Governments are meeting in Paris this week to negotiate a global treaty on plastic pollution, as alarm grows over the environmental damage caused by surging amounts of waste.
Producing plastics causes major planet-warming greenhouse gas emissions, while the accumulation of plastic products in the environment pollutes lands and oceans.
In a recent report, the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) said countries can reduce plastic pollution by 80 per cent by 2040 through major policy changes using existing technologies.
Negotiations began in November over the UN 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.
When a country puts in some sensible policies, this global supply chain… sidesteps them. Isolated, fragmented policies in individual countries just don’t work.
Steve Fletcher, professor, University of Portsmouth
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,” 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 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.
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