Go circular to end plastic pollution, UNEP report urges ahead of global meet

Any delays in executing necessary shifts mean higher costs and an additional 80 million tonnes of plastic pollution, it says
Photo: iStock
Photo: iStock

Global plastic pollution can reduce by 80 per cent by 2040 if countries and companies make deep policy and market shifts using existing technologies and shift to a circular economy, according to a new report launched by United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) on May 16, 2023.

However, any delays in executing the necessary shifts will mean higher costs and an additional 80 million tonnes of plastic pollution by 2040, it added.

The report, tilted Turning off the Tap: How the world can end plastic pollution and create a circular economy, has been launched just days ahead of a second round of negotiations on a legally binding instrument to end plastic pollution (Intergovernmental Negotiating Committee-2 or INC-2) to be held in Paris.

INC-1 was held in Punta Del Este, Uruguay. The meet recognised the growing concern stemming from the links between plastic, human health, and environmental health.

The meeting in Uruguay had come nearly 10 months after the Fifth Session of the United Nations Environment Assembly (UNEA-5.2) adopted resolution 5/14 titled “End plastic pollution: Towards an international legally binding instrument (ILBI)”.

Going circular

The report urged governments and businesses alike to adopt a circular economy approach for tackling the problem of plastic pollution.

Countries need to eliminate unnecessary and problematic plastic uses. They need to make three market shifts — reuse, recycle, and reorient and diversify.

For each necessary shift (reuse, recycle, reorient and diversify), the report accounted for likely implications on polymer and chemical producers, plastic converters, brands / manufacturers, retailers, governments, consumers, waste pickers, waste management companies, and recycling companies.

It pointed out that even with such measures, 100 million tonnes of plastics from single-use and short-lived products will still need to be safely dealt with annually by 2040 — together with a significant legacy of existing plastic pollution.

The reports suggested setting and implementing design and safety standards for disposal of non-recyclable plastic waste, and making manufacturers responsible for products shedding microplastics, among others.

“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. This shift could also result in a net increase of 700,000 jobs by 2040,” the analysis stated.

Investment costs for the recommended systemic change are significant, but below the spending without this systemic change: $65 billion per year as opposed to $113 billion per year, it stated.

“Much of this can be mobilised by shifting planned investments for new production facilities or a levy on virgin plastic production into the necessary circular infrastructure.”

The report also highlighted that highest costs in both a throwaway and circular economy are operational.

“With regulation to ensure plastics are designed to be circular, Extended Producer Responsibility (EPR) schemes can cover these operational costs of ensuring the system’s circularity through requiring producers to finance the collection, recycling and responsible end-of-life disposal of plastic products,” it further recommended.

The report recommended 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.

The document further addressed specific policies, including standards for design, safety, and compostable and biodegradable plastics; targets for minimum recycling; EPR schemes; taxes; bans; communication strategies; public procurement, and labelling.

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