Circular economy approach to plastic pollution won’t fix the problem

Lots of plastic bottles and other pollution on a beach in Ghana.
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In March 2022, 175 member states agreed to end plastic pollution by forming an international and legally binding agreement by 2024. On 29 May, nations will meet in Paris for the second round of talks to negotiate a global plastics treaty. Ahead of the negotiations, the UN Environment Programme (UNEP) has released a plastics report. The new publication, titled Turning off the Tap, provided recommendations for international government action on tackling the plastics crisis.

“Systems change scenario”

Under what the plastics report calls a “systems change scenario”, it suggested that governments globally could prevent 80% of projected plastic pollution by 2040.

The series of recommendations called on governments to legislate for a tax on virgin (new) plastics and targets for substituting plastics with sustainable alternatives. In addition, it included recommendations for governments to set ambitious new recycling targets.

It also suggested taxes on landfill, incineration, and waste to energy industries to drive a shift to greater recycling and reuse. Significantly, it established the need for an international ban on the export of waste plastic to nations with insufficient disposal capacity by 2025.

The report, however, omitted recommendations on phasing out fossil fuels and their subsidies. It cursorily mentioned that:

Various subsidies for fossil fuels can in some countries lower the costs of producing virgin plastic, making it more difficult for systems that deliver the same function with less / no virgin plastic to appear economically attractive.

Where they are referenced, it is only to acknowledge how other policy shifts will impact the dependence on virgin plastics. Instead, it focuses solely on plans to shift to a ‘circular economy’ for plastic waste. It defines this as:

Read on...

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one of the current sustainable economic models, in which products and materials are designed in such a way that they can be reused, remanufactured, recycled or recovered and thus maintained in the economy for as long as possible, along with the resources of which they are made, and the generation of waste, especially hazardous waste, is avoided or minimized, and greenhouse gas emissions are prevented or reduced, can contribute significantly to sustainable consumption and production.

In other words, the report envisions a future which maintains plastic use regardless of origin – a circular economy where plastic is never removed. Consequently, the plastics report missed the opportunity to call for the treaty to include a key action that would “turn off the tap” on plastic pollution: by scaling down big oil and gas.

Doubling down on plastic production

Over 99% of plastic is made from chemicals derived from fossil fuels. It’s perhaps no wonder, then, that as climate action starts to bite for polluters, big oil has turned its attention to plastics.

In 2019, just 20 companies accounted for more than 50% of single-use plastic. Moreover, the top 100 were responsible for producing over 90%. ExxonMobil and Dow from the US, and Sinopec from China, together produced a staggering 16% of the global output.

What’s more, fossil fuel companies have been investing heavily in new facilities to make more plastic. Since 2010, they have financed new petrochemical plants by over US $180bn.

Echoing this, a separate study found that the 12 largest petrochemical companies had announced plans for 88 new plastic production projects between 2012 and 2019. Again, majors like Exxon, Dow, and Chevron feature in this list. The study stated that this creates a phenomenon known as “carbon lock-in”:

New investments in fossil based production capacity will proliferate the lock-in at least until the middle of the century when emissions should be approaching zero.

“Carbon lock-in” occurs when fossil fuel-based industries delay transitions to sustainable and low-carbon alternatives.

If fossil fuel companies have their way, plastic production will continue to explode. For example, Vox reported that at its 2020 investor day, Exxon claimed plastic production would maintain its current 4% growth rate. A 4% growth rate would result in the demand for plastics doubling in 18 to 24 years.

Phase out fossil fuels to save the planet

All this goes to show that transitioning to a circular economy alone cannot avert climate and environmental disaster. To end plastic pollution and tackle the climate crisis, the world needs to “turn off the tap” at the source. It must therefore turn its attention to the fossil fuel industry through the global plastics treaty.

The day prior to the UN plastics report’s release, Human Rights Watch called for the phase-out of fossil fuels. Senior environment researcher at Human Rights Watch, Katharina Rall, said:

Improving waste removal and recycling will not end the human rights harm of plastic pollution.

Governments need to make sure that the new treaty addresses the ultimate source of plastic pollution, which is the production of fossil fuels.

This echoes an earlier call by scientists such as Dr Melanie Bergman of the Alfred-Wegener-Institute who told Science Daily:

Even if we recycled better and tried to manage the waste as much as we can, we would still release more than 17 million tons of plastic per year into nature.

If production just keeps growing and growing, we will be faced with a truly Sisyphean task.

In fact, the UN plastics report’s best-case “systems change scenario” predicts a worsening of the situation It projected that the global community will cause 41m mega tonnes of plastic pollution per year by 2040.

Another signatory of the letter stated that:

The exponentially growing production is really the root cause of the problem.

It’s clear that a circular plastics economy just isn’t going to cut it. Nothing less than the full-scale dismantling of the fossil fuel industry can save the planet from a plastic-choked climate catastrophe.

Feature image via Muntaka Chasant/Wikimedia, cropped and resized to 1910 by 1000, licensed under CC BY-SA 4.0 

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  • Show Comments
    1. Okay. We end fossil fuel extraction and the use of oil to make plastics. Fine. With what do we replace the vast range of plastics and their even vaster incorporation into pretty much every part of human life? Every article I’ve ever read avoids asking that obvious question. It’s not just drinking straws and bottles. Why will no-one discuss this?

      1. I agree. I have often asked environmental activists this question. They answer “plant-based biodegradable materials”, but these cannot be used for construction or manufacturing such as component creation. There will have to be some plastic use into the medium-term future in my view. Making it recycled, not exporting it as waste, erradicating new plastic production, all seem to be do’able and seems a more realistic approach.

      2. 1. What are most plastics used for? What is currently the main use of plastic?
        2. Can we live without it while not affecting our living standards?

        1. Packaging. Especially drink bottles and plastic bags.
        2. Would a drastic cut of ALL single use plastic drink bottles cause any significant dentin our living standards? No, not really. Perhaps public spaces would need more drinking fountains to fully remove the need.

        Which brings it back to the root of all environmental problems: capitalism (I’ll define here as “a method of production which sole purpose is the generation of profit for the shareholders and where there is a total disconnect between ownership, management and work, those three group rarely interacting.” This disconnect fails to manage *externalities* since the shareholders are less likely to live with the consequences of pollution and managers are bound to deliver profits or be replaced by someone who will).

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