Plastics are a major part of modern life - from construction materials to food packaging - yet concerns are growing globally as their environmental impacts become increasingly evident.
Producing plastics causes major planet-warming greenhouse gas emissions, while the accumulation of plastic products in the environment pollutes lands and oceans.
The consumption of plastic is projected to nearly double by 2050 in G20 nations without significant global action, causing even greater damage to the climate and nature, according to a recent report by the Back to Blue research initiative.
UN countries started negotiations in November over a treaty to reduce pollution from waste such as plastic bottles and food wrappers, aiming to create the first legally binding agreement on plastic pollution by the end of 2024.
According to Back to Blue, only a comprehensive global plan with the most ambitious policies such as single-use plastic bans and taxes on plastic production will have a meaningful impact.
We’ve been aware of this problem for decades … it’s really time for quite immediate action. It’s not just about trash in our oceans, it’s a greenhouse gas emission problem as well.
Gillian Parker, senior manager, Economist Impact
“We’ve been aware of this problem for decades … it’s really time for quite immediate action,” said Gillian Parker, a senior manager at the Economist Impact think-tank, which leads the research group together with The Nippon Foundation.
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 has a major impact on 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,” Parker said in an interview.
Through their life cycle, plastics emit 3.4 per cent of global planet-warming emissions, according to the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD).
How much plastic waste is recycled?
Around the world, only 9 per cent 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 sophisticated recycling processes that exist in countries in the European Union.
“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 just goes around them (and) sidesteps them,” said Fletcher. “Isolated, fragmented policies in individual countries just don’t work.”
Last year, delegates from around 160 nations met in Uruguay for UN plastics treaty negotiations.
A UN treaty could create guidance and standards to help countries decide which plastics are unnecessary, assess what they can change and enforce these decisions, said Parker from Economist Impact.
She said their report shows that policies are not impactful enough when implemented alone, and that “a whole suite of solutions” will be needed to make a real dent in plastic consumption.
“There’s just no real, cohesive, harmonised approach to this problem.”
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