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Systems change could reduce plastic pollution by 80 percent

By Edith Mutethya in Nairobi, Kenya | chinadaily.com.cn | Updated: 2023-05-18 17:40

The world could reduce plastic pollution by 80 percent by 2040 if countries and companies make deep policy and market shifts using existing technologies, a new report by the United Nations Environment Programme has found.

The report launched virtually on Tuesday, said systems could change the scenario of addressing the causes of plastic pollution rather than the symptoms helping to eliminate the problem.

It thus called for reduction of the most problematic and unnecessary plastic uses with a market transformation towards circularity in plastics, by accelerating reuse, recycle and reorient as well as diversify – and actions to deal with the plastic pollution legacy.

The report found that reuse system and recycle could reduce plastic pollution by 30 and 20 percent respectively by 2040, while sustainable alternatives could reduce pollution by 17 percent by 2040.

However, there will still be a need to safely deal with 100 million metric tons of plastics from single-use and short-lived products annually by 2040 – together with a significant legacy of existing plastic pollution.

"This can be addressed by setting and implementing design and safety standards for disposing of non-recyclable plastic waste, and by making manufacturers responsible for products shedding micro-plastics, among others," the report said.

Speaking at the launch event, Inger Andersen, the executive director of UNEP, expressed need to take a full lifecycle approach to plastics - rethinking every step from the design of production and systems to plastic production through use, recovery and disposal.

"Chemical engineers and manufacturers have to get creative both on the product and packaging instead of defaulting to plastics when designing products," she said.

"We need to ensure safe disposal of whatever is designed not to be secular and to deal with significant legacy plastics that is still hitting our shores and environment."

However, Andersen said going secular is complicated and challenging, noting that poverty and access remain critical barriers to overcome.

"We need innovation from manufacturers, importers, exporters and governments to make this possible," she said.

"If the global community could deliver, plastic pollution could fall by 80 percent by 2040 and that would dramatically reduce social, environmental, human health and infrastructure cost, cut greenhouse gas emissions and create up to 700,000 jobs mainly in the global south."

According to the report, shifting to a circular economy would save $1.27 trillion (8.93 trillion yuan) while a further $3.25 trillion would be saved from avoided externalities such as health, climate, air pollution, marine ecosystem degradation, and litigation-related costs.

While the primary plastics sector of polymers and additives accounts for around $600- 700 billion per year in revenues, it also inflicts a heavy burden on human health and environmental degradation, with the poorest in society facing the highest impacts whilst contributing the least to plastic over-consumption and waste, the report said

The researchers said the next three to five years present a critical window for
action to set the world on the path towards implementing the systems change scenario by 2040.

"If it takes longer to apply these same solutions, the model used indicates that
an additional 80 million metric tons of plastic pollution will be entering the environment," the report warned.

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