WWF calls on governments to ban high-risk plastics ahead of UN treaty talks
15 May 2023 --- Ahead of the UN’s plastic pollution treaty talks in Paris, France, May 29-June 2, the World Wildlife Fund (WWF) calls for a global ban on single-use plastic products, including cutlery, e-cigarettes and microplastics in cosmetics.
WWF has released two reports today – “Breaking down high-risk plastic products” and “Regulating high-risk plastic products” – highlighting the threat posed by plastic products and urging governments to match strong binding measures with ambitious mechanisms to enable effective implementation.
“WWF is calling for the treaty to ban or quickly phase out the most high-risk plastic products and polymers and additives from being produced or sold,” Eirik Lindebjerg, global plastic policy lead at WWF Norway, tells PackagingInsights.
“For high-risk products that can’t realistically be eliminated, we recommend a range of control measures, such as global product design requirements and regulation of uses, to prevent pollution, promote non-toxic circularity and minimize and manage waste safely.”
Economic cost of plastic
Researchers identified four main categories for the study: Packaging, characteristic-specific products, sector-wide applications and microplastics. The two reports provide a framework for assessing the urgency, need and feasibility of control measures and an assessment of how product groups can be treated within that framework to guide negotiators.
“Plastic is perceived and sold as a relatively cheap product. But the cost to our economy, when considering its associated GHG emissions, waste management requirements and impacts on human health and nature, is ten times more than its market price,” says Lindebjerg.
“For example, WWF estimates that the lifetime cost of the plastic produced in 2019 to the global economy will be at least US$3.7 trillion due to the reduction in ecosystem services provided by marine ecosystems.”
Marco Lambertini, WWF special envoy, adds: “On our current trajectory, by 2040, global plastic production will double, plastic leakage into our oceans will triple and the total volume of plastic pollution in our oceans will quadruple.”
“Negotiators must heed the guidance in this report and work together to create a treaty with comprehensive and specific binding global rules that can turn the tide on the plastic crisis.”
No use for single-use
The researchers further classify the product groups that are assessed as high risk and prioritized for urgent interventions into two distinct classes – Class I and Class II – to suggest effective regulation at the global level.
The study categorizes Class I to encompass plastics for which production, consumption and trade could be either eliminated or significantly reduced without major negative consequences. Additionally, Class II includes product groups for which production, consumption and trade could not be directly and reduced considerably without adverse effects at the time of assessment.
“Currently, 1.3 million single-use vapes are thrown away weekly in the UK. Many single-use items, including vapes and e-cigarettes, are being produced and sold at a rate that our waste management systems cannot handle, leading to a rise in pollution and an increased demand for further oil extraction to create more plastic,” informs Lindebjerg.
“Directions on how to dispose of them responsibly are often inconsistent or misleading. So, consumers opt not to recycle them, meaning they immediately end up in landfill, which can become fire hazards.”
Lindebjerg elaborates that research suggests discarded disposable vapes result in ten metric tons of lithium ending up wasted each year, enough to power 1200 electric car batteries. “The global treaty must ban the production and sale of ‘disposable’ e-cigarettes and vapes,” he continues.
The WWF-commissioned study found that the packaging sector is responsible for the largest share of plastic production. “It’s estimated that between 31-44% of the 460 million metric tons of plastic produced globally in 2019 was used for packaging,” it reads.
Regarding plastic cutlery, Lindebjerg specifies that it can be “easily replaced by reusable and more environmentally friendly alternatives.” He elaborates that billions of plastic cutlery globally are often thrown away as litter and rarely recycled.
“According to some estimates, the average person uses around 18 throwaway plastic plates and 37 single-use knives, forks and spoons each, while Americans use more than 561 billion individual plastic utensils daily.”
“The EU, UK and Taiwan, among others, have already announced bans. The global plastic pollution treaty must end these pointless items for good,” says Lindebjerg.
The WWF report calls on governments for the immediate global ban of high-risk plastics and prioritize plastics with high pollution risks, including product groups, applications, chemicals and polymers of concern.
Underwater and above
WWF finds that if current trends continue, by 2040, global plastic production will double while plastic leakage into the ocean will triple.
“Our oceans already contains more than a trillion microplastic particles – 500 times more than there are stars in our galaxy,” says Lindebjerg.
“A WWF report last year warned that by the end of the century, marine areas more than two and a half times the size of Greenland could exceed ecologically dangerous thresholds of microplastic concentration, as the amount of marine microplastic could increase 50-fold by then.”
Lindebjerg explains that once distributed in the ocean, plastic waste is almost impossible to retrieve, with the concentration of micro-and nanoplastics continuing to increase for decades. Coral reefs, for example, can ingest microplastic particles, adversely affecting the symbiotic algae residing within them and reducing their chances of survival after coral bleaching events.
The report suggests that for products that cannot realistically be banned or phased out, the treaty should specify mandatory measures to prevent them from ending up in the environment and minimize waste.
“These include targets, standards and incentives to ensure products can be easily reused or recycled, along with measures to encourage circularity, improve waste management systems and mitigate the harm that occurs if plastic does end up in the environment. The treaty should also mandate or set standards for deposit return schemes and extended producer responsibility systems (where producers bear the cost of dealing with the plastics they put on the market),” WWF concludes.
By Radhika Sikaria
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