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Priorities for further innovation, research and data

Even after the implementation of the policies in the Global Rules Scenario, 13 Mt of plastic would end mismanaged annually by 2040, requiring further research, data gathering and monitoring, and innovation – starting immediately.

It is assumed that the policies proposed in the Global Rules Scenario would be applied concurrently across all geographies. However, the Global Rules Scenario is limited by technological, economic and behavioural constraints; and by 2040, 13 Mt of plastic would still end up mismanaged, out of which it is estimated that 4 Mt would end up in dumpsites, 2 Mt would be burned in the open and 7 Mt would be released into land and water.
Of this 7 Mt of plastic volumes released into land and water, microplastics emissions would account for 5 Mt, with the remaining mismanaged plastic comprising a mix of macroplastics from all sectors. This section identifies areas for research, data gathering and innovation to bridge this gap and further mitigate the release of plastic volumes into the environment. The impact of these potential innovations has not been modelled, given the high levels of uncertainty.
Further research and innovation are needed to reduce microplastics emissions, scale reuse models, improve safe recycling, expand collection in rural areas, and develop and evaluate safe alternative materials.
Eliminate, or at least capture, all microplastics emissions (see Figure 15): As discussed, research, evidence and solutions to prevent microplastics emissions are currently lacking. Innovation is needed to improve the design of tyres, paints and textiles to minimise the release of microplastics without having to rely on more complex downstream solutions such as wastewater capture systems. Examples include further research and development of innovations such as adhesive or peelable paints – especially marine paints – to reduce wear and tear, and to control their removal and disposal; and new solutions to tyre abrasion, such as devices that capture tyre particles at source, low-wear tyres, stormwater road management and road sweeping, and standardised measurements of wear and tear to support better design requirements and thresholds.182 Other sources of microplastics emissions (eg, agricultural plastics, textiles during use) should also be investigated, to broaden our understanding of the field and develop policies and technical solutions to tackle these new sources.
Scale reuse models to further reduce plastic volumes (see Figure 7): Reuse models have the potential to reduce consumption and waste, but they lack scale. Private sector innovation to reduce costs and GHG emissions associated with reverse logistics, and to develop solutions that promote greater consumer take-up, would significantly enhance the adoption and success of these new models. Public incentives to promote this innovation would support the scaling of these models.
Improve sorting and recycling to expand recycling beyond the 43% global rate in the Global Rules Scenario (see Figure 12): Advances in sorting – including mixed waste sorting – could improve system yields through solutions such as sensors, tracking technologies, artificial intelligence recognition and automation, ensuring better sorting and recycling to complement improvements in design. Innovation could also be required for mechanical recyclers to expand sources of viable feedstock. For instance, there is currently a lack of closed-loop mechanical recycling systems for textiles, with chemical recycling emerging as a possible solution for textiles-to-textiles recycling.
Expand collection in rural areas to achieve collection rates of 95% or above (see Figure 11): While the establishment of waste collection systems may be viable in densely populated regions with support from financial mechanisms such as EPR schemes, extending such systems to low-density rural areas presents economic challenges, particularly in low and middle-income countries. Developing technologies and solutions to improve the economics of collection systems and to better integrate the informal sector into those systems would help to resolve an important challenge in the plastic system.
Develop and evaluate safe alternative materials to reduce plastic production and consumption and to increase circularity: New substitutes that are degradable and/or highly recyclable, while offering the same barrier properties, cost advantages and versatility as plastics, could reduce reliance on plastics in current applications. For example, materials could be developed to further replace multi-layer packaging, such as sachets. Areas for exploration could include highly recyclable fibre-based materials and seaweed-based materials. Similarly, research is needed on opportunities for the use of biodegradable plastics in agriculture, as well as in some relevant applications in fisheries and aquaculture. New substitutes should be developed only if their evaluation has confirmed that there is no risk of unintended consequences or negative impact (eg, on GHG emissions, land use, water use or human rights).
Beyond specific areas for innovation, further knowledge, research and data would be required.
Currently available data is limited and fragmented, requiring better data collection, transparency and accountability throughout the supply chain. In the context of stocks and flows, there is limited available data and transparency regarding plastics placed on markets, production, trade flows, consumption, waste generation and post-use patterns. There are a lack of field data measuring plastic stocks and flows throughout the value chain; and many parameters have high levels of uncertainty.
Available data is limited and fragmented, requiring better systems to monitor performance and develop solutions
Data on plastic use, stocks and flows is particularly lacking in relation to certain applications in sectors such as fisheries and aquaculture, textiles, transportation and agriculture. For example, data on fisheries and aquaculture gear losses and waste is limited and is mostly based on small samples; while no data was found on plastic use in the fast-growing seaweed sector.
FAO. (2022). The State of World Fisheries and Aquaculture.
Similarly, in the textiles sector, virtually no data was available on the fate of exported, unsold or returned items. Data is also lacking on the end-of-life fate of used vehicles exported to secondary markets. On plastic used in agriculture, limited data is available on potential impact of levers on consumption and design (eg, the thickness of mulching films) as well as waste generation. On microplastics, limited data on emissions from plastics and fertilisers in the agriculture sector; and on emissions from textiles during the use phase.
There is also a need to expand data and transparency in relation to plastic formulations, chemicals and additives, and their possible impact on human health and biodiversity. Private companies could be required to become more transparent and accountable in key areas – for example, by providing data on plastic composition and chemical formulations in products (including polymers, chemicals and additives used); and data inventories of plastic volumes produced, traded (eg, volumes of pellets mismanaged) and incorporated into products.
Finally, information on subsidies that benefit the plastic industry may also be needed, in order to inform fossil fuel subsidy reform.
Bauer, F., et al. (2023). Petrochemicals and climate change: Powerful fossil fuel lock-ins and interventions for transformative change.
Studies indicate that governments provide support to fossil-fuel production through grants or tax breaks in at least 45 countries;
OECD. (2023). Fossil fuel support data and Country Notes.
while government mediated loans and loan guarantees – as subsidy equivalents – add up to several tens of billions of dollars annually.
Steenblik R. (2020). Subsidies and Plastic Production - An Exploration.
As policy interventions are considered, scientific guidance to ensure effectiveness and the avoidance of unintended consequences would be required. Effective policies to tackle the challenges within the plastic system should be developed through equitable and inclusive processes involving diverse stakeholders and communities. Scientific guidance would be instrumental in ensuring that policy decisions are taken with the right context and understanding of the current evidence and data, as well as in identifying further areas for research and monitoring.
Examples of issues on which the scientific community could further support policy decisions include sustainable levels of production and consumption of primary plastic polymers needed to ensure alignment with the Paris Climate Agreement; the impact of plastic and micro/nano-plastics on human health and biodiversity; inventory, evaluation and risks of plastics and chemicals of concern; and economic analysis of the level and impact of virgin plastic fees and EPR fees to identify the right level of fee by country.
Data monitoring and reporting systems should also be required to evaluate performance and compliance once policy implementation begins. Systems that gather and track data from the public and private sectors would be critical in facilitating understanding, calibrating policies and identifying the most suitable solutions. Efforts should be made to develop a globally harmonised data monitoring and reporting mechanism, and to collaborate on capacity building and governance to support lower-income countries in developing and funding this mechanism.
Policy analysis would also be needed on health and toxicity to develop lists of substances that should be phased out and substances that can be classified as safe. As previously outlined in Box 2, many substances used in plastic production have been identified as of concern due to their possible impact on both human health and biodiversity across the plastic lifecycle. Moving forward, lists of problematic polymer applications and chemicals to phase out could be expanded; and criteria could be established for categorising specific classes of polymer applications and chemicals of concern as ‘safe’. Currently, information, data and transparency regarding chemicals of concern are lacking, with producers not disclosing the formulations and chemicals used in their processes. The lack of access to such information hinders sufficient risk assessment and control by regulators and health and safety authorities.
UNEP and Secretariat of the Basel, Rotterdam and Stockholm Conventions. (2023). Chemicals in plastics: a technical report.
Guidance from the scientific community would thus be needed to formulate the right approach to the phaseout of problematic plastics and additives, in addition to increased data availability, transparency and testing across the plastic value chain.
Scientific guidance would be required on further solutions and policies