The Scientific and Technical Advisory Panel, an independent group of scientists that advises the Global Environment Facility, launched a paper on Plastics and the circular economy. In the document the STAP calls for the integration of circular economy in GEF programs, including on sustainable cities.
The production of plastics increased by more than twenty-fold between 1964 and 2015, with an annual output of 322 million metric tonnes (Mt), and is expected to double by 2035, and almost quadruple by 2050. Plastics contribute to economic growth, but their current production and use pattern, on a linear model of ‘take, make, use, and dispose’, is a primary driver of natural resource depletion, waste, environmental degradation, climate change, and has adverse human health effects.
Conventional plastic production is highly dependent on virgin fossil feedstocks (mainly natural gas and oil) as well as other resources, including water – it takes about 185 litres of water to make a kilogram of plastic. Plastic production uses up to 6% of global oil production, and this is expected to increase to 20% by 2050, when plastic-related greenhouse gas emissions may represent 15% of the global annual carbon budget.
Some plastics contain toxic chemical additives, including persistent organic pollutants (POPs), which have been linked to health issues such as cancer, mental, reproductive, and developmental diseases. It is difficult to recycle some plastics without perpetuating these chemicals.
About 4900 Mt of the estimated 6300 Mt total of plastics ever produced have been discarded either in landfills or elsewhere in the environment. Plastics stay in the environment for a long time; some take up to 500 years to break down; this causes damage, harms biodiversity, and depletes the ecosystem services needed to support life. In the marine environment, plastics are broken down into tiny pieces (microplastics) which threaten marine biodiversity. Furthermore, microplastics can end up in the food chain, with potentially damaging effects, because they may accumulate high concentrations of POPs and other toxic chemicals.
Microplastics are an emerging source of soil and freshwater pollution. The contamination of tap and bottled water by microplastics is already widespread, and the World Health Organization is assessing the possible effects on human health.
The role of the GEF
The circular economy is an alternative to the current linear, make, use, dispose, economy model, which aims to keep resources in use for as long as possible, to extract the maximum value from them whilst in use, and to recover and regenerate products and materials at the end of their service life. It offers an opportunity to minimise the negative impacts of plastics while maximising the benefits from plastics and their products, and providing environmental, economic, and societal benefits. Circular economy solutions for plastics include: producing plastics from alternative non-fossil fuel feedstocks; using plastic wastes as a resource; redesigning plastic manufacturing processes and products to enhance longevity, reusability and waste prevention; collaboration between businesses and consumers to encourage recycling and increase the value of plastic products; encouraging sustainable business models which promote plastic products as services, and encourage sharing and leasing; developing robust information platforms to aid circular solutions; and adopting fiscal and regulatory measures to support the circular economy.
Circular economy solutions will help in ‘closing the material loop’, that is to minimise waste and to keep materials in the economy and out of landfills and incinerators, but the circular economy will not completely solve the global plastic problem. An all-encompassing solution should seek to ‘slow the material loop’, that is to reduce demand and produce only essential plastic products, including through discouraging non-essential production and use of plastics, and promoting the use of renewable and recyclable alternatives to plastics.
The GEF can play a significant role in promoting a transition to the circular economy in the plastics sector. In the short term, the GEF should mainstream circular economy concepts into its overall strategy, for example, as criteria for priority setting and decision making; invest in projects that promote circular concepts in the plastics sector to deliver global environmental benefits; help to create an enabling environment to overcome barriers and promote the adoption and implementation of the circular economy in the plastics sector; and incorporate plastic pollution mitigation into the Integrated Approach Pilot (IAP) for sustainable cities.
Shifting Paradigms reviewed an earlier draft of the paper and provided recommendations.