In 2018, the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) joined forces with the Ellen MacArthur Foundation to tackle what environmental experts call one of the world’s most dangerous addictions: plastics.
Now, nearly half-way through the seven-year timeline of that Global Commitment to the New Plastics Economy, UNEP and partners find that, while progress has been made, the world needs to ramp up actions to curb plastic pollution.
Humanity dumps its own combined weight in plastics annually into ecosystems. That’s 300 million tonnes every year choking waterways and seas, clogging streets, harming wildlife and, ultimately, doing serious damage to public health.
To stem that tide, UNEP and the Ellen MacArthur Foundation lobbied private and public sector decisionmakers to commit to cultivating a circular economy around plastics, one in which plastics are made to last and to be reused – not simply thrown away. This would involve new products and business models, as well as enhanced recycling and composting systems.
Every year, the toxic trail of economic growth – pollution and waste – results in the premature deaths of millions of people while doing untold damage to the planet.
Elisa Tonda, UNEP
In a progress report published late last year, there was demonstrable improvement across numerous parameters in 2019:
The number of signatories, including plastics producers, financial institutions and governments, has expanded by 25 per cent to nearly 500.
Two areas have seen significant progress: the recycled content of plastic packaging has grown by 22 per cent, and 81 per cent of business and a full 100 per cent of government signatories have pledged to phase out the worst categories of plastic packaging, including PVC and single-use plastic bags and straws.
Fifty-six per cent of signatories have or are developing pilots to test reuse models in their value chains.
“Every year, the toxic trail of pollution and waste results in the premature deaths of millions of people while doing untold damage to the planet,” says Elisa Tonda, Head of UNEP’s Consumption and Production Unit. “The world has made progress in the last few years in the battle against plastic pollution, but much work remains to be done.”
In the past 50 years, plastic production has increased by more than 22 times and about US$180 billion has been invested in production facilities in the last decade alone. Meanwhile, the global COVID-19 pandemic has caused a surge in plastic medical masks, gloves and protective goggles, while many of the policies intended to limit single-use plastic products have been reversed.
While the private sector is responsible for the lion’s share of signatories to the Global Commitment, experts say one of its most valuable contributions is in providing governments with a framework to develop standards for a circular plastic economy.
As Tania Bishara of Chile’s Environment Ministry said: “Since its signing, the Global Commitment has helped us work on initiatives towards a transformation of our relationship with plastics and to work with actors from the private sector, civil society, municipalities and academia to develop a circular economy roadmap.”
Mixing policy instruments for success
While the Ellen MacArthur Foundation tracks progress in the private sector, UNEP has been supporting the 20 national, sub-national and municipal governments that have so far joined the Global Commitment to develop policies to limit plastic pollution.
“The commitment has been integral at a local level,” says Cristina Helena Fabris Pinheiro, a city official from Sao Paolo, Brazil. It has brought together City Council and City Hall to produce instruments, especially legal frameworks, on the reduction and non-generation of single-use plastic products. That includes municipal decrees that forbid the distribution of plastic straws and single-use plastic utensils by commercial establishments.
In Copenhagen, the Global Commitment is helping city officials to limit single-use plastic products at major sporting events taking place in the city, like the Euro Cup in 2021.
“These events are being held by private organizations and private service providers. Working under a framework like the Global Commitment towards the same goals and having the same language for it helps,” says Malene Møhl, of the city’s Technical and Environmental Administration.
The 2020 report also highlights Extended Producer Responsibility, or EPRs, a type of integrated policy approach that is beginning to take hold with governments at all scales. These policies place a shared responsibility for the end-of-life of plastic products on plastic producers and other actors in the supply chain, instead of placing the burden on the public. Properly designed EPRs create strong incentives for producers to design products that can be retained within the economy, instead of being disposed of, as well as a means for them to be cycled back into new products or new uses.
About a quarter of government signatories are developing policies around EPR, most notably the Netherlands and Chile.
“We are currently working on the approval of the EPR packaging regulation, which is now in its final stage,” says Chile’s Bishara. The regulation is expected to include goals for producers to increase the recycling rate of household plastic packaging from 4.5 per cent to 45 per cent as well as an obligation to cover 80 per cent of homes with door-to-door collection for packaging waste.
Only the beginning
The progress report makes it clear that there is still a long way to go. It finds that COVID-19 has further exposed the drawbacks of the linear economy. Rocketing demand for takeaway food containers and bubble wrap – most of it not recyclable – and the reversal of policies limiting single-use plastic products are an ongoing problem.
The world is not on track to meet the Global Commitment’s 2025 targets. Progress on expanding the recyclability of plastic packaging and ending the need for single-use plastic products is still moving far too slowly, says the report. Furthermore, disparities in rates of progress between signatories are stark.
“When it comes to plastic pollution, there are no borders,” said Tonda from UNEP. “We need a common approach to the unsustainable consumption and production of plastic and transformative action at every level. Partnerships and multilateralism are critical.”
The Global Commitment to the New Plastics Economy is part of a broader effort by UNEP to stem the flow of plastics into the environment. For more information on plastic pollution, take an interactive look at the damaging effects these chemicals are having on the planet.