The United Nations has released its first-ever global plastics report on June 5th, World Environment Day. Well-timed and thematically coordinated, the UN “state of plastics” report debuted for this year’s theme, “Beat Plastic Pollution.” Officially named Single-Use Plastics: A Roadmap for Sustainability, the report documents the efforts of more than 60 countries to fight plastic pollution by implementing bans or taxes on single-use plastic items, concluding that such policies are the most effective means to reduce plastic usage. “The assessment shows that action can be painless and profitable — with huge gains for people and the planet that help avert the costly downstream costs of pollution,” head of UN Environment Erik Solheim wrote in the report. “Plastic isn’t the problem. It’s what we do with it.”
In addition to assessing policy solutions, the report also outlines the current state of plastic recycling and disposal. According to the report, only 9 percent of plastic is recycled, while 79 percent of all plastic ends up in landfills, garbage dumps or in the natural world. Twelve percent is incinerated, resulting in pollutants that enter the atmosphere and affect environmental health. Of particular concern is the use of plastic bags, which often block water ways, provide disease-spreading insects with a place to breed and harm wildlife.
Of the countries that have implemented plastic bag bans or taxes, 50 percent were not able to provide data to effectively evaluate the policy impact. Thirty percent of the total countries reported that their policies reduced the use of plastic bags within a year of implementation, while 20 percent said that their policy changes had little effect. This lack of impact may be due to poor enforcement or simply that consumers don’t have access to affordable alternatives. The report highlights the success of Morocco, in which an enforced ban resulted in the seizure of 421 tons of plastic bags and a near-total replacement of plastic bags with fabric. The report recommends that bans and taxes be supplemented with improved waste management, a circular plastic production and consumption model, and financial benefits dispersed to businesses and consumers to encourage the development and adoption of plastic alternatives.