A just transition to a new plastics economy

The way societies produce, use and dispose of plastics is polluting ecosystems, creating risks for human health and destabilizing the climate. People in the poorest nations and communities suffer the most, as is the case across the whole triple planetary crisis of climate change, nature and biodiversity loss and pollution and waste. The miracle material has become a disastrous material – at least, in the way we use it.

There is hope in the global deal to end plastic pollution under negotiation, which is due to land by 2024. The report UNEP is launching today, Turning off the Tap, is coming out just ahead of the next round of talks, and is intended to inform negotiators. What does this report tell us?

First, that there are stark negative economic costs of plastic pollution, running in the hundreds of USD billions annually, destroying infrastructure, impacting energy production and tourism revenue, clogging our drains and flooding our cities, and potentially impacting human health through exposure to hazardous chemicals. 

Second, the report tells us that the starting point for change is to eliminate unnecessary and problematic plastics. Three shifts are then required: accelerating the market for reusable products, accelerating the recycling market, and reorienting and diversifying the market for sustainable and safe plastic alternatives.

Third, we need to take a full life-cycle approach to plastics – by which I mean rethinking every stage from the design of products and systems, plastic production, use, recovery and disposal. Redesign of packaging, systems and products is crucial.  Chemical engineers and manufacturers have to get creative, both on products and packaging instead of defaulting to plastic when designing products. Finally, we also need to ensure the safe disposal of whatever is not yet designed to be circular and deal with a significant legacy of existing plastic pollution.

This is difficult, we know. I speak to you from Kenya, which is one of more than 30 countries in Africa to have banned single-use plastic bags. This is brave, but we know that going circular is complicated and challenging. We know that poverty and access remain critical barriers to overcome. We need innovation from manufacturers, importers, exporters and governments to make this possible.

If the global community can deliver, plastic pollution could fall by 80 per cent by 2040. This would dramatically reduce social, environmental and human health costs, cut greenhouse gas emissions and create up to 700,000 jobs – mainly in the Global South.

We at UNEP are asking everyone to get involved in the just transition to a new plastics economy, which will improve livelihoods for millions of workers in informal settings.

Governments can deliver a strong deal to end plastic pollution. Businesses can show innovation and commitment to move away from virgin plastics – starting immediately. The financial sector can put its capital behind the transformation. International Financial Institutions and other large investors need to move significant investments towards solid waste management and collection systems, which must include recyclings and organics. Creative chemical engineers must take a hard look at product design and weed out harmful chemicals and plastics. And citizens can use their voices, votes and wallets.

Plastic can continue to bring huge benefits to humanity, but only if we completely rethink the system to keep it circulating in the economy, and out of the natural world. The science is clear: we must turn off the tap on plastic pollution.