1 June 2018: To coincide with World Environment Day 2018, the UN Environment Programme (UNEP, or UN Environment) has released two reports on plastics and the environment. Also, in parallel to the Day, which is focusing on the theme ‘Beat Plastic Pollution,’ the European Commission has proposed a single-use plastics ban in Europe.

According to the report titled, ‘The State of Plastics,’ global plastic production is expected to continue to “skyrocket over the next 10 to 15 years.” The report explains that if current plastic production continues, the plastic industry could account for 20 percent of global oil consumption. Each year, approximately 13 million tons of plastic end up in the world’s oceans, with packaging and other single-use items composing a significant proportion of the plastic that ends up in the world’s oceans, rivers and lakes. The most common single-use plastics found in the environment, according to order of magnitude are: cigarette butts; plastic drinking bottles; plastic bottle caps; food wrappers; plastic grocery bags; plastic lids; straws and stirrers; other plastic bags; and take-away containers.

‘The State of Plastics’ provides recommendations for governments, businesses and individuals. For government, the report recommends, inter alia: enacting strong policies to support a more circular model of plastic design and production; improving waste management systems and introducing financial incentives to change behavior. The report shares UNEP’s 10-step roadmap for governments seeking to adopt bans or levies on plastic. For businesses, the report suggests opportunities for innovation and consumer awareness. The report asserts that individuals have the power to change the way they use and dispose of plastics and provides suggestions for recycling plastic waste and advocating for a more circular economy.

Another report titled, ‘Exploring the Potential for Adopting Alternative Materials to Reduce Marine Plastic Litter’ assesses the potential of replacing conventional plastics with alternative materials. The report argues that plastics provide essential uses in some situations, especially the medical field. In other areas, such as consumer products, natural and alternative materials can be used instead of disposable plastic. Conventional alternatives to plastics include cotton, paper and wood. Other suggested alternatives include algae, fungi and pineapple leaves.

The report features 25 case studies from around the world on reducing dependence on plastic. These case studies underscore how a more sustainable approach to plastic can contribute to several SDGs, including SDG 6 (clean water and sanitation), SDG 11 (sustainable cities and communities), SDG 12 (sustainable consumption and production), SDG 14 (life below water) and SDG 15 (life on land). According to the report, 13 targets from these five SDGs are particularly relevant to reducing plastic waste in the ocean. Other SDG targets – on tenure of land and natural resources, access to environmentally sound technologies, entrepreneurship, small and medium sized business development and access to advice and financial support (targets 1.4, 8.3, 9.3 and 9.4) – relate to the promotion of alternatives to conventional plastics.

The publication also considers some trade-offs, such as the positive correlation between gross domestic product (GDP) and per capita incomes and plastic use. It explains that more sustainable consumption patterns (SDG 12) must coincide with the material consumption that occurs when people escape poverty (SDG 1), or else plastics will continue to enter the ocean. At the same time, poverty reduction may minimize the practice of buying small amounts of everyday products that come in disposable plastic containers and therefore contribute to waste reduction and less demand for plastic.

In addition to these reports, the European Commission proposed banning nearly all single-use plastics in Europe. According to UNEP, if approved, the ban would be the most comprehensive legislation to address plastic pollution. In anticipation of the legislation, UNEP examined individual EU country progress on tackling plastic pollution. The agency’s feature article reviews the Netherlands’ innovation in waste disposal, Norway’s reverse vending machines that collect recyclables outside schools, supermarkets and other public areas in exchange for supermarket vouchers or cash; Italy’s ban on single-use plastics; Ireland’s levy on plastic bags; and France’s ban on bags and all single-use plastic. [Publication: The State of Plastics] [Publication: Exploring the Potential for Adopting Alternative Materials to Reduce Marine Plastic Litter] [UNEP Press Release on Report on Alternatives to Plastic] [UNEP Story on EU Action] [World Environment Day Website]