While the amount of global plastic pollution is staggering, the United Nations Environment Programme has found that it is still possible to reduce plastic pollution as much as 80% by 2040. It would require major changes, but these efforts would still be convenient and even affordable to take on.
The UNEP shared the possibility for massive plastic pollution reduction in a new report, “Turning off the Tap: How the world can end plastic pollution and create a circular economy.” In addition to reducing plastic production, the report outlines other ways to minimize pollution through reuse, recycle, reorient and diversity tactics.
Many people are familiar with reuse and recycling. The report outlines needs for improved policies and systems to encourage both. Additionally, the reorient and diversify tactics are meant to replace single-use plastics with alternative materials, like paper or compostable materials.
“The way we produce, use and dispose of plastics is polluting ecosystems, creating risks for human health and destabilizing the climate,” Inger Andersen, executive director of UNEP, said in a statement. “This UNEP report lays out a roadmap to dramatically reduce these risks through adopting a circular approach that keeps plastics out of ecosystems, out of our bodies and in the economy. If we follow this roadmap, including in negotiations on the plastic pollution deal, we can deliver major economic, social and environmental wins.”
According to the authors, these efforts could cause the amount of mismanaged plastic pollution to drop to about 41 million metric tons. The business-as-usual scenario would result in 227 million metric tons of mismanaged plastic pollution. There would be additional reductions in other types of plastic pollution as well, including:
- 149 million metric tons of fossil fuel-based plastics compared to 380 million metric tons in the business-as-usual scenario;
- 95 million metric tons of landfilled plastics compared to 129 million metric tons in the business-as-usual scenario; and
- 216 million metric tons of total plastic waste generated compared to 408 million metric tons in the business-as-usual scenario.
The UNEP noted that while an 80% reduction in plastic pollution would be helpful, there would still be a need to manage 100 million metric tons of plastics each year by 2040. The world will need to address ghost gear and microplastics and will need to improve disposal solutions and waste management systems.
According to the report, these adjustments could lead to an additional 700,000 jobs, particularly for low-income nations. Changes may cost more upfront, but they would be less costly compared to business-as-usual operations and could lead to $1.27 trillion in savings plus $3.25 trillion savings from avoided externalities.
The report serves as a roadmap ahead of plastic treaty talks, after 193 countries agreed to participate in a legally binding treaty to curb plastic pollution worldwide. A recent report from Back to Blue found that without the treaty, plastic consumption could double by 2050.