New WWF study serves up good and bad news in the war on plastic

New WWF study serves up good and bad news in the war on plastic

March 5, 2019
Marcia González

Even if you’re a glass-half-full kinda person, there’s not much in the way of positive reading in the new Solving Plastic Pollution Through Accountability report from the World Wildlife Fund (WWF), published yesterday. But in between the forty-eight-page study, there does seem to be a few chinks of light at the end of this plastic-packed tunnel. It’s not too late to stem the tide, but change needs to happen. And it needs to happen fast. And it needs to be a whole lot more comprehensive and bold than we are currently witnessing.

First, though, the bad news. Without an immediate and drastic change of tact, the authors are adamant that an additional 104 million metric tons of plastic is at risk of leaking into the ecosystem by 2030. That’s because the growth in plastic consumption outstrips the growth in waste management capacity. Moreover, under a business-as-usual scenario, the overall CO2 emissions from the plastic life-cycle are expected to increase by 50%, while the CO2 increase from plastic incineration is set to triple by 2030, due to ineffectual waste management decisions.

“Our existing method of producing, using and disposing of plastic is fundamentally broken,” commented Marco Lambertini, director general of WWF-International (pictured above). “It’s a system lacking in accountability, and currently operates in a way which practically guarantees that ever-increasing volumes of plastic will leak into nature.”

It’s a system lacking in accountability, and currently operates in a way which practically guarantees that ever-increasing volumes of plastic will leak into nature

“This issue can be solved only if we apply the right level of responsibility across the whole plastic supply and value chain from design to disposal,” he continued. “We know the solutions, from reduction to collection, recycling and alternatives. We can solve this plastic crisis, but it requires each actor to account for the plastics they use.”

Nearly half of all plastic products littering the world today were created after 2000. In fact, the production of virgin plastic has increased 200-fold since 1950 and has even grown at a rate of 5% a year since 2000, reaching 396 million metric tons in 2016 alone, the last year for which data was available. That’s the equivalent of 53kg of plastic for every person the planet!

In the face of such statistics, it’s hard to imagine any good news. The issue is only decades old, and yet more than 75% of all plastic ever produced is already waste. But what that essentially means is that the global plastics pollution crisis has been created in one generation and with system-wide accountability, it can be solved in one generation.

The global plastics pollution crisis has been created in one generation and with system-wide accountability, it can be solved in one generation

Stopping plastic pollution requires developing a global system that makes treating plastic waste more economical than discharging plastic directly into nature. At the moment, the various actors in the plastic system find it more cost-effective to discharge their waste into nature than to effectively manage plastic to its end-of-life. As this is true for all stakeholders across the trade chain, the plastics system is simply locked into polluting the planet. Downstream interventions – currently the singular focus of plastic waste reduction efforts – are severely limited and ineffective.

To stop the growth of plastics, tactics should include building on and reinforcing existing initiatives, such as banning single-use plastics and upgrading national waste management plans. At the same time, a global accountability mechanism should be created featuring multilateral agreement with clear on-the-ground plans, robust domestic laws, and commercial devices to distribute responsibility appropriately across the plastic life-cycle. Additionally, consumers must be persuaded to change their behaviors and provided with alternative choices to plastic.

Tactical interventions to stop plastic pollution include:

Banning problematic single-use plastics to reduce consumption and to force actors to design products for reuse Currently, 40% of plastic is single-use and has a lifespan of one year. Phasing out these products – straws, bags, etc – is the first step toward reducing consumption. But such initiatives cannot exist in a vacuum and must have supporting legal frameworks at the global, regional, national and local levels to create the conditions for a no-plastic-in-nature future. These conditions include incentivizing reuse business models, recycling and sustainable alternatives to plastic (all of which you will hear about at this year’s Plastic Free World Conference & Expo). A consumption reduction will lower demand for virgin plastic and will lessen the overall management burden placed on the downstream waste system. Plastic producers and converters must also design plastic products for beyond point-of-sale, by instead focusing on reuse.

A consumption reduction will lower demand for virgin plastic and will lessen the overall management burden placed on the downstream waste system

Eliminating waste mismanagement by eradicating plastic waste dumping, littering and uncontrolled landfilling, and reaching 100% waste collection rates Global support is needed to eliminate waste mismanagement in places with highest rates of occurrence, namely lower-middle and low-income countries. Financial and technical support will therefore be required to help under-resourced countries to develop waste management capacity, governance and regulation, as well as to lower the physical barriers for end-users to effectively dispose of waste.

Scaling up environmentally sound alternatives to plastic and supporting additional research into the behaviour, fate and effects of these materials in the natural world The use of alternatives must be part of a broader strategy towards more sustainable production and consumption patterns. Understanding the full life-cycle effects of alternative to plastic is a high priority as many of these materials may have environmental trade-offs. Replacing plastics must only be done with materials with a net positive impact on the environment.

Replacing plastics must only be done with materials with a net positive impact on the environment.

As well as tactical interventions, there are a number of strategic measures to consider, which should focus on holding plastic system stakeholders accountable in all nations:

Create global commitment through a multilateral agreement to protect nature from plastic pollution and to resolve a ‘tragedy of the commons’ The EU’s Circular Economy Package and national-level plastic bag bans are just a few such examples, but global initiatives are necessary. These legally binding commitments should not only address short-term issues with plastic waste growth, but also the longer-term issues linked to fixing the plastic system. To stop plastic pollution, a comprehensive global agreement must set out this international goal to fix the plastics system and outline the pollution reduction targets to eliminate all plastic pollution and further leakage of plastics into nature.

Developing policy measures to ensure the price of plastic reflects its full life-cycle cost to nature and society A plastic price reflective of natural and societal costs may improve the economics and demand for alternative materials or secondary plastics. Critically, scaling recycling capacity requires investment into what is currently an unprofitable industry in most parts of the world. Improving recycling profitability entails increasing revenues by growing demand for recycled plastic and improving the quality of secondary material to attract a higher market price.

Critically, scaling recycling capacity requires investment into what is currently an unprofitable industry in most parts of the world

Changing consumer behavior with regard to plastic by providing environmentally sound alternatives – and supporting reduced use of unnecessary plastics Legislation and financial incentives should support usage of environmentally sound alternative usage over conventional plastic, to maximize opportunities to scale for commercially viable alternatives. Additionally, policy, regulation and education programs should be put in place to help consumers create cleaner and separated plastic waste to facilitate scaling recycling capacity.

This systems approach, deploying tactical and strategic interventions across the plastic life-cycle is paramount if we are to win the war on plastic pollution

This systems approach, deploying tactical and strategic interventions across the plastic life-cycle is paramount if we are to win the war on plastic pollution. Such an approach could cut plastic waste generation by 57% and reduce virgin plastic production by nearly half, compared with business as usual. Eliminating waste mismanagement and reusing plastic can create a plastic pollution-free system and create more than a million jobs in plastic recycling and re-manufacturing. But, ultimately, the key is to ensure that stakeholders in the plastic system are aligned to the common goal of ending plastic pollution and fixing the plastic value chain. Such a systemic solution can achieve this goal, but bold action from a broad range of stakeholders is needed to implement strategic and tactical interventions. Beyond current initiatives, a pathway to reach this common goal requires critical action.

Plastic Free World Conference & Expo 2019 has been created specifically as a forum for solutions to solve the plastic pollution crisis, with strategies and technologies to reduce our reliance on plastic as well as lower our plastic footprints. The event takes place from Thursday 27 June to Friday 28 June, at the Kap Europa, Frankfurt Messe, Frankfurt, Germany. To register for this highly focused and solutions-driven event, please click here. For sponsorship and exhibition opportunities, please email peter@trans-globalevents.com

 

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