With plastic production and waste expected to reach unmanageable levels by 2050, scientists from UC Berkeley and UC Santa Barbara launched a study today. new online tool powered by AI which provides unprecedented insight into how the world’s nations can combine policies to end plastic pollution in the UN Global Plastics Treaty, currently under negotiation.
In March 2022, more than 175 countries agreed to develop a legally binding international treaty to end plastic pollution. Sixty of these nationsfrom the United Arab Emirates to Palau, have committed to achieving this by 2040.
The researchers find that if no action is taken, annual plastic production will increase by 22% between 2024 and 2050, and plastic pollution will increase by 62% between 2024 and 2050.
Continuing business as usual, the world would produce enough waste between 2010 and 2050 to cover the entire island of Manhattan in a pile of plastic 3.5 kilometers high, or nearly 10 times the height of the Empire State. Building.
However, with a strong UN plastics treaty that incorporates the right mix of nine plastic reduction policies, plastic pollution could be virtually eliminated by 2040 – with the production of mismanaged waste reduced by 89% to 10 million of metric tons per year, more manageable in 2040. .
At the same time, the study finds that a business-as-usual scenario places the greatest burden of mismanaged plastic waste – that is, it is thrown away or improperly disposed of, leading to the pollution of waterways and overflowing landfills – on the less wealthy countries.
Without intervention, poorly managed waste in the Global South will be 4.8 times greater in 2050 than in NAFTA countries, the 30 countries of the European Union and China combined in 2050. Such a future further exacerbates similar types of disproportionate damage to environmental justice already created by climate change.
“Developing countries are home to a much larger portion of the world’s population than NAFTA and the EU combined,” said Dr. Nivedita Biyani, a global plastic modeling researcher at the University of California’s Benioff Ocean Science Laboratory. in Santa Barbara. “If they start using plastic at the same rate as NAFTA and the European Union, we will have even more problems. That said, there is a way out of this mess. By including all policies described, we can achieve a near-zero mismanaged waste scenario. I hope that world leaders from NAFTA and the EU will commit to a very ambitious treaty to help other countries get out of this situation quickly!
The new tool and underlying analysis developed by a team of plastics researchers, data scientists and AI researchers from Benioff Ocean Science LaboratoryBren School of Environmental Science & Management at the University of California, Santa Barbara, and the Eric and Wendy Schmidt Center for Data Science and the Environment at the University of California, Berkeley, uses machine learning to combine information on population growth and economic trends to predict the future of plastic production, pollution and trade. It projects global and regional trends in plastic pollution from 2010 to 2050, 10 years beyond the High Ambition Coalition’s 2040 goal to end plastic pollution.
This interactive model, released as negotiators travel to Nairobi, Kenya, for the first round of plastics treaty negotiations, reveals a host of policy ideas that can help shape the UN treaty. “Finally, solving the plastic crisis means a victory for the environment, a victory in our fight against climate change, and a healthier, fairer future for all,” said Dr. Douglas McCauley, a professor at UC Santa Barbara and assistant professor at UC Berkeley.
“A weak treaty would be worse than no treaty at all. But I was so excited to see the scientific proof that a strong treaty could virtually end the plastic waste problem forever. Nothing makes me happier than knowing that my generation could be the last to live with the cancer of plastic pollution. I can only hope that the nations meeting in Nairobi next week will pay attention to these findings.
“I admit that when I first saw these nations promising to end plastic pollution by 2040, it would be impossible,” Dr McCauley said. “But I was blown away to discover a path to a near-zero result in this research.”
Research shows that five specific actions implemented together would reduce most plastic pollution. These are: 1) a minimum commitment to recycled content, 2) a cap on virgin plastic production, 3) investments in plastic waste management infrastructure, 4) similar investments in new capacity recycling and 5) a small tax on plastic packaging (for example, items like plastic bags).
Establishing a minimum recycled content rate that requires certain plastics to be made from at least 30% recycled materials would, on its own, reduce mismanaged annual waste by approximately 31% in 2040. Likewise , cap plastic production until 2025, an action similar to current policies. in the climate field, could, on its own, reduce poorly managed annual waste by around 15% in 2040 and 26% in 2050.
Under the treaty, funding for the fight against plastic pollution could come from tax revenues or similar types of “extended producer responsibility” programs that seek help from plastic producers. This research suggests that, dollar for dollar, more can be done by investing in waste management (e.g. collection services, landfills, waste treatment plants) rather than recycling plants – and that the return on investment is even greater when this funding is directed to countries in the Global South.
“The tool is unique in that it enables real-time, interactive predictions for U.N. negotiators,” said Sam Pottinger, a senior data researcher at UC Berkeley. “They can quickly simulate the results of different policy scenarios that they can develop both by selecting the policies built into the tool and by creating their own. By bringing their expertise into conversation with modeling, it gives them the ability to use AI and the engine to explore scenarios we may not have even considered. This freedom and speed allows the tool to track conversations as they evolve and ultimately allows nations to align on an ambitious and informed suite of treaty policies aimed at reducing mismanaged waste.
The team’s scientists emphasize that while meeting our global commitment to end plastic pollution by 2040 is extremely important, there are many other victories within the treaty. For example, the analysis includes an option to phase out single-use packaging in the treaty, such as plastic straws, shopping bags, cutlery and expanded polystyrene “styrofoam” cups. These lightweight objects do not weigh much, so such a policy plays a lesser role in this model’s solutions to eliminate plastic pollution. However, these single-use items are extremely common in river and ocean ecosystems and create significant environmental damage.
A set of policies such as those put forward in the researchers’ zero plastic waste solution for 2040 seem feasible and already have precedents in many regions. Many facets of this set of treaties, for example, mimic the plastic pollution roadmaps already used in Californiaand the EU . A host of others countries(e.g. Kenya, Rwanda, Palau, Seychelles, India and China) have also already phased out some single-use plastics, such as bags. Countries like the Philippines and Vietnam have already passed expanded producer responsibility laws.
“We cannot recycle our way out of this situation,” Dr Biyani said. “We need countries and businesses to step up to help limit the amount of plastic entering our oceans and the environment as a whole. FMCG companies, especially those that are moving quickly, can make a significant difference here, by rethinking the packaging choices they make on behalf of their consumers.