Over the last two years pollution by plastics has caught the attention, and sparked the concern, of the world. What was for long seen as a marginal, local, and largely aesthetic issue – even by some environmentalists – is now established to be one of our greatest challenges.
It is increasingly recognised as one of the prime symbols of the world's throwaway 'linear' economy and of the need to replace it with a regenerative 'circular' one, through systems – rather than piecemeal - change.
Naoko Ishii, CEO and Chairperson of the Global Environmental Facility (GEF) has hailed the new awareness of plastic pollution as a sign that the time has come for the circular economy, which, she called in a speech last year, “nothing less than a blueprint for a fundamental transformation of our economic system – a transformation that is urgently needed, entirely possible, and indeed desirable.”
Certainly, plastics illustrate the urgency of the need. Their production grew more than twenty times over between 1964 and 2015 and is expected to double again by 2035 and almost quadruple by 2050.
About 330 billion single use plastic bags are produced each year and tend to be used for just a few hours before being thrown away. In all, some 4,900 million tonnes of plastics - over three quarters of the total amount ever produced has been discarded into landfills or the rest of the environment - and this is expected to grow to 12,000 million tonnes by 2050 unless action is taken. Some kinds take over 500 years to break down.
Every minute of every day the equivalent of the contents of a garbage truck full of plastic reaches the oceans; by 2050 this is expected to grow to four per minute. By then, it is predicted that there will be more plastic, by weight, than fish in the seas. Indeed, it is already found everywhere, even in Arctic sea ice and the world's deepest ocean trench.
Discarded synthetic fishing nets entangle marine mammals and other sea life. At the other end of the scale, tiny pieces, or microplastics – which often accumulate toxic chemicals – end up in the food chain, eventually reaching people.
Microplastics are also emerging as a threat to soils and drinking water, raising further health concerns. And producing, and burning, plastics contributes to climate change. In all, Trucost and the American Chemistry Council have estimated, the environmental cost of plastics could reach $139 billion a year.
Traditionally plastic pollution has been tackled after it has happened, through clean-up efforts, but the only solution lies in addressing its root causes. These lie in the dominant “take, make, waste” linear economy, fuelled by large amounts of cheap, accessible energy and other resources, and producing things designed to be disposable.
The circular economy, by contrast, aims to use resources for as long as possible, extracting as much value from them as is practicable - and then, when they do reach the end of their lives to recover and regenerate products and materials. It aims to design out waste and hazardous materials in favour of such restoration and regeneration.
The World Economic Forum has reported that implementing the circular economy worldwide could yield material cost savings of up to $1 trillion a year by 2025. The World Business Council for Sustainable Development has estimated that it could unlock business opportunities worth $4.5 trillion.
A circular economy would both maximise the benefits of plastics and minimise their ill effects, through such measures as producing them from plants rather than fossil fuels; redesigning products to cut waste and make them last; encouraging recycling and reuse; and using plastic wastes as a resource. Such measures also need to be accompanied by reducing demand for plastic products and discouraging non-essential ones.
There is some progress. Some governments, in both developed and developing countries, have banned single-use plastic bags. Some companies are introducing re-useable, recycling or compostable packaging. But these efforts tend to be piecemeal, when what is needed is a systematic approach that integrates both clean-up and preventative measures and moves towards a system where, in the medium to long term, plastics never become waste. And since all countries contribute to the problem, such an approach needs to be adopted globally.
The GEF is well placed to help make this happen since it regularly engages with governments and companies worldwide. Over recent years it has been switching the focus of its operations to address the underlying drivers of environmental degradation – rather than merely its effects – and it is now concentrating GEF-7 - its latest, recently approved, four-year investment cycle - on catalysing systemic, transformational change.
The GEF-7 strategy includes marine plastics, and a special session on plastics and the circular economy is taking place with civil society organisations from around the world on June 10 during the 56th GEF Council in Washington DC. A new GEF film screened at the event shows how businesses, governments and civil society organisations are making commitments to tackle marine plastics.
The GEF has started to address plastic pollution through a circular economy approach, and is working at the global, regional and national level through public-private partnerships.
The Platform for Accelerating the Circular Economy (PACE), launched by the World Economic Forum and co-chaired by the GEF and Royal Philips, focuses on a broad range of industries like consumer electronics to deal with e-waste, bringing together both regulators and industry.
PACE launched the Global Plastic Action Partnership to bring countries and industry players together around efforts to tackle marine plastic pollution. For example, in Southeast Asia, GEF has initiated investments to develop national and municipal action plans on plastics. Indonesia - the world's second biggest producer of mismanaged plastic waste after China – has announced a national plan on marine litter and aims to reduce it by 70 per cent by 2025.
Building on its experiences, the GEF plans to step up its investments in circular economy initiatives in the coming years. It will continue to implement the best ways of managing waste to stem the deluge of plastic waste in the short term, while creating the enabling environment for the systemic change that is so urgently needed.