UN Environment Chief warns recycling plastic alone is insufficient

Inger Andersen

23rd September 2023 – (New York) In the face of escalating plastic production and the resulting pollution, the United Nations (UN) environment chief has stressed that recycling alone will not solve the problem and has called for a complete reevaluation of our approach to plastic usage.

In an interview with AFP on Thursday during the General Assembly in New York, Inger Andersen, director of the UN Environment Program, emphasised the need for transformative solutions. She highlighted that the current status quo is no longer an option, and alternative approaches must be embraced.

Andersen’s remarks came two weeks after the release of the initial draft of an international treaty on plastic pollution, set to be finalised by the end of 2024. The draft reflects the diverse ambitions of the 175 participating countries, with differing opinions on reducing the production of raw polymers versus emphasising reuse and recycling.

The first objective, according to Andersen, is to eliminate as many single-use plastics as possible. This includes getting rid of unnecessary packaging, such as the plastic wrapping on items like oranges or bananas, which she described as “completely mindless” and even contradicting nature itself. She also stressed the need to reconsider the design of products, exploring alternatives to liquid-based formulations. For instance, she mentioned the possibility of using powders, compressed forms, or concentrated versions of certain products. Andersen shared that when she visits a supermarket, she heads straight to the soap aisle to check if solid alternatives are available.

Furthermore, Andersen highlighted the importance of reducing the overall supply of new raw polymers, an option presented in the treaty’s draft text. She emphasised that while recycling plays a crucial role, it is not enough to address the escalating plastic crisis. Plastic production has more than doubled in the past two decades, reaching a staggering 460 million tonnes annually. Without significant changes, this figure could triple by 2060. Shockingly, only 9 percent of plastic is currently recycled, leading to its pervasive presence in oceans, wildlife, and even in our bodies through microplastics.

Andersen underscored the urgency of curbing the flow of plastic into oceans, recogniwing that the health of our oceans is vital for humanity’s future. The forthcoming treaty on plastic pollution will complement existing global efforts to protect the oceans, including the recent historic treaty signed by approximately 70 countries to safeguard the high seas.