About two weeks before a crucial meeting in Paris to discuss ways and means to negotiate a legally binding treaty to end plastic pollution, a report by the UN Environment Programme (UNEP) said global plastic pollution could be slashed by 80% by 2040 provided drastic steps are taken.
The changes needed, the UN said, are major, but practical and affordable. The first step, the UN says, is eliminating problematic and unnecessary plastics such as excessive packaging. Then it goes on to call for three major market shifts – reuse, recycle, and reorient and diversify products.
The UN says promoting reuse options, including refillable bottles, bulk dispensers, deposit-return schemes, and packaging take-back schemes, can reduce 30% of plastic pollution by 2040. But what is needed is a major push from governments to build a stronger business case for reusables.
Recycling, if it becomes a more stable and profitable venture, can reduce plastic pollution by an additional 20%. Removing fossil fuels subsidies, enforcing design guidelines to enhance recyclability, and other measures can increase the share of economically recyclable plastics from 21 to 50%, the UN says. The efficacy of recycling is, however, being questioned with a Greenpeace study suggesting that the process actually increases the toxicity of plastics.
Furthermore, the careful replacement of products such as plastic wrappers, sachets, and takeaway items with products made from paper or compostable materials can lead to an additional 17% cut in plastic pollution.
Plastic pollution and littering is a major problem worldwide. Research published in the journal Nature Sustainability in 2021 says plastic items from takeaway food and drink dominate the litter in the world’s oceans. The research led by Carmen Morales-Caselles of the University of Cádiz, Spain, says the list includes plastic bags, bottles, food containers and cutlery, wrappers, synthetic rope, plastic caps and lids, industrial packaging, and drinks cans.
As the problem assumed near unmanageable proportions, in March 2022, 193 countries agreed to end plastic pollution, with negotiations hosted by UNEP on a legally binding agreement by 2024 underway in different phases. The second round of negotiations of the Intergovernmental Negotiating Committee (INC) on Plastic Pollution, also known as INC-2 started in Paris on 29 May 2023 and will end on 2 June. INC-2 follows up on INC-1, held in Punta del Este, Uruguay, last year,
Apart from the member states, the other stakeholders are non-profits, women, workers and trade unions, the scientific community, farmers, indigenous communities, children and youth, local authorities, businesses and industry. The aim is to find a mutually agreeable way to deal with the problem.
Ahead of the Paris meeting, a High Ambition Coalition (HAC) of 50 countries has already agreed to advocate for a legally-binding UN treaty that would aim put an end to plastic pollution worldwide by 2040. UK media reports said the HAC agreed to reduce the production and consumption of primary plastic polymers to sustainable levels, remove and restrict ‘unnecessary, avoidable or problematic’ plastics, chemicals and products, and stop the release of plastics into nature.
At the Paris meeting, French President Emmanuel Macron and UNEP chief Inger Andersen have called on companies to reduce plastic use and invest in circular business models.
Ecoveritas, a leading environmental compliance specialist, has called upon the world leaders to count Extended Producer Responsibility (EPR) among the key provisions for inclusion to ensure circularity. It also says shared guidelines and minimum standards for EPR are necessary to define the desirable minimum operating standards of EPR schemes. According to the UNEP, the EPR model is based on the polluter-pays principle, which aims to include producers of material goods in the management and treatment of waste and keep raw materials and goods in the economic cycle.
Another study published on 30 May by the University of Portsmouth’s Global Plastics Policy Center assesses how all nations can move away from throw-away packaging. The research that consolidates 320 articles and papers and 55 new interviews with reuse experts, says a phased approach can help deliver economy-wide change from single-use to reusable packaging systems to reduce impacts on our climate, environment, biodiversity and health. It envisages a world where all packaging is chipped or tagged and can be dropped into smart bins, cleaned and pooled at centralized ‘hubs’ before being delivered back to factories and retailers.
There is no iota of doubt that companies and institutions worldwide are focusing on moving toward more sustainable ways of packaging and trying to reduce and recycle plastic but the problem is so huge that it is akin to David standing in front of Goliath. In the mythical tale, David did manage to down his formidable opponent but it remains to be seen as to how the world deals with this plastic Goliath of our times. And any positive outcome of the Paris meeting could well be a starting point.