The plastic pollution could be reduced by 80% by 2040 if countries and companies make profound changes in policies and the market using existing technologies, according to a report just released by the United Nations Environment Program (UNEP). The report is published on the eve of the second round of negotiations in Paris to try to reach a global agreement to combat plastic pollution.
The report titled ‘Turn off the tap: How the world can end plastic pollution and create a circular economy’ is a solution-focused analysis of concrete practices, market changes and policies that can serve as a guide to governments and companies. The goal is to achieve a circular economy also in this sector.
“The way we produce, use and dispose of plastics is polluting ecosystems, creating risks to human health and destabilizing the climate,” said Inger Andersen, UNEP Executive Director. “This UNEP report establishes a roadmap to drastically reduce these risks by taking a circular approach that keeps plastics out of ecosystems, out of our bodies, and into the economy. If we follow this roadmap, significant economic, social and environmental gains can be generated.”
Necessary changes towards circularity
To reduce plastic pollution by 80% globally by 2040, the report suggests eliminating problematic and unnecessary plastics first. Subsequently, the report calls for three market changes: reuse, recycle and redirect and diversify products:
reuse: Promoting reuse options, including refillable bottles, bulk dispensers, deposit and return (SDDR) systems, container take-back systems, etc., can reduce 30% of plastic pollution for 2040. To realize its potential, governments must help build a commercial system more suitable for reuse.
Recycling: Reducing plastic pollution by an additional 20% by 2040 can be achieved if recycling becomes a more stable and profitable activity. Eliminating fossil fuel subsidies, enforcing design guidelines to improve recyclability, and other measures would increase the share of economically recyclable plastics from 21% to 50%.
Reorientation and diversification: Replacing plastic containers, envelopes and packaging with ones made from alternative materials (such as paper or compostable materials) can lead to an additional 17% reduction in plastic pollution.
Even taking the above measures, by 2040 there will still be 100 million metric tons of plastics from single-use products and of short duration that will need to be recycled, apart from all the existing waste. This amount can be reduced by implementing design and safety standards for the disposal of non-recyclable plastic waste and by holding manufacturers accountable for products that release microplastics, among other things.
The costs of ‘cutting the tap’ to plastic
“In general, the shift to a circular economy would generate savings of 1.17 trillion euros, considering the costs and revenues of recycling. Another 3 trillion euros would be saved by avoiding other associated damages, such as those created in health, climate, air pollution, degradation of the marine ecosystem and costs related to litigation”, explains the UNEP document.
The report adds that this change also could lead to the creation of 700,000 jobs by 2040mainly in low-income countries, significantly improving the livelihoods of millions of workers.
The costs derived from the investments necessary to face this change They are significant, but in any case they would be lower than those that would be generated by not facing said change: 62,000 million a year, compared to 105,000 million a year. Much of these resources can be achieved by replacing planned investments for new production facilities, which would no longer be needed due to reduced material needs, or a tax on virgin plastic production. However, the report adds, “time is of the essence: a five-year delay can lead to an increase of 80 million metric tons of plastic pollution by 2040.”
The highest costs, in both a disposable and circular economy, are operational. Therefore, if a regulation is implemented to ensure that plastics are designed to be circular (reusable), it will also producers would be required “to finance the collection, recycling and disposal responsible at the end of the useful life of plastic products”.
Also is committed to criteria adopted worldwide. And it is that internationally agreed policies “can help overcome the limits of national planning and commercial action, sustain a flourishing global circular economy of plastics, unlock commercial opportunities and create jobs”.
The report recommends a single tax framework worldwide to allow recycled materials to compete on a level playing field with virgin materials, create economies of scale for solutions, and establish monitoring systems and funding mechanisms.
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