Plastic pollution could be reduced by 80% by 2040 if countries and companies make “deep policy and market shifts using existing technologies”, according to a new UN report.
The report, Turning off the Tap: How the world can end plastic pollution and create a circular economy, is published by the UN Environment Programme (UNEP) and released ahead of a second round of negotiations in Paris on a global agreement on plastic pollution.
The report outlines the changes it states are required to end plastic pollution and create a circular economy. The UNEP describe the report as a solutions-focused analysis of concrete practices, market shifts, and policies that can inform government thinking and business action.
To achieve an 80% reduction in plastic pollution, the report suggests eliminating problematic and unnecessary plastics to reduce the scale of pollution. Subsequently, the report calls for three market shifts, which it defines as reuse, recycle and reorient, and diversify products.
According to the report, promoting reuse options, including refillable bottles, bulk dispensers, deposit return schemes and packaging take-back schemes, can reduce 30% of plastic pollution by 2040.
The report goes on to state that reducing plastic pollution by an additional 20% by 2040 can be achieved if recycling becomes more stable and profitable. It also asserts that 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%.
“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 report contends.
The way we produce, use and dispose of plastics is polluting ecosystems, creating risks to human health and destabilizing the climate.
Inger Andersen, UNEP Executive Director, commented: “The way we produce, use and dispose of plastics is polluting ecosystems, creating risks to human health and destabilizing the climate.
“This UNEP 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. If we follow this roadmap, including in negotiations on the plastic pollution deal, we can deliver major economic, social and environmental wins.”
Even with these measures, 100 million metric tons of plastics from single-use and short-lived products will still need to be dealt with annually by 2040, as well as the legacy of existing plastic pollution.
The report says this can be addressed by setting and implementing design and safety standards for disposing of non-recyclable plastic waste, and by making manufacturers responsible for products shedding microplastics, among others.
The shift to a circular economy would result in USD 1.27 trillion in savings, considering costs and recycling revenues, the report states, and a further USD 3.25 trillion would be saved from avoided externalities such as health, climate, air pollution, marine ecosystem degradation and litigation-related costs.
The report continues that this shift could also result in a net increase of 700,000 jobs by 2040, mostly in low-income countries.
The highest costs in both a throwaway and circular economy found in the report were operational but it said that with regulation to ensure plastics are designed to be circular, Extended Producer Responsibility (EPR) schemes can cover these operational costs.
The report states EPR would do this by ensuring the system’s circularity by requiring producers to finance the collection, recycling and responsible end-of-life disposal of plastic products.
According to the report, 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.
The report recommends that a global fiscal framework could be part of international policies 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.