United Nations Environment Programme
Turning off the Tap. How the world can end plastic pollution and create a circular economy

The UN calls for a world without plastic pollution and a circular economy

The United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) has published a report with recommendations to address the problem of plastic pollution globally, ahead of the international summit in Paris, where more than 175 countries have met (29 May-2 June in Paris) to reach a binding agreement on this issue before the end of 2024.

The report promotes sustainable production and consumption through a circular economy approach that looks at the entire life cycle of plastics. Compared to current consumption trends (which could double by 2040), the report estimates that plastic pollution could be reduced by 80% using existing technologies if countries and companies make profound changes in their policies and procedures, leading to economic benefits (over $4.5 trillion by 2040), environmental benefits (lower carbon emissions) and social benefits (reducing health damage). Three keys to creating a new circular economy for plastics:

  • Reuse: could reduce 30% of plastic pollution by 2040, and in a cost-effective way, as reuse models are estimated to generate net savings of $1,289 per tonne of plastic. This requires ensuring that the reuse market has sufficient commercial benefits to make it more profitable compared to the market for single-use plastic products.
  • Recycling would very significantly reduce the amount of plastic pollution; to encourage this, for example, subsidies for fossil fuels used to make cheap plastic should be removed; this would level the commercial competitiveness in favour of the recycling sector. The report uses Mexico as an example where an enabling environment successfully incentivised investments in recycling, with the share of recycled plastic increasing from 8.8% in 2002 to 56% in 2018.
  • Reorient and diversify, encouraging the use of sustainable alternatives (e.g. paper and new materials) to replace plastic in for example take-away food packaging or other kinds of plastic packaging. The various proposals under this heading, although requiring R&D investment, could save 17% of current plastic pollution.

The report calls for global solutions that encourage a more responsible use of plastic and a use that fosters the circular economy, for example, the use of plastic credits (inspired by carbon credits), or the application of taxes on plastic production to drive market transformation. In addition to economic benefits, the shift would generate new "green" jobs (the report estimates 700,000, mainly in low-income countries), and a reduction in social and environmental costs (apart from a reduction in greenhouse gas emissions).

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