UNEA 5.2: Circularity cannot work with plastics, experts say

The best way out of the plastic crisis gripping the world is by curbing its production and use and regulating the way it is manufactured

By Maina Waruru
Published: Friday 04 March 2022
Plastic trash in Varanasi. Photo: iStock
Plastic trash in Varanasi. Photo: iStock Plastic trash in Varanasi. Photo: iStock

Scientists, environmental activists and leaders at the recent United Nations Environmental Assembly (UNEA-5) in Nairobi, Kenya concurred that plastics do not fit in the circular economy. They cannot be recycled and the best way out of the plastic crisis gripping the world is by curbing its production and use and regulating the way it is manufactured.

They were also in agreement that plastics cannot be safely recycled and the closest way of living with them was through reuse, which would minimise it in the economy.

Plastics also contained thousands of chemicals, many of them unknown and whose nature was never disclosed to the public by manufacturers.

This made plastics poison the circular economy — defined as a model of production and consumption, that promotes sharing, leasing, reusing, repairing and recycling materials and products as long as possible, extending a product’s life cycle.

Attempts at extending the life of many plastics ended up poisoning soils and the atmosphere through the release of hazardous toxins, endangering humans and animals. This made recycling them to manufacture fuel a dangerous endeavour that amounted to recycling harmful waste.

Evidence of such soil poisoning has been documented in studies done in Asian countries including China and Indonesia and in Russia according to Bjorn Beeler.

Beeler, who works for the International Pollutants Elimination Network (IPEN), a global network of non-profits dedicated to the common aim of eliminating pollutants, said during a session at UNEA-5:

Plastics are mainly made from carbon and chemicals, making burning the same for fuels a sure way of poisoning the circular economy. There is also a general lack of information on what chemicals were used in making plastics, leaving populations at the mercy of manufacturers.

Besides, he noted that the process of burning them either for fuels or during recycling was of “no help owing to risks of emissions and the general negative impacts on climate”.  The way out, he said, was promoting reuse and making plastics expensive.

“Plastics cannot fit in a circular economy before the many harmful chemicals they contain are eliminated. Even though they have value, their recycling has to be done safely and in a healthy way,” Espen Barth Eide, Norway’s minister of climate and the environment, said during the meeting.

One way of ensuring that their reduction was by making containers for goods that are returnable after use, as it happened with beer bottles, and putting in place shared infrastructure for cleaning used containers, said German packing solution company Circolution Co-founder   Kirils Jegorovs.

For plastics he said, reuse was the most ideal way out, prolonging a product's life, ensuring that the need for buying a similar container did not arise.

However, according Tiza Mafira of Plastic Bag and Diet Movement, also known as Gerakan Indonesia Diet Kantong Plastik in Indonesia, making plastics more expensive as suggested by Beeler was no solution. “Imposing tariffs was not enough as imports would still happen,” she said.

Some ecosystems, especially urban rivers, swamps and wetlands had been lost to plastics according to Joshua AmponSem of Greening Africa, a youth organisation.

The plastic menace facing the environment today, was not one the “world could just recycle away”, he said adding there was need to “appreciate that plastics don’t just go away, they ended up somewhere”.

Another viable way of taming the menace was by heaping pressure on “big oil and big brands” to reduce their plastic footprint and switch their business models to refill and reuse, Graham Forbes of Greenpeace USA, said.

Not left out in the discourse is the food industry, some of the biggest culprits in single-use plastics and in packaging. Nestle, one of the biggest food companies globally, has acknowledged that recycling polymers would neither work nor was it sustainable.

Nestle has been working on a pilot project that seeks to introduce reusable food packaging in nine different countries around the world, with the aim of attaining a target of having “both reusable and recyclable packaging by 2025”, the company’s chief executive, Mark Schneider, said.

Nestle will scale up efforts in finding reusable food packaging while working to ensure that it does not compromise on food safety, he said. As a result, it is setting reuse standards while installing waste collection bins in cities around the world.

“As a company, we must pack food safely at all times. We are conducting customer education on the importance of reuse and we have achieved plastic neutrality in nine countries,” he said.

The food manufacturer and a hundred others were advocating for a ‘robust’ plastics treaty that will also spell out good regulations for all concerned, Schneider said.

According to the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP), a comprehensive circular economy approach is needed in tackling plastics and can reduce the volume of plastics entering oceans by over 80 per cent by 2040.

It can also reduce ‘virgin’ plastic production by 55 per cent and save governments up to $70 billion by the same year. In addition, it has the potential to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 25 per cent and create 700,000 additional jobs, mainly in the Global South.

Exposure to plastics can harm human health, potentially affecting fertility, hormonal, metabolic and neurological activity, potentially causes cancer and open burning of plastics contributes to air pollution, according to the UNEP.

By 2050, greenhouse gas emissions associated with plastic production, use and disposal would account for 15 per cent of allowed emissions, under the goal of limiting global warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius (°C).

Plastic production soared to 348 million tonnes in 2017 from two million tonnes in 1950, becoming a global industry valued at $522.6 billion. It is expected to double in capacity by 2040.

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