Countries that are revitalizing economies have rare opportunities to solve the plastic pollution of the oceans
As governments, societies, and industries work to resume their pre-pandemic lives, they rarely stand a chance of finding new solutions to long-standing challenges. One such problem is plastic pollution of the oceans, which is the result of decades of persistent pouring of products, packaging, and other materials into our marine environment. Plastic pollution permeates our ocean and will threaten wildlife, health and livelihoods for generations to come.
Now elected and business leaders around the world can rebuild economies that produce far less plastic waste while creating new jobs and ensuring a cleaner, healthier and more resilient natural environment.
A new report from a team of researchers at Duke University can help. The report, funded by the Pew Charitable Trusts, “Twenty Years of Government Responses to the Global Plastic Pollution Problem: The Plastic Policy Inventory,” summarized guidelines on plastic pollution in the oceans around the world and was used by governments to educate governments about the substance and pollution become direction of politics. This analysis also offers cautious reasons for hope: Over the past two decades, there has been a steady increase in the number of measures at global, regional, national and municipal levels to reduce the amount of plastic entering the ocean.
For example, since 2000, governments have agreed on 28 global measures to curb plastic pollution – a number that is steadily increasing. On the other hand, many of these guidelines are voluntary, although scientists have consistently called for a binding global treaty.
At the regional level there is a similar upward trend in the number of policies, particularly in Europe. Almost 62% of the regional policies reviewed by the Duke team were European, with almost half from the Mediterranean region. Most of these directives are bans, taxes and other measures that focus on single-use plastics, mainly plastic bags.
At the national level, researchers observed the same trend – a growing number of regulations banning or charging plastic carrier bags that had been enacted over the past two decades. These measures have been implemented in at least 43 countries around the world, with more than half of the measures coming from sub-Saharan Africa.
But much more needs to be done to solve the ocean plastic problem, and soon. The production and consumption of plastic – and the already large flow of plastic into our ocean – are expected to continue to increase in the coming years.
New guidelines should address several stages in the life cycle of plastic products and cover the various sources of plastic waste, including microplastics. Here, too, there is reason for hope: The Duke team found that guidelines for multiple phases of the plastic product life cycle increased from just 25% in 2000 to 2005 to 59% in 2018.
Duke’s Plastics Policy Inventory is a complement to Pew’s forthcoming report, prepared in partnership with SYSTEMIQ, the University of Oxford, the University of Leeds, the Ellen MacArthur Foundation and Common Seas, that provides possible solutions to the assembly problem. This report aims to provide information on government and industry actions to address the plastic pollution challenge. It will also carry the important message that cooperation between countries can significantly reduce the amount of plastic entering the ocean.
Policy makers, business and civil society should take this golden opportunity to reset the global economy so that humankind can generate less waste, reuse and recycle more materials, and gradually eliminate avoidable plastics that cannot be reused or recycled.
Winnie Lau is a senior officer and Sarah Baulch is a senior associate on The Pew Charitable Trusts’ ocean plastic prevention project.