Enacting system changes to shift to the circular economy will create new opportunities while solving the plastic pollution issue, according to UN Environment Programme (UNEP).
- A new report is suggesting solutions to address the causes of plastic pollution rather than just the symptoms.
- Accelerating three shifts – reuse, recycle, and reorient and diversify – will drastically reduce the current pollution levels.
- This will not only benefit human health and the environment as well as delivering cost savings, but will also create business opportunities across the world.
In a historic decision at the fifth United Nations Environment Assembly in March 2022, all 193 UN Member States decided to end plastic pollution and negotiations on a binding legal agreement by 2024 are underway. In its latest report, Turning off the Tap: How the world can end plastic pollution and create a circular economy, UNEP explores the solutions that could realise that goal.
The three shifts
The proposal is a systems change scenario, addressing the causes of plastic pollution rather than just the symptoms. This would enable countries to end plastic pollution while at the same time transitioning towards safer and more stable jobs for those currently working in the informal sector, creating business and job opportunities.
The scenario combines reducing the most problematic and unnecessary plastic uses with a market transformation towards circularity in plastics by accelerating three key shifts – reuse, recycle, and reorient and diversify – and actions to deal with the plastic pollution legacy.
Shift 1: reuse
According to UNEP, creating the enabling environment to ensure the reuse market has a stronger business case than the single-use plastics market. This would lead to a 30% reduction in plastic pollution by 2040 by replacing some of the most problematic and unnecessary products.
Shift 2: recycle
Accelerating the market for plastics recycling by ensuring that recycling becomes a more stable and profitable venture could reduce the amount of plastic pollution by an additional 20% by 2040. This will require adequate availability of feedstock that can be recycled and that recycled materials can compete on a level playing field with virgin materials, the researchers noted.
Shift 3: reorient and diversify
This involves shaping the market for plastic alternatives to enable sustainable substitutions, thereby avoiding replacing plastic products with alternatives that displace rather than reduce impacts. Sustainable alternatives could reduce pollution by an extra 17% by 2040, but struggle to compete in markets with products made of virgin fossil fuel-based polymers owing to a number of challenges: cost of product, consumer demand and lack of appropriate regulations.
The hidden costs of plastics
Global plastic production and use have grown exponentially since the 1950s, with around nine million people employed globally in polymer production and plastic processing industries. Light, strong and seemingly inexpensive plastics have permeated our lives, our societies and our economies – but the trade-offs are costs to the environment, human health and the economy.
Currently, the world produces 430 million metric tons of plastics each year, of which over two-thirds are short-lived products quickly turning into waste, some after one single use. Plastic production is set to triple by 2060 if ‘business-as-usual’ continues, according to the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development.
Researchers worldwide are trying to quantify the social, economic and environmental costs of plastic pollution. Chemicals in plastic have been linked to damage to human health at every stage of the plastic life cycle, including workers and ‘fence-line’ communities that live next door to production and waste disposal sites.
Beyond the impacts of plastic production, microplastics have been found in the deepest recesses of the ocean, in pristine mountain glaciers, in breast milk and human bodies. Under a business-as-usual scenario, plastic – which is made from fossil fuels – would emit 19% of global greenhouse gas emissions allowed to limit global warming to 1.5°C by 2040.
These issues are affecting everyone, but fall disproportionally on people in some of the world’s poorest nations. Preliminary estimates suggest that the social and environmental costs linked to plastic pollution come in at $300-600 billion per year, with some calculations hitting over $1.5 trillion annually. Potential litigation stemming from plastic pollution is estimated to exceed $20 billion in corporate liabilities in one country alone over this decade.
Savings and opportunities for businesses
According to UNEP, the transition to a new plastics economy is the most cost-effective way to address these issues. While significant, the investment costs of the systems change are less than the current investment trajectory, around $65 billion per year through 2040 as opposed to $113 billion per year.
It is important, however, to act quickly, as a five-year delay could lead to an increase of 80 million metric tons of plastic pollution. There will be opportunities for all, but early movers are likely to reap the most benefits.
By 2040, it is estimated a new plastics economy could create 700,000 additional jobs, improve the livelihoods of millions of workers in informal settings, and generate $1.3 trillion in savings in direct public and private costs between 2021 and 2040. When the direct, environmental and social cost savings are added up, they would reach $4.5 trillion or a 20.3% reduction in costs overall.
Moreover, organisations would face fewer liabilities, risks and litigation associated with damage from plastics pollution, on top of the obvious health and environmental benefits.
The systems change cannot be done in isolation, UNEP stressed, due to the cross-border flows of plastics, liabilities and risks. It requires harmonised international action, aligned and coordinated measures and obligations between nations and across value chains to build synergies and create a major shift in the plastics policy landscape.
A harmonised knowledge base, driven by strong national reporting requirements, from which to take informed action, measure progress and refine regulatory interventions, depends on a globally coherent approach to monitoring and reporting. It is recognised, however, that countries will start from different places to implement market transformations and the specific policy mix appropriate to a particular country will need to consider the trade-offs built into policy choices and options.
“The way we produce, use and dispose of plastics is polluting ecosystems, creating risks for human health and destabilizing the climate,” said Inger Andersen, UNEP executive director. “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.”