Current commitments will only reduce plastic pollution by 8% by 2040, UNEP says

Head of bird with plastic around it, plastic pollution
Plastic waste on bird, photo: Canva

“Current commitments will only reduce plastic pollution by 8% by 2040,” Inger Andersen, executive director of the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP), said on Monday at the start of talks in Paris involving 50 countries to reduce plastic pollution. 

Andersen stressed that recycling alone will not solve the crisis and that plastic pollution is “choking our ecosystems, warming the climate, damaging our health, and as ever with the triple planetary crisis- the crisis of climate change, the crisis of nature and biodiversity loss, and yes, the crisis of pollution and waste – people in the poorest nations and communities, they suffer the most.” 

She emphasized the critical need for a global commitment to significantly reduce plastic pollution. The immediate solution should focus on reducing the production of plastics instead of relying solely on recycling efforts. “We cannot recycle our way out of this mess. Recycling infrastructure is unable to cope with today’s volumes,” Andersen said.

Redesigning products
“To me, it is about redesign, redesign, redesign and then some redesign. So first, redesign products to use less plastics or no plastic at all, particularly unnecessary and problematic plastic. Is there really a need for micro and nano plastics in so many hygiene and beauty products?” Andersen questioned.

“Must shampoos and soaps be liquefied and delivered into plastic containers, because essentially we’re just shipping water around the globe in these liquid products. Why not ship solids? Why not ship dry powder or compressed materials?” she said.

Plastic pollution and animals
Animals, especially marine ones, often mistake plastic debris for food. Once ingested, plastic can lead to malnutrition, digestive blockages, and starvation. Plastics can also release harmful chemicals when ingested, accumulating in the animals’ tissues, affecting their health.

Wildlife can become entangled in plastic waste such as fishing nets, six-pack rings, and other discarded items. This can lead to injury, impaired movement, or death through drowning or strangulation.

Some plastics leach toxins over time, such as phthalates and bisphenol A (BPA), which can be harmful to animals and can accumulate in the food chain.

Tiny fragments of plastic, known as microplastics, pose a unique threat. These can easily be ingested by a wide range of organisms and can carry pollutants. They can also enter an animal’s bloodstream and tissues, potentially causing damage.

The UNEP session also highlighted the human aspect of plastic pollution. Henri Bourgeois Costa, an expert on plastic pollution from Tara Ocean Foundation, said that plastic pollution is not only an ecological concern but a human health issue, a social justice issue, and a human rights issue.

Greenpeace International Campaigner Marian Ledesma warned about the dangers of plastic pollution in communities where plastic production takes place, emphasizing the serious health risks and conditions due to emissions and contamination from plastic production facilities.

As the talks progress this week, the challenge will be to reconcile different perspectives and priorities from countries and industry representatives, who must agree on the core objectives of the plastic treaty, including potentially banning certain plastics and improving waste management.

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