UN environment body sets out route to achieve 80% reduction in plastic pollution by 2040

‘The way we produce, use and dispose of plastics is polluting ecosystems, creating risks for human health and destabilising the climate’

Plastic pollution across Earth could reduce by 80 per cent by 2040 if countries and companies “make deep policy and market shifts using existing technologies”, according to a United Nations report.

Released in advance of negotiations resuming in Paris seeking a global agreement to beat plastic pollution, the report from the UN Environment Programme (UNEP) outlines the magnitude and nature of changes required to end plastic pollution and to create a circular economy to replace widespread use of single-use plastics and inappropriate disposal.

The report details solutions, market shifts and policies that can inform government approaches and business action reinforced by transborder co-operation.

“The way we produce, use and dispose of plastics is polluting ecosystems, creating risks for human health and destabilising the climate,” said UNEP executive director Inger Andersen. “This report lays out a roadmap to dramatically reduce these risks through adopting a circular approach that keeps plastics out of ecosystems, out of our bodies and ... the economy. If we follow this roadmap, including in negotiations on the plastic pollution deal, we can deliver major economic, social and environmental wins.”


Plastic pollution undermines marine ecosystems, contaminating oceans in particular, while the presence of microplastics – tiny fragments resulting from the disposal and breakdown of consumer products and industrial waste – are increasingly found in human food chain.

One million plastic bottles are purchased every minute, while up to five trillion plastic bags are used worldwide every year. In total, half of all plastic produced is designed for single-use purposes, the UNEP confirms. About 400 million tonnes of plastic waste are generated every year.

The report suggests first eliminating problematic and unnecessary plastics to reduce the size of the problem with an approach of “reuse, recycle and reorient and diversify products”.

On reuse options, it strongly endorses use of refillable bottles; bulk dispensers, deposit-return-schemes, packaging take-back schemes, which can reduce 30 per cent of plastic pollution by 2040, it concludes. To realise its potential, governments need to build a stronger business case for reusables, it underlines.

Reducing plastic pollution by an additional 20 per cent by 2040 can be achieved if recycling becomes a more stable and profitable venture.

Removing fossil fuels subsidies, enforcing design guidelines to enhance recyclability, with other measures would increase the share of economically recyclable plastics from 21 to 50 per cent, it predicts.

A “reorient and diversify” approach requires careful replacement of products such as plastic wrappers, sachets and takeaway items with products made from alternative materials (such as paper or compostable materials) – and can deliver an additional 17 per cent decrease in plastic pollution, the report finds.

This would lead to a net-saving and avoided costs due to negative “externalities” of $4.5 trillion by 2040, it concludes. The shift to a circular economy would result in $1.27 trillion in savings, considering costs and recycling revenues. A further $3.25 trillion would be saved from avoided negative impacts across health, climate, air pollution, marine ecosystem degradation and litigation-related costs

Even with these measures, 100 million metric tons of plastics from single-use and short-lived products will still need to be safely dealt with annually by 2040 – together with addressing a significant legacy of existing plastic pollution.

Removal of subsidies for fossil fuels, currently used to make virgin plastics cheaper than recycled materials, would level the playing field for recycling, it underlines.

This shift could result in a net increase of 700,000 jobs by 2040, the UNEP says; mostly in low-income countries, significantly improving livelihoods of millions of workers in informal settings.

Investment costs for the recommended systemic change are significant, but below the spending without this systemic change; $65 billion per year as opposed to $113 billion per year.

Much of this can be mobilised by shifting planned investments for new production facilities – no longer needed through reduction in material needs – or a levy on virgin plastic production into the necessary circular infrastructure. “Yet time is of the essence: a five-year delay may lead to an increase of 80 million metric tons of plastic pollution by 2040,” it warns.

With regulation to ensure plastics are designed to be circular, extended producer responsibility (EPR) schemes can cover these operational costs of a circular system, through requiring producers to finance the collection, recycling and responsible end-of-life disposal of plastic products, it adds.

By having internationally agreed policies the limits of national planning and business action can be overcome, the UNEP suggests. This will “sustain a flourishing circular global plastics economy, unlock business opportunities and create jobs. These may include agreed criteria for plastic products that could be banned, a cross-border knowledge baseline, rules on necessary minimum operating standards of EPR schemes and other standards”.

Policymakers are encouraged to integrate regulatory instruments and policies tackling actions “across the life cycle [of plastics], as these are mutually reinforcing towards the goal of transforming the economy”. Design rules to make products economically recyclable can be combined with targets to incorporate recycled content and fiscal incentives for recycling plants, it adds.

Kevin O'Sullivan

Kevin O'Sullivan

Kevin O'Sullivan is Environment and Science Editor and former editor of The Irish Times