Regulation: Solutions at the wrong end

Plastic Atlas

There is no lack of agreements and initiatives to manage the plastic crisis. But almost all address waste disposal only; they are not coordinated with each other, and they absolve manufacturers of their responsibilities.

Approaches exist at various levels to regulate plastic production and the handling of the resulting waste at the end of the product’s useful life. But all these approaches have something in common: they are of limited effectiveness. That is partly because the large number of binding international agreements and voluntary initiatives have been developed independently and have not been coordinated with each other. It is also because most current agreements reduce the plastics problem to one of waste. That prevents them from dealing with the full implications of using plastics.

Examples abound. The International Convention for the Prevention of Pollution from Ships (MARPOL) was signed in the 1970s to prevent the littering of the oceans. The 1982 United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) also regulates the dumping of waste at sea. Then there are currently 18 different conventions covering 12 regional seas: some of these refer to marine sources of plastic waste, some focus on land-based sources, and some are concerned with both. Another treaty, the Stockholm Convention on Persistent Organic Pollutants, prohibits the use of certain harmful chemicals in plastics, such as plasticizers. Some international conventions are ambitious, but all are so narrowly drawn that they fail to be fully effective.

Germany and Denmark introduced taxes on plastic bags in the early 1990s. Since 2004, developing countries have introduced more restrictions.

More recent agreements attempt to take a holistic approach to marine litter. The language used in the action plans of the G7 and G20 on marine pollution and garbage, and a resolution of the Third Session of the UN Environment Assembly (UNEA-3) in December 2017, at least give the impression that there is a lot of pressure to act. But none of these agreements are binding on their signatory member states. 

But progress is being made, albeit slowly. As agreed upon at UNEA-4 in March 2019, an expert group is now developing options for action based on the UNEA resolution. That might possibly lead to a binding international convention on plastics. This would anchor global reduction targets in international law, and states would have to take responsibility for not doing enough to reach these targets.

Meanwhile, in May 2019 the parties to the Basel Convention on the Control of Transboundary Movements of Hazardous Wastes and their Disposal adopted stricter regulations on plastic waste. A new classification aims to ensure that dangerous and contaminated plastic waste can be shipped only with the consent of both the importing and the exporting countries. This will make it more difficult to dispose of plastic waste in countries that have laxer environmental standards.

In January 2018, the European Commission proposed a strategy that identifies three key problem areas. First, the low levels of recycling and reutilization rates. Second, the entry of plastics into the environment; and third, the carbon dioxide emitted during the production of plastics. A central aim of this strategy is for all plastic packaging to be 100 percent recyclable by 2030. In December 2018, the European Council, Parliament and Commission, the three main decision-making bodies in the EU, initiated a ban on various single-use plastic articles, including straws and cutlery. They also agreed a series of other measures, such as a quota of 25 percent recycled material in PET bottles from 2025 on. Avoiding single-use plastic items is of special importance. Along with the USA, Japan and China, the European Union is one of the world’s biggest producers of plastic waste.

At the national level, approaches have long been limited to the question of how to collect and recycle plastic waste. The concept of “extended producer responsibility” refers mainly to this. Since 1991, packaging producers in Germany have had to pay for the removal and recycling of packaging waste as part of a waste separation scheme known as the “Grüne Punkt”, or “Green Dot”. A symbol printed on each item of plastic packaging tells the consumer whether it can be recycled.

Increasing numbers of countries are trying to reduce the use of items such as plastic bags by imposing rules and bans. But most such rules are very narrowly defined. They either stipulate the thickness of the material the bag is made of — so only certain types of bags are banned — or they impose levies on bags. More comprehensive bans on plastic bags are to be found only in the global south, where the pressure on governments to do something is particularly high because plastic bags clog up drainage canals — as happens frequently in India and Bangladesh. But if cheap and viable alternatives do not exist, there is a danger that a black market for plastic bags will develop.

Missing content item.

Various countries have attempted to regulate the inclusion of microplastics in cosmetics and the use of disposable plastic items such as polystyrene boxes and plastic cutlery. A few pioneers, such as Costa Rica and India, are striving for a general ban on disposable plastics. But all these approaches do nothing to tackle the basic problem. Almost all the regulations are targeted at the waste disposal end of the chain, and put the onus on the consumer. Very few binding rules exist to force producers to cut back their production of plastic items or to develop products that can be recycled more easily. And current regulations fail to cover a large part of the plastics, or microplastics, that gets into the environment. The abrasion of automobile tires is an example: according to estimates, it accounts for around one-third of all microplastic emissions in Germany.

This is a chapter from the Plastic Atlas 2019