Countries could slash plastic pollution by 80% in less than two decades, according to a new report from the United Nations Environment Programme.
It’s even changing ecosystems. Scientists recently found rocks made from plastic on a remote Brazilian island, and there is now so much plastic swirling in parts of the Pacific Ocean that communities of coastal creatures are thriving on it, thousands of miles from their home.
The last few decades have seen plastic production levels soar, especially single-use plastic, and waste management systems have not kept pace. The world generated 139 million metric tons of single use plastic waste in 2021.
Global production of plastic is set to triple by 2060 if no action is taken.
UNEP’s report aims to offer a roadmap to governments and businesses to dramatically cut levels of plastic pollution. It focuses on three main strategies: reuse, recycling and alternative materials.
Reusing plastics would have the greatest impact, according to the report, which recommends promoting options such as refillable bottles, deposit programs to incentivize people to return plastic products and packaging take-back programs. This would be the most “powerful market shift,” reducing plastic pollution by 30% by 2040, the report said.
Scaling up recycling levels could reduce plastic pollution by a further 20%, according to the report. Only around 9% of plastics are recycled globally each year, with the rest ending up in landfill or incinerated.
The report also recommends discontinuing the fossil fuel subsidies that help make new plastic products cheaper, which disincentivizes recycling and the use of alternative materials. Fossil fuels are the raw ingredient for almost all plastics.
The use of appropriate alternative materials for single-use products, such as wrappers and sachets – including switching to compostable materials that more easily break down – could reduce plastic pollution by 17%, the report found.
“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, in a statement.
“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.”
The report estimates the investment needed for the changes it recommends will cost around $65 billion a year, but says this amount is far outweighed by the costs of doing nothing. Moving to an economy where plastic is reused and recycled could bring $3.25 trillion in savings by 2040, according to the report, by avoiding the negative impacts of plastic, including those on climate, health, air and water.
Cutting plastics by 80% would save 0.5 billion tons of planet-warming carbon pollution a year, the report estimated. It could also create 700,000 new jobs, mostly in developing countries.
Even with all these shifts, however, the world will still have to manage around 100 million metric tons of plastic waste from short-lived products by 2040, according to the report. That’s equivalent in weight to almost 5 million shipping containers – spread end to end, these could reach from New York City to Sydney, Australia and back again.
Tackling this will require stricter standards for non-recyclable waste and increasing the responsibility of manufacturers for the impacts of their plastic products, according to the report.
The report comes as countries prepare for a second round of negotiations in Paris later this month aimed at agreeing a world-first international plastics treaty, which would address the whole life of plastics from production to disposal. Whether the treaty will include curbs on plastic manufacturing remains a sticking point.