Climate Action

How to end plastic pollution, forever

To end plastic pollution by 2040, we need everyone across the plastic value chain to get involved.

To end plastic pollution by 2040, we need everyone across the plastic value chain to get involved. Image: Getty Images/iStockphoto

Douglas McCauley
Professor, University of California Santa Barbara; Member of Friends of Ocean Action; Director, Benioff Ocean Science Laboratory
Clemence Schmid
Director, Global Plastics Action Partnership, World Economic Forum
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Future of the Environment

This article is part of: World Economic Forum Annual Meeting
  • The United Nations has just a year left to develop a legally binding agreement on plastic pollution by 2025, which would be a win for people and the planet.
  • An international treaty to end plastic pollution by 2040 could have a similar impact to the 2ºC Paris Agreement goal on tackling the climate crisis.
  • A new study outlines multiple pathways to address the rising piles of waste and why collaboration is key to creating effective plastic action roadmaps.

The United Nations has only one year left to complete an international treaty to end plastic pollution. Solving the problem of plastic pollution once and for all would be a huge win for both the planet and people.

Without intervention, the world would generate a 3.5 kilometre-high mountain of plastic litter that would bury the entire island of Manhattan.

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In an exciting move, more than 60 countries – from the United Arab Emirates to the Solomon Islands – have committed to developing a treaty of sufficient ambition to end plastic pollution by 2040. Many other countries, such as the United States, have made similar commitments in parallel to end plastic pollution on this same timeline.

Cumulative global plastic waste in a business as usual scenario
Cumulative global plastic waste in a business as usual scenario will reach 3.2 billion tons by 2050. Image: University of California, Berkeley and University of California, Santa Barbara

This aim of zeroing out plastic pollution by 2040 is to the plastic crisis as ambitious as what the 2ºC Paris Agreement goal has been to the climate crisis.

One critical and nagging issue in the scientific community has been how to end plastic pollution in less than two decades – given the complexity and enormity of the problem, both at global and national levels.

Pathways to end plastic pollution

At the global level, new findings from a joint research effort at the University of California Berkeley and the University of California Santa Barbara reveal that there is indeed a realistic pathway – in fact, multiple possible pathways – to end plastic pollution with the help of this treaty.

This discovery was made using artificial intelligence (AI) that forecasts how different treaty policies could together chip away at plastic pollution. Researchers found that including just nine policies in the treaty would reduce plastic pollution by 89% by 2040.

A few select policies in that package would have an especially outsized impact on creating that future world without waste. For example, a mandate to build new plastic products using at least 30% recycled plastic would cut plastic pollution by 29%.

Global annual rate of mismanaged waste
Requiring in the UN Plastics Treaty that all new plastic products include a minimum of 30% recycled plastic would alone reduce the amount of plastic pollution generated every year by approximately 29% in 2050. Image: University of California, Berkeley and University of California, Santa Barbara

Limiting non-essential plastic production in the same way we act to limit greenhouse gas emissions would, by itself, cause a similar 26% decline in plastic pollution.

Other influential policies include collecting a few cents or fractions of cents from the sale of plastic products to invest in recycling and waste management infrastructure and banning frivolous single-use plastics, like plastic grocery bags or take out containers.

Just as with climate change, a robust UN treaty on plastic pollution can only be made meaningful when it is reinforced at national level, with national leadership and action. Collaborative action is key to identifying these national needs and developing country-level plastic action roadmaps.

We need everyone across the plastic value chain involved, from those who produce and use plastic to those who collect it at end of life.

Inclusive approach to tackling plastic pollution

To make sure that no one is left behind in the decision-making process toward the transition, evidence-based approach and inclusive strategies are key. Numerous countries and regions, such as Ghana, are taking proactive steps towards a circular plastics economy.

In Ghana’s case, the nation has deployed the National Analysis & Modelling (NAM) Tool, developed by the Global Plastic Action Partnership (GPAP), to comprehensively assess their existing plastic flows.

This evidence-based data gives decision-makers the insights needed to create national roadmaps, which serve as guiding frameworks, enabling governments to turn their commitments into action and be prepared to deliver on an ambitious global plastics treaty.

Implemented through 13 existing National Plastic Action Partnerships (NPAP), with more partnerships in the pipeline, the GPAP extends its impact across various geographies.

Going beyond the data, the transformation of the plastics economy towards a circular model must include a thorough gender and inclusion approach. An inclusive strategy is vital for involving all community stakeholders, particularly women and other underrepresented individuals.

Only through such an approach can we ensure that decisions are both comprehensive and well-informed, fostering collaborative actions that bring about systemic change.

Discover

What is the World Economic Forum doing about plastic pollution?

Nations of the world will convene next in Canada in April 2024 to move closer to completing the global plastic pollution treaty. The pace of progress thus far has left room for improvement.

Nevertheless, there is much hope in the scientific and environmental communities that countries around the world will not miss out on a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to take combined international and national actions that could bring an end to plastic pollution forever.

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The views expressed in this article are those of the author alone and not the World Economic Forum.

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