As things stand, the picture is grim. Consumers buy a million plastic drinking bottles a minute and use trillions of plastic bags every year, not to mention an immense amount of polyester and other synthetic textiles. Less than a tenth of all that material is recycled. Companies and governments have promised to cut back and reuse more, but even if those targets were met, they’d only reduce the plastic flowing into the ocean by 7% by 2040.
Plastic is also taking a toll on the climate. By poisoning crucial wildlife, it’s inhibiting the ocean’s ability to act as a natural carbon sink. Demand for plastic drives significant use of oil, natural gas and coal, with petrochemicals expected to account for a third of growth in oil demand between now and 2030. That will take a significant bite out of the world’s carbon budget and threaten efforts to prevent global temperatures from rising by more than 1.5 degrees.
First, it’s important to recognize that this a global problem that requires a global solution. The UN process is off to a promising start: Nearly 200 countries agreed yesterday to work toward a treaty eventually banning plastic pollution. The U.S. should show leadership in this process by setting ambitious goals, encouraging other member states to comply, and offering generous support for developing countries that lack sufficient waste-management systems.
One reasonable aim for the process would be to establish global production limits for non-recyclable plastic and to phase out the pernicious single-use kind in the years ahead. This is no small challenge, given how widely such material is used and how critical it is in emerging markets, where it helps provide clean water and protection from contaminants.
The key will be to pair any such restrictions with fiscal measures (whether incentives or sanctions) to ensure existing plastic is kept in use for longer, while supporting research into alternative materials and recycling systems. Governments should aim to make inventive replacements for plastic — made using shrimp shells, corn, algae and other materials — more cost-competitive. They should also fund more research into the dozens of mitigation technologies now under study, from solar powered “interceptors” that scoop up river pollution before it reaches the ocean, to specially engineered enzymes that quickly break down plastics into their constituent chemicals.
Meanwhile, it’s fair to expect more accountability from manufacturers, who are well aware of the harms their products can cause. As a start, they should be required to phase out toxic additives and boost the levels of recycled content they use. They should be encouraged to simplify complex, multilayered packaging, which hampers recycling efforts even in developed markets like the U.S. They should also work with world governments to channel financial and technical support to poorer nations to improve waste collection and landfill management.
The good news is that consumer-facing companies are already moving in the right direction, providing increased transparency on plastic consumption. Investors, alert to the risks that come with polluting products, should demand uniform disclosures on plastic content, just as they’ve done with carbon. Transparency, especially when ordinary shoppers are involved, can often encourage rapid change. Companies like Bacardi Ltd. — which is experimenting with a new type of plastic bottle that can decompose in a matter of months, under the right conditions — deserve credit for bringing innovation to bear on the problem.
The plastic emergency has been building for years. Unfortunately, the world doesn’t have the luxury of time in trying to resolve it. The sooner these efforts start, the better.
The Editors are members of the Bloomberg Opinion editorial board.