15 interventions for change

Plastic waste remains one of the biggest global problems. In an attempt to solve it,
Source: pexels.com; magda ehlers

Systemiq has now developed a proposal on behalf of the Nordic Council of Ministers with the report „Towards Ending Plastic Pollution by 2040 – 15 Global Policy Interventions for Systems Change“.

The report defines 15 possible policy interventions across the life cycle of plastic and estimates its potential impact on plastic stocks and flows, GHG emissions, costs and jobs. The report works on the assumption that the interventions are adopted across all jurisdictions with calibration for local contexts. However, it states that such a level of global adoption can only be achieved under a set of common global rules set out in an international, legally binding instrument.

The report compares two scenarios. In a “business-as-usual” scenario, the amounts of mismanaged plastics will almost double from 110 Mt in 2019 to 205 Mt by 2040. The annual production of virgin plastics would therefore increase to 712 Mt by 2050, causing 3.1 Gt of CO2e. The report uses 2019 as a baseline for this scenario. In that year, of 385 Mt of plastic waste generated, 29 Mt were recycled, 246 Mt incinerated or landfilled and 110 Mt mismanaged. Reuse and recycling rates were below 10 per cent globally. The report further states that the main sources of mismanaged plastic are packaging, consumer goods, microplastics and fishing gear.

With business as usual, all these volumes would continue to increase. It is expected that, under the given circumstances, plastic waste would increase to 646 Mt by 2040.

On the other hand, in a “global rules” scenario, the amount of mismanaged plastic could be reduced by 90 per cent and the annual production of virgin plastic by 30 per cent by 2040 – compared to 2019. GHG emissions would amount to 1.9 Gt of CO2eq per year by 2040, i.e. the same as in 2019. The 15 interventions are grouped in five pillars: Reduce, eliminate, expand safe circularity, controlled disposal and the transversal pillar for microplastics.

If the measures of the “Reduce” pillar are implemented, the volumes of virgin plastics could be reduced by 30 per cent compared to 2019 and by 60 per cent by 2040 compared to the “business-as-usual” scenario. The first measure in this pillar is to introduce national targets to reduce the volume of virgin plastic produced, calibrated by sector and local context. The report points out that the reduction that could be achieved would vary significantly by region. The largest reductions would be required in high-income regions. They would also vary by sector.

The second measure includes a fee for virgin plastic to fund solutions across the plastic life cycle. The fee should range from 1,000 to 2,000 US dollars per tonne by 2040 and would have to be calibrated by region. The fee would aim to discourage the use of virgin plastic and promote new business models involving the use of substitute or recycled plastic. “Virgin plastic fees represent an opportunity to level the playing field with other materials and models by internalising plastic’s economic externalities, i.e. the environmental and human health impacts,” the report states. The second objective would be to raise funds for solutions across the plastic life cycle. Finally, the third measure in this pillar suggests applying specific levers to reduce plastic consumption in the textiles, fisheries, aquaculture, transportation and construction sectors.

While Pillar 1 focuses on reducing plastic consumption, Pillar 2 has a focus on eliminating avoidable or unnecessary plastic and phasing out problematic plastic products. First of all, it would be necessary to have a globally harmonised definition of the criteria relevant for this second pillar. The first measure of this second pillar is a ban on avoidable single-use plastics. The measure is designed to incentivise elimination and a shift to reuse and substitution. For avoidable single-use plastics, reuse targets between 15 and 100 per cent should be implemented. Finally, the report suggests that problematic plastic products, polymer applications and chemicals of concern should be phased out.

The third pillar intends to expand safe circularity through reuse, durability and recycling. Circularity is necessary to prevent the release of plastics into the environment, replacing linear disposal models and reducing the demand for virgin plastic through safe reuse and recycling. The first measure of this third pillar is to design rules for safe reuse, repair, durability and cost-effective recycling. In the “global rules” scenario, a shift from multi-material to mono-material packaging would be mandatory. Furthermore, materials and additives that impede safe recycling would be banned and sector-specific design requirements introduced. Another measure is to introduce targets for collection and recycling rates, including segregated collection for plastics. The report suggests a collection rate of 95 per cent across all regions and sectors. While high-income countries achieve this rate, for low- and middle-income countries this would be a big challenge. Besides the expansion of waste collection, the segregated collection of plastics is critical in order to facilitate recycling. According to the report, the “global rules” scenario would lead to a global plastic recycling rate of 43 per cent by 2040. It also emphasises that the focus is on mechanical recycling over chemical recycling. In 2040, 93 per cent of recycling would be mechanical.

The next measure is to introduce modulated EPR schemes applied across all sectors with fees of 300 to 1,000 US dollars per tonne, depending on region and product. The report emphasises the importance of applying EPR across all sectors. And finally, the report demands controls for a just transition of the informal sector.

The fourth pillar, controlled disposal, intends to ensure the controlled disposal of waste that cannot be prevented or safely recycled. Although disposal is not a desirable outcome, it is needed to prevent plastic waste from being mismanaged. Since there are huge differences between waste management and recycling infrastructure in various countries, the report suggests restrictions on the plastic waste trade to prevent exports to areas with limited capacity. Another measure is to implement standards on the controlled disposal of waste that cannot be prevented or safely recycled. Moreover, mitigation and removal programmes for legacy plastics in the environment are needed.

The fifth pillar, i.e. transversal, covers the topic of microplastics in terms of preventing their use and reducing the release of microplastics into the environment. This includes upstream policies to curb the use of microplastics and the resulting emissions through bans, substitutions, better product designs, preventive maintenance and behavioural change as well as downstream policies to capture microplastics, followed by controlled disposal.

The report further states that the “global rules” scenario would lead to major savings in public expenditure compared to the “business-as-usual” scenario (1.5 trillion US dollars compared to 1.7 trillion).


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