Turning off the tap: new research from the UN highlights a $4.5 trillion opportunity from reducing plastic waste

Following last year’s announcement that a treaty to end plastic pollution would be created by 2024, the UN has now set out the major policy shifts it believes are needed to deliver such an ambitious goal.
June 1, 2023

A treaty for plastic waste

As we noted in March last year, The UN announced it would be working on a treaty to end plastic pollution, with broad terms initially agreed upon at UNEA 5. By the close of the event, it was decided that an intergovernmental committee would be created to negotiate a new legally binding treaty on plastic reduction by 2024.  “The agreement will reflect ‘diverse alternatives’ to address the full lifecycle of plastics, the design of reusable and recyclable materials, and the need for more international collaboration in support of technology, capacity building, and scientific cooperation.”[i]

Now, more than a year later, the UN’s Environment Programme (UNEP) has announced what it believes will be the key policy changes required to deliver the ultimate goal of the treaty- an end to plastic waste. The headline finding is that plastic pollution could be reduced by as much as 80 per cent by 2040 if countries and companies make deep policy and market shifts using existing technologies[ii].

It is estimated that plastic waste production has doubled in the past 20 years, and yet at present, just 9% is currently recycled successfully, as the OECD reported in March last year:

“Only 9% of plastic waste is recycled (15% is collected for recycling but 40% of that is disposed of as residues). Another 19% is incinerated, 50% ends up in landfill and 22% evades waste management systems and goes into uncontrolled dumpsites, is burned in open pits or ends up in terrestrial or aquatic environments, especially in poorer countries.”[iii]

A further report by the OECD in June predicts global plastic waste to triple between now and 2060, projecting that global plastics consumption will rise from 460 million tonnes (Mt) in 2019 to 1,231 Mt in 2060, should the world fail to introduce “bold new policies”. It also estimates that nearly two-thirds of plastic waste in 2060 will be from short-lived items such as packaging, low-cost products and textiles.


UNEP sets out its three Rs to tackle plastic waste

In its ambitious new plan to reduce plastic waste, the UNEP sets out 3 crucial market shifts it believes are necessary, these are to ‘reuse’, ‘recycle’ and ‘reorient and diversify’ products:


1.       Reuse: Promoting reuse options, including refillable bottles, bulk dispensers, deposit-return schemes, packaging take-back schemes etc., can reduce 30 per cent of plastic pollution by 2040. To realise its potential, governments must help build a stronger business case for reusables.

2.       Recycle: 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 and other measures would increase the share of economically recyclable plastics from 21 to 50 per cent.

3.       Reorient and diversify: Careful replacement of products such as plastic wrappers, sachets and takeaway items with products made from alternative materials (such as paper or compostable materials) can deliver an additional 17 per cent decrease in plastic pollution[iv].

However, the research notes that even with the above changes being made, it is estimated that each year 100 million metric tons of plastics from single-use and short-lived products will still need to be dealt with safely. This is on top of plastic already in the environment, where research from the OECD in May last year warned that plastic leakage to the environment is projected to double to 44 million tonnes (Mt) a year, exacerbating environmental and health impacts. Stocks of accumulated plastics in rivers and oceans are projected to more than triple from 140 Mt in 2019 to 493 Mt in 2060. Microplastic leakage is projected to increase in all regions, highlighting the need for better mitigation solutions. The research also analysed projected greenhouse gas emissions (GHG) from plastic lifecycles, with these forecast to more than double, to 4.3 Gt CO2e[v].


A shift towards circularity could unlock significant savings

Significantly, the UNEP’s new report finds that changing plastic usage to create a circular model would provide substantial cost savings. The research finds that shifting to a circular economy would result in $1.27 trillion in savings. In addition: “$3.25 trillion would be saved from avoided externalities such as health, climate, air pollution, marine ecosystem degradation, and litigation-related costs. This shift could also result in a net increase of 700,000 jobs by 2040, mostly in low-income countries, significantly improving the livelihoods of millions of workers in informal settings.”[vi]

The researchers accept that the investment levels needed for such change will be significant, but these will be lower than what would be required should the status quo remain- $65 billion per year as opposed to the current $113 billion per year. They suggest that much of this can be mobilised by shifting planned investments for new production facilities or via a levy on virgin plastic production into the necessary circular infrastructure.

The report has been released ahead of the second round of negotiations relating to the plastics treaty, with these set to take place in Paris between the 28th May and the 2nd June[vii].



[i] At UNEA 5 the UN Environmental Program Seeks to Lead the Fight Against Plastic Pollution | Zero Carbon Academy

[ii] UN roadmap outlines solutions to cut global plastic pollution (unep.org)

[iii] Ibid

[iv] UN roadmap outlines solutions to cut global plastic pollution (unep.org)

[v] www.zerocarbonacademy.com/posts/oecd-warns-that-global-plastic-waste-set-to-almost-triple-by-2060


[vi] UN roadmap outlines solutions to cut global plastic pollution (unep.org)

[vii] Second Session of the Intergovernmental Negotiating Committee on Plastic Pollution: Overview | UNEP - UN Environment Programme

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Lauren Foye
Head of Reports

Lauren has extensive experience as an analyst and market researcher in the digital technology and travel sectors. She has a background in researching and forecasting emerging technologies, with a particular passion for the Videogames and eSports industries. She joined the Critical Information Group as Head of Reports and Market Research at GRC World Forums, and leads the content and data research team at the Zero Carbon Academy. “What drew me to the academy is the opportunity to add content and commentary around sustainability across a wealth of industries and sectors.”

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