Charting the future of plastics: from policy to practice

Charting the future of plastics: from policy to practice

Charting the future of plastics: from policy to practice
The Gulf Cooperation Council region generates 10 million tonnes of plastic waste annually. Shutterstock
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It is without a doubt that plastics have and will continue to be thrust under the spotlight for reasons well known to those engaged in the debate on plastics.

An innovative, highly functional material, plastics have, for over half a century, dramatically improved our quality of life.

Today’s modern cars are made up of 50 percent plastic, healthcare relies on 15 million tonnes of life-saving plastics annually, and the food on our shelves stays fresh longer thanks to plastic packaging, of which we produce 141 million tonnes annually. 

These are clear-cut examples that illustrate the vast ubiquity and mass production of plastics in modern society.

As the world battles climate change, mobilizing every aspect of technology, business, and society to transition toward a more sustainable way of living, plastics are critical in the battle for a low-carbon future.

In fact, plastics will be instrumental in enabling the realization of the UN Sustainable Development Goals thanks to their fundamental role in the creation of socio-economic benefits in food preservation, healthcare, construction, and renewable and automotive industries, to name a few.

By 2050, plastics demand is expected to double, driven by a growing population and increasing demand in end-user industries, and its indispensable role in modern applications. 

However, in recent years, the mismanagement of plastics due to irresponsible littering, inadequate waste management infrastructure, and gaps in knowledge about plastic recycling has led to significant plastic waste growth.

Today, less than 10 percent of the plastics produced every year is recycled globally, and by 2050 it is estimated that plastic waste will grow to a staggering 26 billion tonnes.

This is a challenge as much as it is an opportunity to grasp the technological advancements, resources, talent, and innovation available today to transform plastic waste into a resource and retain its value within our economy for as long as possible.

To achieve this, vast-ranging technical, financial and logistical complexities would need to be overcome. 

Recognizing the challenge, the UN Intergovernmental Negotiating Committee on Plastics Pollution convened 4,000 delegates comprising global policymakers, lawmakers, country and industry leaders in the Canadian capital Ottawa from April 23 to 29 to devise a comprehensive global agreement on plastic. 

“This is not a fight against plastics,” stated the President of the UN Environment Assembly, Espen Eide, “This is a fight against plastic pollution!” Now the task at hand is to develop an instrument that can be translated from policy into practice, an agreement that can deliver long-lasting, measurable results across the board. 

Creating a circular economy for plastics is an essential part of the solution to end plastic pollution in the environment. An economic model in which plastics are retained within the economy for as long as possible throughout its lifecycle will be existential to our aspirations for a sustainable and resource-smart future. 

To enable the circular economy, we need to scale up and invest in recycling technologies and infrastructure underpinned by the right government legislation and support.

The plastics that cannot be mechanically recycled must be re-directed for chemical recycling, particularly as demand for recycled content runs high and supply comes up short. 

The Gulf Cooperation Council region generates 10 million tonnes of plastic waste annually, of which only 10 percent is recycled, reused, or recovered.

While this is in line with the global average, it is far lower compared to some developed economies. The solution to eliminating the leakage of plastic waste into the environment in the region lies in the adoption of a robust regulatory framework, which will enable the development of a recycling industry in the region. 

Besides closing gaps in waste management infrastructure with enabling regulations, we must focus our efforts on raising public awareness about the harmful effects of littering and the important role that every member of society can play in recycling their used plastics.

The committee must also consider the fundamental importance of product design. Design for circularity is a complex topic, far broader than the technical standards available today.

To be successful, design for circularity will require more comprehensive policy frameworks and collaboration with stakeholders across the plastics value chain. A UN global treaty on plastics must promote consistency in product design and performance. 

The establishment of well-functioning, robust waste management systems will be essential to tackle plastic waste globally in an effective and equitable manner.

Today 40 percent of the world’s population, or 3 billion people, lack access to adequate waste management, while the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development, or OECD, countries generate almost half of all plastic waste.

Asia, in particular, accounts for more than 80 percent of global plastic waste emitted into the ocean.

Therefore, ensuring financing options are available and prioritizing much-needed infrastructure development will be an absolute must. 

The establishment of a financial mechanism to enable capacity building and technology transfer and addressing the relevant scientific and technical aspects of plastic waste will be at the heart of the solution. Accessible and inclusive Extended Producer Responsibility or EPR-like schemes must be permissible to manage on a country-level due to the complexities and practicalities of complying with such schemes and having the ability to ensure they are implemented successfully. 

To deliver a robust agreement that serves to effectively address plastic waste, the committee must successfully navigate the complexities of each country.

Policymakers meeting in Busan, South Korea this December must understand that a blanket, one-size-fits-all approach is doomed to failure.

No country is the same, as nations across the world face different challenges and require different solutions.

The needs of countries like Botswana, for example, will be very different from those like Singapore.

Therefore, an agreement must allow for individual national action plans and global provisions in key areas that drive circularity, with common elements and reporting requirements that hold countries accountable for tracking progress. 

To win the battle on plastic waste, legislators must develop policies that support the path to plastic circularity. This is the future that will transform our legacy of waste into a valuable, wealth-creating resource. The GCC region has already embarked upon this journey. All we ought to do is enable and support it. 

At INC-5 in December, we expect to see a clear and united vision of how we can collectively and practically address plastic waste without compromising on the economic benefits of plastics.

A treaty that focuses on recycling, reuse, and circularity will not only bridge the gaps we see today, but it will also mobilize the whole world into action. We simply have no time to waste. 

  • Dr. Abdulwahab Al-Sadoun is the secretary-general of the Gulf Petrochemicals and Chemicals Association.
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