Deputy Director of Industry and Economy Division, UNEP
Plastic pollution ranks high on the agenda of world leaders today, with ongoing negotiations1 over an international and legally binding agreement2 to end it.
The international attention reflects growing scientific concerns about a waste crisis that risks human health3 and the right to a healthy environment4, threatening biodiversity5 and the climate6. It also puts the global economy in jeopardy.
Economic savings of eliminating plastic pollution
A new UN Environment Programme (UNEP) report7 reveals external costs of up to USD 300–600 billion per year in the form of environmental and human health costs. If left unchecked, these costs could reach magnitudes that destroy more value than the entire plastics value chain creates.
However, turning off the tap on plastic pollution can create significant economic value. Halving short-lived plastics production and slashing plastic pollution by 80% by 2040 can deliver USD 1.27 trillion in net savings and USD 3.25 trillion in avoided externalities8. This would also create 700,000 jobs, mostly in low-income countries.
If this feels daunting, let’s recall we have only
been exposed to plastics for about 70
years — a fraction of human history.
Current efforts are slow and inefficient
Such benefits require government actions to reduce unnecessary plastics and shift the market to circularity. Environmentally sound waste management and other measures can address the legacy of plastic pollution.
This systemic shift must not only happen urgently, but simultaneously. Scattered efforts on the local, national and regional levels — while welcome — amount to trying to drain an ocean of plastic waste with a ladle. We need an integrated approach to regulatory instruments and policies tackling actions across the life cycle of plastic products.
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Plastic pollution — we can choose to opt out
If this feels daunting, let’s recall we have only been exposed to plastics for about 70 years — a fraction of human history. Turning away from a linear economy to a circular one9 requires no new technologies. It means re-embracing a way of life10 that’s been a feature of human society for millennia, realising the throwaway culture is as recent as plastic itself.
Looking at the full life cycle of goods and services11 can unlock innovation, creativity and investment from the business community. With this year’s World Environment Day12, grassroots protests and celebrations worldwide gave voice to a global majority13 that is ready for change.
Plastic pollution is not hardwired into our economies. Ending it is a choice — and a goal within reach.