Reducing plastic use seems like one of the easiest environmental actions people can take. We re-use bags, put takeout coffee in our own mugs or recycle our plastic bottles, and feel good about ourselves. But it is not so simple. Plastic pollution is still causing immense harm to our planet.
There is no corner of the Earth, from mountaintop to sea trench, left unsullied by plastic. We see it everywhere: disposable bags drifting underwater, pale plastic imitations of jellyfish; crumpled and fading bottles strewn along roadsides; takeout dishes and shampoo bottles spilling from the guts of dead whales.
Chemicals in plastics can radically change the normal functioning of our hormones. Microplastics are posing threats to coastal communities where marine species are the main food. A 1 per cent decline in marine ecosystem services could cause an annual loss of $500 billion in global ecosystem benefits. Plastic is comprised of polymers, mainly from oil and natural gas. It is a huge driver of global warming.
We need a system change that addresses the full life cycle of plastics, from the extraction of raw materials to alternatives to improved waste management. We need to be innovative and eliminate products that are unnecessary, avoidable or problematic. Design products for reuse and recycling and ensure this happens. Remove hazardous additives. By doing this we could reduce the volume of plastics entering our oceans by over 80 per cent by 2040 and reduce virgin plastic production by 55 per cent. We could reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 25 per cent and create 700,000 additional jobs, mainly in the global south.
Nations have a chance to make this new economy a reality if they agree to start negotiations on a strong and comprehensive global agreement to tackle plastic pollution at the upcoming fifth meeting of the United Nations Environment Assembly (UNEA-5) — the world’s highest decision-making body for the environment.
There is momentum. Since September 2021, over 150 countries have expressed an interest in negotiating a global agreement, while 74 leading businesses have urged them to do just that. Such an agreement would have to be ambitious and fast-track action to address the impact of plastics, on land and at sea, across the entire lifecycle. This would allow us to build on progress made so far, which is not insignificant. Under The New Plastics Economy Global Commitment, for example, plastic packaging companies have said they will move away from single-use products. Financial institutions are endorsing the commitment.
Meanwhile, awareness of the issue is at an all-time high. But being aware of the runaway truck speeding towards us is not the same as getting out of its way. Demand for plastics is still rising, with the pandemic exacerbating the problem. Companies keep investing in new production: some 20 asset managers hold over $300 billion of shares in the parent companies of single-use plastic products producers. We need to influence these investments now. The right agreement will send a strong message that the plastics industry must change.