Scientists Reveal How Paris Agreement For Plastic Could Slash Plastic Pollution To Almost Zero

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scientists reveal how paris agreement for plastic could slash plastic pollution to almost zero

With both plastic production and waste projected to escalate to unmanageable levels by 2050, scientists at UC Berkeley and UC Santa Barbara today launched a new AI-powered online tool that provides unprecedented insight into how the nations of the world can combine policies to end plastic pollution in the United Nations global plastics treaty, currently under negotiation.

In March 2022, more than 175 nations agreed to develop an international, legally-binding treaty to end plastic pollution. Sixty of these nations , from the United Arab Emirates to Palau, have committed to achieving this by 2040.

Researchers find that if no action is taken, annual plastic production will rise 22% between 2024 and 2050, and plastic pollution will jump 62% between 2024 and 2050.

By continuing with business as usual, the world would generate enough litter between 2010 and 2050 to cover the entire island of Manhattan with a 3.5-kilometer-tall heap of plastic - nearly 10 times the height of the Empire State Building.

With a strong UN plastics treaty that incorporates the right mix of nine plastic reduction policies, however, plastic pollution could be virtually eliminated in 2040 - with the generation of mismanaged waste reduced by 89% to a more manageable 10 million metric tons per year in 2040.

At the same time, the research finds that a business-as-usual scenario places the greatest burden of mismanaged plastic waste - which means it is littered or not properly disposed of, leading to polluted waterways and overflowing landfills - on less wealthy countries.

Without intervention, mismanaged waste in the Global South will be 4.8 times greater in 2050 than in NAFTA countries, the 30 countries in the European Union, and China combined in 2050. Such a future further exacerbates similar types of disproportionate environmental justice harms already created by climate change.

"The developing countries house much more of the world population than NAFTA and EU combined," said Dr. Nivedita Biyani, a researcher on global plastic modeling at the Benioff Ocean Science Laboratory at the University of California Santa Barbara. "If they start using plastics at the rates that NAFTA and EU are, we will be in much more trouble. That said, there is a way out of this mess. By including all the policies outlined, we can reach a near-zero mismanaged waste scenario. I hope world leaders in NAFTA and the EU will commit to a high-ambition treaty to help other countries leap-frog their way out of this!"

The new tool and underlying analysis developed by a team of plastic researchers, data scientists, and AI researchers at the Benioff Ocean Science Laboratory , Bren School of Environmental Science Management at University of California Santa Barbara, and the Eric and Wendy Schmidt Center for Data Science Environment at the University of California Berkeley utilize machine learning to combine information about population growth and economic trends to forecast the future of plastic production, pollution, and trade. It projects the global and regional plastic pollution trends from 2010 to 2050, 10 years beyond the High Ambition Coalition's 2040 goal of ending plastic pollution.

This interactive model, which is being released as negotiators head to Nairobi, Kenya, for the first round of plastics treaty negotiations, reveals a host of policy insights that can help shape the UN treaty. "Finally solving the plastics crisis means a win for the environment, a win in our fight against climate change, and a healthier and more just future for all people," said Dr. Douglas McCauley, Professor UC Santa Barbara, Adjunct Professor UC Berkeley.

"A weak treaty would be worse than no treaty at all. But I was so thrilled to see scientific proof that a strong treaty could virtually end the problem of plastic waste forever. Nothing makes me happier than knowing that my generation could be the last generation to live with the cancer of plastic pollution. I can only hope the nations meeting in Nairobi next week pay attention to these findings."

"I confess that when I first saw these nations promising to end plastic pollution by 2040 - that this would be impossible," said Dr. McCauley. "But I was blown away to discover a pathway to near-zero in this research."

The Policies

The research shows that five specific actions implemented in conjunction would take the biggest chunk out of plastic pollution. They are: 1) a minimum recycled content commitment, 2) a cap on the production of virgin plastic, 3) investment in plastic waste management infrastructure, 4) similar investments in new recycling capacity, and 5) a small tax on plastic packaging (e.g., items like plastic bags).

Establishing a minimum recycling content rate that would require certain plastics be made of at least 30% recycled materials would, by itself, slash annual mismanaged waste by about 31% in 2040. Similarly, capp