, including refillable bottles, bulk dispensers, deposit-return-schemes, packaging take-back schemes, that can reduce 30% of plastic pollution by 2040. To realize its potential, governments must help build a stronger business case for reusables.
- 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.
“The way we produce, use and dispose of plastics is polluting ecosystems, creating risks for human health and destabilizing the climate,” Inger Andersen, UNEP’s executive director, said in a statement, adding that following this roadmap can “dramatically reduces these risks through adopting a circular approach that keeps plastics out of ecosystems, out of our bodies and in the economy.”
However, even if all the recommended measures will be taken, some 100 million metric tons of plastics from single-use and short-lived products will still need to be safely dealt with each year by 2040. Already existing plastic pollution will also need clean-up solutions both on land and underwater.
The investment costs of the recommended systemic change will be significant, amounting to $65 billion a year. However, a business-as-usual scenario would still cost $113 billion annually, according to UN experts who say necessary investments can be mobilizied partly by shifting to new production facilities and a circular economy globally.
“Overall, the shift 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,” UNEP says.
“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.”
Importantly, the longer actions are put off, the worse plastic pollution will get with a five-year delay in the implementation of the plan alone leading to an increase of 80 million metric tons of plastic pollution by 2040.
“Internationally agreed policies can help overcome the limits of national planning and business action, sustain a flourishing circular global plastics economy, unlock business opportunities and create jobs. These may include agreed criteria for plastic products that could be banned, a cross-border knowledge baseline, rules on necessary minimum operating standards of EPR schemes and other standards,” UNEP says.
Among the report’s recommends is the establishment of a global fiscal framework to enable recycled materials to compete on a level playing field with virgin materials, create an economy of scale for solutions, and establish monitoring systems and financing mechanisms.
“Crucially, policymakers are encouraged to embrace an approach that integrates regulatory instruments and policies tackling actions across the life cycle, as these are mutually reinforcing towards the goal of transforming the economy. For example, design rules to make products economically recyclable can be combined with targets to incorporate recycled content and fiscal incentives for recycling plants,” UNEP explains.