Plastic pollution is surging, so what are governments doing?

A man uses his machete to cut recyclable plastic buckets at the garbage dumping site in Senegal, April 29, 2022. REUTERS/Ngouda Dione

A man uses his machete to cut recyclable plastic buckets at the garbage dumping site in Senegal, April 29, 2022. REUTERS/Ngouda Dione

What’s the context?

As U.N. talks in Canada seek global plastics treaty, 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 – Governments are meeting in Ottawa, Canada, this week for the next round of global talks over a treaty to end plastic pollution, as the world struggles with more than 400 million metric tons of plastic waste produced each year.

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.

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

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Negotiations began in 2022 over a U.N. treaty, which aims to create the world's first legally binding agreement on plastic pollution by the end of 2024.

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.

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 tons in 2060 from 460 million tons in 2019.

Experts say the problem is particularly severe in emerging economies which lack the sophisticated recycling processes of wealthier nations.

This could be improved through schemes such as Extended Producer Responsibility (EPR) 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 tons of polluting single-use plastic in 2021 compared to 2019, according to research in 2023 by the Minderoo Foundation in Australia.

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

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

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.

Fletcher 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, he 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, analysts say local schemes alone may be unsuccessful to cut down on plastic, as supply chains can sidestep fragmented policies.

Last November, delegates met in Kenya for the last round of U.N. plastics treaty negotiations, and at their fourth meeting in Canada's capital, countries now aim to lay the groundwork for a final deal later this year.

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.

This explainer was updated on April 22, 2024 at the onset of U.N. plastics treaty negotiations in Ottawa, Canada.

(Reporting by Jack Graham; Editing by Kieran Guilbert and Jon Hemming)

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