A new UN Environment Programme (UNEP) report argues that plastic pollution could be reduced by 80% by 2040 if countries and companies adopt concrete practices, market shifts, and policies that can inform government thinking and business action. The report seeks to enhance understanding of the severity, magnitude, and nature of the changes required, as well as lay out a roadmap for governments and an action plan for businesses to end plastic pollution by 2040.

Titled, ‘Turning off the Tap: How the World Can End Plastic Pollution and Create a Circular Economy,’ the report underscores three necessary market shifts, namely reuse, recycle, and reorient and diversify, and emphasizes the need to eliminate unnecessary and problematic plastic uses, as well as deal with legacy plastics that cannot be eliminated, reused, recycled, or replaced.

By 2040, according to the report, shifting to a circular plastics economy would result in 700,000 more jobs than a business-as-usual (BAU) scenario, with the poor in low-income countries and the informal sector being the primary beneficiaries. In addition, it would result in USD 1.27 trillion in savings, considering investment, operations and management costs, and recycling, while an additional USD 3.25 trillion would be saved from avoided externalities, such as health-, climate-, air pollution-, marine ecosystem degradation-, and litigation-related costs. Much of the necessary investment, according to the report, can be mobilized by shifting planned investments for new plastic production facilities into circular infrastructure, while Extended Producer Responsibility (EPR) schemes can cover the costs of ensuring the system’s circularity.

Policies, such as a levy on virgin plastic production, could drive this market transformation, the report argues, as could using a plastic credits system, modeled after carbon credits. However, it notes, environmental and social rights must also be safeguarded, especially for the informal waste collection sector. In addition, Ghana has suggested establishing a legacy fund to which industrial leaders in the plastics sector could allocate resources to remove plastics already in the environment.

With regard to the proposed market shifts, promoting reuse options, such as refillable bottles, bulk dispensers, and deposit-return schemes, could reduce 30% of plastic pollution by 2040, but governments must help build a stronger business case for reusables. Reducing plastic pollution by an additional 20% by 2040 could be achieved if recycling becomes more stable and profitable, including by removing fossil fuels subsidies and enforcing design guidelines to enhance recyclability, according to the report. As for reorienting and diversifying, the report explains that replacing products such as plastic wrappers, sachets, and takeaway items with products made from alternative materials could decrease plastic pollution by an additional 17%. 

However, even with the above measures, 100 million metric tons of plastics from single-use and short-lived products will still need to be safely dealt with, together with the legacy of existing plastic pollution. Setting and implementing design and safety standards for disposing of non-recyclable plastic waste, and making manufacturers responsible for products shedding microplastics, among others, can help address these issues, the report suggests.

The report recommends: 

  • agreed criteria for plastic products that could be banned and a cross-border knowledge baseline;
  • a global fiscal framework as part of international policies to enable recycled materials to compete on a level playing field with virgin materials, create an economy of scale for solutions, and establish monitoring systems and financing mechanisms; and
  • design rules to make products economically recyclable, combined with targets to incorporate recycled content and fiscal incentives for recycling plants.

The report was published ahead of the second session of the Intergovernmental Negotiating Committee on plastic pollution (INC-2), which will meet from 29 May to 2 June in Paris, France. [Publication: Turning off the Tap: How the World Can End Plastic Pollution and Create a Circular Economy] [Executive Summary] [UNEP Press Release] [UN Press Release]