Plastic pollution is surging, so what are governments doing?

Children walk over a polluted area as they collect plastic materials in Dhaka, Bangladesh, January 24, 2022

Children walk over a polluted area as they collect plastic materials in Dhaka, Bangladesh, January 24, 2022. REUTERS/Mohammad Ponir Hossain

What’s the context?

As the Barbie movie puts plastic dolls centre stage, research says levels of plastic waste have become unmanageable

  • Plastic consumption could double by 2050 in the G20
  • Bans, taxes and larger corporate role could cut waste
  • U.N. negotiations aim to reduce global plastic pollution

LONDON – The world reached 'Plastic Overshoot Day' on July 28, when plastic production in 2023 exceeded global capacity to manage plastic waste effectively - a point marked by researchers for the first time.

As a result, more than 68 million tonnes of short-life plastics will pollute the environment this year as they are not recycled or properly disposed of, according to the report by Swiss-based research consultancy Earth Action.

Global plastic production has increased 20 times faster than capacity to recycle it over the last decade, despite increased awareness and action on the issue, according to Earth Action figures.

Producing plastics, from Barbie dolls to water bottles, generates large amounts of planet-warming greenhouse gas emissions, while the accumulation of plastic products in the environment pollutes lands and oceans.

"We are currently living unrealistic, toxic, over-plasticised lives," Terry Collins, director of Carnegie Mellon University's Institute for Green Science, said in a statement.

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In a 2023 report, the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) said countries can reduce plastic pollution by 80% by 2040 through major policy changes using existing technologies.

Negotiations began last year over a U.N. treaty, which aims to create the world's first legally binding agreement on plastic pollution by the end of 2024 - and a breakthrough was achieved in June in Paris when 170 countries agreed to develop a first draft by November.

Experts say it is urgently needed, with plastic consumption projected to nearly double by 2050 in G20 nations unless major global action is taken, causing even greater environmental damage, according to Back to Blue, a research initiative.

So, what environmental impacts are caused by plastic, and how can countries address the issue?

Why is plastic a problem?

Plastics are causing widespread pollution on land and at sea, causing harm to human health and damaging vulnerable marine habitats such as coral reefs and mangroves.

Between 400,000 and 1 million people are estimated to die each year in developing countries because of diseases such as diarrhoea and cancer related to plastics and other mismanaged waste, according to a 2019 report by the charity Tearfund.

The production of plastics also plays a part in climate change, as they are made from fossil fuels such as oil and gas.

"It's not just about trash in our oceans, it's a greenhouse gas emission problem as well," said Gillian Parker, a senior manager at the Economist Impact think tank, which leads the Back to Blue initiative with The Nippon Foundation.

Through their life cycle, plastics emit 3.4% of global planet-heating emissions, according to the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD).

How much plastic waste is recycled?

Around the world, only 9% of plastic waste is recycled, according to the OECD, which predicts that global plastic waste is on track to almost triple to 1,231 million tonnes in 2060 from 460 million tonnes in 2019.

Parker said the problem is particularly severe in emerging economies which lack the sophisticated recycling processes of European Union countries.

"The existing infrastructure's not enough to handle the amount of plastic waste that's being generated, and that's a massive blind spot," she said.

This could be improved through schemes such as Extended Producer Responsibility (EPR), she said, where plastic producers are made responsible for the end of a product's life cycle, such as by providing funds to cover the costs of recycling.

Should we ban single-use plastics?

The Back to Blue report examined three main ways in which governments have tried to reduce plastic consumption, including EPR schemes, production taxes, and bans on single-use plastics.

It found that single-use bans were the most effective, but said that if these were implemented in G20 countries without any other measures, plastic consumption would still be one-and-a-half times higher by 2050.

The world generated an additional 6 million tonnes of polluting single-use plastic in 2021 compared to 2019, according to recent research by the Minderoo Foundation in Australia.

Steve Fletcher, a leading plastics expert at the University of Portsmouth in Britain, said there is often a "false distinction" between single-use plastics and those which are genuinely multi-use.

"There isn't actually that much multiple-use plastic out there when you think about it," he said.

Fletcher said there should be bans on plastics which lack a clear purpose, are toxic and cannot be reused or recycled.

"As a global society, what is the justification for producing this stuff in the first place?" he added.

How can plastic consumption be reduced?

Analysts say one of the challenges when it comes to reducing plastic consumption is how cheap it is to produce, thanks to fossil fuel subsidies.

"At the moment, virgin plastic is massively cheaper than recycled plastic or reusable plastic," said Fletcher.

He said more financial incentives are needed to "level the playing field" to make recycled plastics more appealing, along with taxes on virgin plastic.

Another way to reduce plastic consumption is to introduce "system-wide shifts" towards reuse, Fletcher said.

This could include making products reusable by design, and creating processes such as a sports stadium reusing cups and cutlery, much like how traditional milkmen reused glass bottles.

Does the world need a plastics treaty?

Given the global nature of supply chains, local schemes alone may be unsuccessful to cut down on plastic.

"When a country puts in some sensible policies, this global supply chain… sidesteps them," said Fletcher. "Isolated, fragmented policies in individual countries just don't work."

Last November, delegates met in Uruguay for U.N. plastics treaty negotiations, which resumed for a second round in Paris in late May, where tense negotiations eventually ended with a mandate to start building a first draft.

A U.N. treaty could create guidance and standards to help countries decide which plastics are unnecessary, assess what they can change and enforce those decisions, said Parker from Economist Impact.

"A whole suite of solutions" will be needed to make a real dent in plastic consumption at the global level, she noted.

"There's just no real, cohesive, harmonised approach to this problem," she added.

This explainer was updated on July 28, 2023 at 11:10 GMT with new plastic waste research from Earth Action.

(Reporting by Jack Graham; Editing by Kieran Guilbert)

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