Time for a plastic paradigm shift
From a report by Pew Trusts
Pew Trusts and SystemIQ (a B-Corp) recently published a comprehensive report, backed by research from Oxford and Leeds Universities and other organisations across the globe, called, "Breaking the Plastic Wave".
Here is an excerpt which will hopefully help give you ideas on how to reduce your and your organisation's plastic usage:
Plastic pollution is getting worse, and fast. Solving this growing problem requires creating a plastics economy that is smart, sustainable, and circular.
Plastic production, first developed in the 19th century, soared during the 20th century, from 2 million metric tons in 1950 to 348 million metric tons in 2017, becoming a global industry valued at US$522.6 billion, and it is expected to double in capacity yet again by 2040.
As plastic production and use have surged, so too has plastic pollution, and with it the amount of plastic in the ocean, which could be about 150 million metric tons. And, yet, a coherent global strategy to solve this urgent problem remains elusive.
Very different responses have been proposed, from eliminating plastic entirely to turning it into fuels, and from developing biodegradable substitutes to recycling plastic back into usable products. Each solution comes with advantages and drawbacks. Understanding the effectiveness of different solutions, and the associated economic, environmental, and social implications, is crucial to making progress towards stopping ocean plastic pollution.
Plastic pollution is not only an environmental tragedy, it is also economically imprudent—billions of dollars of economic value are “thrown away” after a single, short use. It is a by-product of fundamental flaws in an essentially linear plastic system in which 95 per cent of aggregate plastic packaging value— US$80 billion to US$120 billion a year—is lost to the economy following a short one-use cycle.
Although the challenge is enormous, the report gives cause for optimism. It shows that a significant reduction in projected plastic leakage is possible— without compromising social or economic benefits—if we take urgent actions across the entire plastic system. Ten critical findings emerge from analysis, as summarized below:
Without action, the annual flow of plastic into the ocean will nearly triple by 2040, to 29 million metric tons per year, equivalent to 50 kg of plastic for every metre of coastline worldwide. This trend will have serious consequences for communities, ecosystems, and businesses.
Governments and industry leaders are stepping up with new policies and voluntary initiatives, but these are often narrow in focus or concentrated in low-leakage countries. Government policies and leadership by consumer goods companies will be critical in driving upstream action on reduction, reuse, and redesign. Governments and investors also should act fast to curtail the planned expansion in plastic production capacity to prevent locking us deeper into the status quo.
There is no single solution to end ocean plastic pollution. Upstream and downstream solutions should be deployed together. To date, much of the debate has focused on either “upstream” (pre-consumer, such as material redesign, plastic reduction, and substitution) or “downstream” solutions (post-consumer, such as recycling and disposal). Our analysis shows that this is a false dichotomy. An integrated approach with new ways to deliver the benefits of today’s plastic is required.
Industry and governments have the solutions today to reduce rates of annual land-based plastic leakage into the ocean by about 80 per cent below projected BAU levels by 2040, while delivering on other societal, economic, and environmental objectives. It is not the lack of technical solutions that is preventing us from addressing plastic pollution, but rather inadequate regulatory frameworks, business models, and funding mechanisms. The incentives are not always in place to scale up changes fast enough.
Going beyond this to tackle the remaining 5 million metric tons per year of plastic leakage demands significant innovation across the entire plastics value chain. Achieving the vision of near-zero ocean plastic pollution will require technological advances, new business models, significant spending, and, most crucially, accelerating upstream innovation. It will require a focused, well-funded R&D agenda.
Action now is economically viable for governments and consumers, but a major redirection of capital investment is required - away from the production and conversion of virgin plastic, which are mature technologies perceived as “safe” investments, to the production of new delivery models, plastic substitutes, recycling facilities, and collection infrastructure, some of which are less mature technologies and perceived as riskier.
Reducing approximately 80 per cent of plastic leakage into the ocean will bring to life a new circular plastics economy with major opportunities—and risks—for industry. Today, plastic pollution presents a unique risk for producers and users of virgin plastics given regulatory changes and growing consumer outrage. But it is also a unique opportunity for companies ahead of the curve, ready to unlock value from a circular economy that derives revenue from the circulation of materials rather than the extraction and conversion of fossil fuels. This scenario essentially decouples plastic growth from economic growth.
A system change would require different implementation priorities in different geographies and for different plastic categories. High-income countries should prioritize decreasing overall plastic consumption, eliminating microplastic leakage, improving product design, and increasing recycling rates. Middle-/low-income countries should prioritize expanding formal collection, maximizing reduction and substitution, investing in sorting and recycling infrastructure, and cutting post-collection leakage. Globally, the top priority is reducing avoidable plastic, of which there will be 125 million metric tons globally by 2040 under BAU.
Addressing plastic leakage into the ocean has many co-benefits for climate, health, jobs, working conditions, and the environment, thus contributing to many of the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals.
The time is now: If we want to significantly reduce plastic leakage, we have the solutions at our fingertips. An implementation delay of five years would result in an additional ~80 million metric tons of plastic going into the ocean by 2040. All elements exist today or are under development and near adoption. The next two years are pivotal if key milestones are to be achieved by 2025, including halting the production of avoidable plastic, incentivizing consumers around reuse, improving labelling, and testing innovations such as new delivery models. These steps will lay the groundwork for all the systemic solutions required by 2040.
Download the report from here.
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