Scaling up plastic substitutes is key to tackling pollution
The world traded about 369 million tonnes of plastics in 2021 – enough to fill over 18 million trucks. The queue would wrap around the globe 13 times. Since less than 10% of all plastics produced have been recycled, most of the products in those trucks will end up littering our streets and flooding our seas. But nature abounds in sustainable materials like bamboo, sand, banana plants and algae that could be used to make eco-friendly versions of the straws, shopping bags, bottles, food wrappers and other plastic products we consume daily. According to research by PEW, plastic substitutes could cut global plastic waste by around 17% by 2040 – about 63 million tonnes less, or 3.5 million fewer trucks in the queue. “Besides the benefits to the planet, the shift offers economic opportunities,” said Henrique Pacini, an UNCTAD economist working on trade and environment issues. Worldwide trade in plastics substitutes and their products was worth around $388 billion in 2020, according to the latest data – about one third the amount traded in plastics made from fossil fuels. UNCTAD is working with NotPla, a London-based start-up using seaweed to make biodegradable packaging alternatives. NotPla recently began trials in Chile and Ghana, where it’s working with the UN and the two countries’ environment ministries to test seaweed takeaway boxes and edible packaging for liquids. The firm is assessing whether its packaging can replace the water sachets currently used across Africa, its CEO Rodrigo Garcia said during a workshop on plastic substitutes organized in December 2022 by UNCTAD and the World Trade Organization (WTO).
UNCTAD is also working with NotPla and the Government of Barbados to expand the firm’s services and investment in Caribbean nations to reduce the use of single-use plastics.