Many metrics exist to demonstrate the huge issue of plastic wastes. It is calculated that between 4.8 and 12.7 million metric tonnes of plastic wastes flowed into the oceans from coastal regions in 2010, which is only expected to have increased since then.1 There are myriad reasons to evidence why this is hugely problematic, including that plastic waste ends up in our food chains and is ingested by us. The overall human health implications are not yet fully understood, though the evidence so far suggests that it does have harmful effects.2 Moreover, plastic waste has huge economic costs. Estimates include the cost of environmental damage to marine ecosystems by plastic waste at around USD 13 billion; costs to local tourism, fishing and shipping industries at USD 1.3 billion in the Asia-Pacific Oceans; and annual costs for coastal and beach cleaning in Europe up to EUR 630 million.3
The plastic waste crises, therefore, requires effective governance. A range of legal mechanisms exist at local to international levels – from bans of certain plastic products to plastic bag charges to producer responsibility to product design. For example, plastic bags were first banned in Rwanda in 2008 pursuant to Law No 57/2008 of 10/09/2008 relating to the prohibition of manufacturing, importation, use and sale of polythene bags. This law has since been repealed and replaced to extend the ban to single use plastics (Law No 17/2019 of 10/08/2019 relating to the prohibition of manufacturing, importation, use and sale of plastic carry bags and single-use plastic items).
At international level, the Basel Convention, which governs the classification and transboundary movement of waste, has adopted a number of measures on plastic wastes, including to emphasise the role the Basel Convention can play in addressing plastic waste and to encourage Parties to prevent and minimise the generation of plastic waste. There are calls for countries to take their commitment a step further: there are calls for an international agreement on plastic waste pollution with an overall objective of achieving circular plastic economies (in recognition that it will not be possible, and not necessarily desirable, to completely stop the use of plastics). In circular plastic economies, plastic wastes are prevented or alternatively, where plastic waste is produced, it is reused, recycled or recovered in order to achieve sustainable development.
The development of an international treaty on plastic wastes poses many challenges, including those related to harmonising regulatory standards, formulating common definitions on a wide range of plastics, and establishing reporting metrics and methodologies.4 There are also questions of whether an international treaty is most appropriate. Circular economies often exist at lower levels (and arguably local circular economies have more environmental benefits as a result of, for example, decreased transport requirements). An international agreement would therefore need to strike the delicate balance of ensuring there is sufficient guidance and substance to make it useful and necessary, while not restricting the flexibility required at local levels to ensure circular economies adopted reflect the local contexts, protect the environment, and are just and equitable.
Many other questions still remain. This post has only scratched the surface and has addressed just some of the challenges in relation to one particular governance level. I am therefore currently co-editing a Special Issue of Social Sciences on ‘The Governance of Plastics’ together with Professor Rosalind Malcolm, Director of Environmental Regulatory Research Group at the University of Surrey. This Special Issue aims to further explore issues in relation to the development of a circular plastics economy. We welcome papers on, for example: legal mechanisms governing plastics and plastic products; regulatory opportunities and challenges for fostering circular plastics economies; and corporate governance for a circular plastics economy. Please find further information in the call for papers here or contact me with any questions.
You can find out more about Katrien’s research through her Pure profile, which sets out her research interests, publications, and contact details. You can also find out more about Coventry University’s research through our dedicated research pages.
- Jemma R Jambeck, Roland Geyer, Chris Wilcox, Theodore R Siegler, Miriam Perryman, Anthony Andrady, Ramani Narayan and Kara Lavender Law, ‘Plastic Waste Inputs from Land into the Ocean’ (2015) 347(6223) Science 768, 770.
- Lisbeth Van Cauwenberghe and Colin R Janssen, ‘Microplastics in Bivalves Cultured for Human Consumption’ (2014) 193 Environmental Pollution 65; P Schwabl and others, ‘Assessment of Microplastic Concentrations in Human Stool – Preliminary Results of a Prospective Study’ (UEG Week 2018, Vienna, 24 October, 2018).
- UNEP, Valuing Plastics: The Business Case for Measuring, Managing and Disclosing Plastic Use in Consumer Goods Industry (UNEP 2014) 12; A McIlgorm, HF Campbell and MJ Rule, ‘Understanding the Economic Benefits and Costs of Controlling Marine Debris in the APEC Region (MRC 02/2007)’ (2007) Report to the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation Marine Resource Conservation Working Group by the National Marine Science Centre (University of New England and Southern Cross University), 11-12 <www.nowpap.org/data/ML%20ref/APEC%27ML-control…Cost-vs-Benefit.pdf>; European Commission, ‘Our Oceans, Seas and Coasts – Descriptor 10: Marine Litter’ (European Commission, 2018) <http://ec.europa.eu/environment/marine/good-environmental-status/descriptor-10/index_en.htm>.
- Jesper Nielsen, Shalini Unnikrishnan, Adrien Portfaix and Eden Cottee-Jones, ‘We need a global agreement to address plastic pollution’ (9 October 2020) <www.bcg.com/en-gb/publications/2020/global-agreement-to-address-plastic-pollution> accessed 16 February 2021.