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Why it’s hard to turn off plastic waste tap

May 25, 2023

The discovery of the Great Pacifi c Garbage Patch in the late 1990s brought the realisation that plastic does not simply vanish after its useful life. Nearly a quarter of a century later, in early March this year, a global resolution targeting plastic pollution was finally adopted by 175 countries at the United Nations Environment Program’s (UNEP) fifth annual Environmental Assembly.Described as “the most significant environmental multilateral deal since the Paris accord” by UNEP executive director Inger Andersen, the motion aims to create a global treaty to address the entire plastics life cycle, starting from the demand for fossil fuels to the management of plastic waste. The aim is to have legally binding mechanisms applicable to all signatories.

Mountains Of PlasticAt the current rate, enough plastic to fill up one cargo ship and of the roughly 8. 3 billion tonnes produced between 1950 and 2015, 80% has gone to landfills or become entrenched in soil, water and food systems. Only 9% of the plastics ever created have been recycled.

Although demand for plasthe channels of plastic pollution have been fairly concentrated. For example, 90% of marine plastic pollution is attributed to just 10 river systems, predominantly in Asia. The growing export of plastic waste from developed economies to emerging economies with relatively lax regulations is partly to blame for this.

While economic global international policy frame-works concerned with plastic pollution have remained limited to broad and fragmented and agreements with few specific targets and actions. The adoption of the Paris Agreement for climate action in 2015 provided a much-needed impetus to pursue international agreements on global environmental concerns, including plastic pollution. Although plastic has been UNEA’s agenda since its first session in 2014, the demand for a global agreement gathered steam after the outbreak of the coronavirus pandemic. While lockdowns saw the industrial use of plastics roughly halve from 4. 6MT in 2019 to 2. 6MT in 2020, demand for single-use plastics (SUPs) surged, especially in the medical sector. Up to 9. 8MT of pandemic associated plastic waste is estimated to have been created around the world.

As the world was still absorbing the ramifications of the pandemic, support for a global Plastic Pollution Declaration continued to grow. The declaration, which had the support of 79 governments by 2021, eventually became a precursor to the global agreement which came a year later.Challenges Ahead

The adoption of the resolution on plastics has been widely welcomed, but its implementation won’t be easy. The multitude of standards and regulatory measures is a hurdle. Bans and regulations on some SUPs like shopping bags have been the most-used policy instrument, but have had limited impact. There are currently no economy-wide taxes or obligations that structurally reduce the consumption of plastics. This is partly due to the complexity of introducing taxes in an international market, particularly one linked so heavily with global oil and energy markets.

The success of a global agreement on plastics would to a large extent depend on the establishment of consistent and similar standards and norms around the world. Its implementation will ultimately depend on the availability of considerable capital to effect structural changes in production and waste management. While this financial burden will be felt more in low and middle-income countries, it raises the question of who should bear the responsibility of cleaning up. economies have been responsible for the vast majority of plastic waste accumulated in natural environments. The issue of who pays echoes the debate surrounding the linking of the developed world’s financial obligations for its historical responsibility in climate change negotiations. Official development assistance targeting plastics makes up just 0. 55% of the initial annualised requirement of more than $27 billion to implement circular economy solutions in developing countries.The parallels with the global action on climate change are not limited to issues of finance. Plastics are estimated to contribute around 4. 5% of the total global greenhouse gas emissions. By 2050 the sector is projected to be responsible for 20% of global petroleum consumption and 15% of the global carbon budget. As a result, the fate of any future global agreement on plastics is inextricably linked to the energy and climate policies around the world and progress in global climate negotiations.

While these links could expedite progressive actions to limit demand for plastics and improve circularity, disruptions in collaborative climate action could very well amplify inertia in the uphill climb towards establishing a consolidated global framework to regulate plastics. If the experience with global climate action is anything to go by, effective structural change may ultimately hinge on a sustained appetite among national governments to close the loops, and optimise resource and energy efficiency in management of plastics.

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