G7 members (United States, Japan, Germany, France, United Kingdom, Italy and Canada) committed to zero plastic pollution by 2040 — an attainable goal thanks to the rise of the circular economy and the reduction or banning of single-use plastics and non-recyclables, according to the final statement.
The announcement has come just before the UN has its next meeting on the plastics treaty, late May in Paris, when the details will be discussed. The declaration states that G7 members will cooperate constructively on the UN convention “including mandatory measures” and “covering the entire life cycle of plastics”.
A year ago in Nairobi, 175 countries convened to put an end to plastic pollution worldwide by developing a legally-binding United Nations treaty by the end of 2024. The next session to negotiate the treaty is scheduled for May in Paris. Among the anticipated measures is a global ban on single-use plastics, the establishment of a "polluter-pays" system and a tax on the production of new plastic.
Million tonnes of plastic end up in the environment
Indeed, the current situation is considered of very high concern. Global plastic production almost doubled between 2000 and 2019, from 234 million tonnes to 460 million tonnes, according to the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD). Plastic waste more than doubled in that time, reaching 353 million tonnes in 2019.
But global production fell slightly in 2020 due to the coronavirus pandemic for only the third time in the history of modern industry, according to trade association Plastics Europe.
The OECD said 22 million tonnes of plastic were discarded in the environment in 2019 alone, with six million tonnes ending up in waterways, lakes and oceans. Plastic makes up at least 85 percent of total marine waste, according to the UN Environment Assembly.
More than half of the plastic came from Asia in 2020, with China representing almost one-third of the global total. Plastic production in the world’s second-largest economy jumped by 82 percent between 2010 and 2020, well above the global growth average of 30 percent, according to a Plastics Europe report.
Europe’s production in 2020 was 55 million tonnes, a five-percent fall on 2019 levels.
The growth mostly came from the United States and the Middle East as primary materials there are much cheaper, and from China because its demand is growing more strongly, said Jean-Yves Daclin, Plastics Europe’s director general for France.
A 2021 report by the World Wildlife Fund estimated that global plastic production would double by 2040.
The world needs to recycle more plastics
Recycling is the main solution to halt the relentless march of plastic pollution. Although Europe recycles more than one-third of its plastic waste, globally only around nine percent of plastic waste was recycled in 2019, according to the OECD.
However, promising recycling technologies, such as enzymatic recycling developed by French-based Carbios are emerging. Other solutions include developing packaging-free products, returnable items and eco-friendly designs with long lifespans.
Plastic made from agricultural resources — such as sugar, starch, corn and wheat — represents less than one percent of global production. The use of agricultural land and water resources limits their development as a way of reducing oil consumption in plastic production. Even worse, these plastics are rarely completely biodegradable or compostable and "in reality only dodge the issue", according to the Heinrich Boell Foundation, an environmental think tank in Germany. The problem has spurred the development of second- and third-generation plastics sourced from vegetable waste or algae.
Another – ambitious – technique is making plastic from the carbon dioxide belched out into the atmosphere by industry. Tests have been conducted by L’Oréal, LanzaTech and Total with the creation of the first cosmetic plastic bottle made from industrial carbon emissions.