“Reuse, Recycle and Alternative”, the UN’s triple solution against plastic pollution

The world must cut single-use plastics in half and massively adopt the trinity of “reuse, recycle and substitute” to stem this galloping pollution, according to a UN report published Tuesday, which although Does not set a target for overall reduction in production.

The roadmap, titled “Turn off the tap”, is published by the United Nations Environment Program (UNEP) two weeks ahead of the second round of talks in Paris that will lead to a legally binding international treaty by the end of 2024. ,

“Plastics play a positive role in society in many ways,” writes Inger Andersen, executive director of UNEP. “However, there is a flip side to the coin: the way we produce, use and dispose of plastics pollutes ecosystems, threatens human and animal health and destabilizes the climate.”

In 2019, 353 million tons of plastic waste were produced worldwide, of which 22% was discarded, i.e. in wild dumps, burned in the open air or left in nature.

The report therefore recommends “firstly to eliminate problematic and unnecessary plastics”, specifically “halving the production of single-use plastics”.

But beyond this short-term range, UNEP does not directly mention a reduction target at the source of all plastic production, when it could double by 2040.

Research estimates that plastics could account for 19% of global greenhouse gas emissions by this date.

In contrast, UNEP highlights the pollution reduction target, with 408 million tonnes of waste to be managed in 2040 if current economic models continue. This would translate into 227 million tonnes of plastic released into the environment.

To avoid this, the UN program urges the international community to adopt a “systemic transformation scenario” based on “three market transformations: reuse, recycle, diversify”.

Such a revolution, the report claims, could reduce this discarded waste to 41 million tonnes in 2040, an 80% reduction from forecasts.

Two scenarios on the future of plastics (AFP – Sabrina Blanchard, Julia Han Janicki)

The report estimated, “(this) plastic pollution could be reduced by up to 30% by promoting reuse, bulk selling, deposit systems, take-back packaging.”

“An additional 20% reduction could be achieved if recycling became more stable and profitable”, including “removing fossil fuel subsidies”, which would make new plastics much cheaper.

“Replacing packaging, pouches and takeaways with alternative materials (paper or compostable) could result in a 17% reduction”, also notes the report which was based on calculations by the Pew Charitable Trust and Cabinet Systematic.

– 700,000 jobs –

“Despite these measures, 100 million tonnes of single-use, short-lived plastics will still need to be processed each year by 2040, not including the vast legacy of existing plastic pollution.”

UNEP estimates that this change would save $4.5 billion, which also estimates the creation of 700,000 jobs, mainly in poor countries.

For Hirotaka Koite, the head of Greenpeace contacted by AFP, “the report falls far short of the necessary ambitions” because “it does not speak of an overall production reduction”.

The findings “significantly underestimate the role of use+mitigative” and give “too much credit to chemical recycling”, before talking about “reuse”.

Dead fish trapped in plastic packaging in the Gulf of Bothnia, Finland, May 3, 2023 (AFP/Archive - Oliver Morin)
Dead fish trapped in plastic packaging in the Gulf of Bothnia, Finland, May 3, 2023 (AFP/Archive – Oliver Morin)

“They tried to change a pipe, to change a valve, but they don’t really try to turn off the tap”, laments this observer of the talks.

However, he welcomes the idea of ​​the whole life cycle to assess alternatives, warning against greenwashing of unfairly “degradable or compostable” plastics and the removal of subsidies.

On behalf of the Surfrider Foundation, we welcome a “real change of economic model” on the contrary, which is credible and which is not based on imaginary technical solutions.

“If the report talked more clearly + of production reduction +, the big countries would never have signed the treaty”, analyzes Diane Beaumaine-Jonet, campaign manager for Surfrider.

According to him, this roadmap takes a “more environmental” approach than the OECD’s 2022 benchmark report “which was maintained in the argument for wealth growth”.

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