We can cut plastic pollution by 80% by 2040 – here’s how

Plastic pollution on a beach.

Refillable plastic bottles are crucial to reducing plastic pollution. Image: Unsplash/Dustan Woodhouse

Emma Charlton
Senior Writer, Forum Agenda
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Plastic Pollution

This article is part of: Centre for Nature and Climate

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  • Cutting plastic pollution by 80% by 2040 is possible, according to the United Nations.
  • The first step is eliminating plastics where possible to reduce the size of the problem.
  • The World Economic Forum’s Global Plastic Action Partnership translates commitments to reduce plastic pollution and waste into concrete action.

That cling film on your apple. A carrier bag. Your toothbrush.

Many of our everyday items are still made from plastic, despite a growing awareness of the volume of plastic pollution in the environment, and how long the material takes to break down. One million plastic bottles are purchased every minute around the world, according to the United Nations, and half of all plastic produced is designed for single use.

But it doesn’t have to stay this way – according to Turning off the Tap: How the world can end plastic pollution and create a circular economy, a new report from the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) which says that we can cut global plastic pollution by 80% by 2040 if we take concerted action.

The way we produce, use and dispose of plastics is polluting ecosystems, creating risks for human health and destabilizing the climate,” said Inger Andersen, UNEP Executive Director. “This UNEP report lays out a roadmap to dramatically reduce these risks through adopting a circular approach that keeps plastics out of ecosystems, out of our bodies and in the economy. If we follow this roadmap, including in negotiations on the plastic pollution deal, we can deliver major economic, social and environmental wins.”


What is the World Economic Forum doing about plastic pollution?

A solution to plastic pollution

The solution is a multi-pronged approach of reducing problematic and unnecessary plastic use and taking more action to reuse, recycle, reorient and diversify, the report says.

Different types of plastic pollution and how to cut them.
Different types of plastic pollution and how to cut them. Image: United Nations

The first step is eliminating plastics where possible to reduce the size of the problem.

After that, comes promoting reuse options, like refillable bottles and take-back plans. Making recycling a more stable and profitable venture comes next on the list, followed by reorienting and diversification – replacing products such as plastic wrappers, sachets and takeaway items with products made from alternative materials.

Bringing plastic pollution to an end.
Bringing plastic pollution to an end. Image: United Nations

Investing in a future with less plastic waste

Governments must get involved and build a stronger business case for reusables, the UN says.

The World Economic Forum brings governments, businesses and civil society together to translate commitments on plastic waste into meaningful action, under the Global Plastic Action Partnership (GPAP).

It also supports innovators who are reducing plastic waste, via the UpLink initiative, some of whom are pioneering smart technologies to make refilling easier and more accessible, and others who are turning plastic into furniture.

The Forum’s reuse portal - a collaboration platform connecting innovators, business leaders, policymakers, activists, consumers and more – further enables multi-faceted approaches to solutions for this crisis.

“There is no single solution to the crisis, but a multi-faceted list of interventions needed to be addressed simultaneously, not piecemeal,” says Roisin Greene, GPAP co-director. “It requires a full systems change scenario with all players across the value chain involved.”

Investment costs for the changes that the UN recommends can be mobilized by shifting planned investments for new production facilities ­– no longer needed through reduction in material needs – or a levy on virgin plastic production into the necessary circular infrastructure, the report says.

And while the overall message of the report is hopeful with a strong call to action for us all, there’s also a warning about the status quo.

“Time is of the essence,” the UN says. “A five-year delay could lead to an increase of 80 million metric tons of plastic pollution [by 2040].”

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