Help for a Plastic Planet: New Report Focuses on Solutions to Global Plastic Pollution

In the most remote places on Earth with few or no humans present... (o)ne can find substantial quantities of plastic debris.

These discouraging words introduce a new report from an international scientific and technical advisory panel entitled "Marine Debris as a Global Environmental Problem: Introducing a Solutions Based Framework Focused on Plastic." But the report is encouraging for several reasons. First, the report clearly identifies the problem so it can be the focus of solutions: the problem is plastic:

Man-made debris in the oceans is now found from the poles to the equator and from shorelines, estuaries and the sea surface to ocean floor. While the types and absolute quantities vary, it is clear that plastic materials represent the major constituents of this debris, and there is no doubt about the ubiquity of such debris on a truly global scale.

Many conferences and documents on the subject of "Marine Debris," especially those funded by industry, have been evasive about plastic: the single most destructive and overwhelmingly most common substance of concern in the waste material that washes from our shores to oceans and back onto shores around the globe. The significance of plastics being singled out as the main source of marine debris around the globe is that plastic production continues to increase at a rate of about 9 percent annually and the waste from it is cumulative: "Since most plastic items will not biodegrade in the environment it seems inevitable that quantities of debris will increase over time..." (Andrady 2011). 

The second reason for hope is that the report offers real solutions, and a methodology to choose them, in addition to an excellent scientific accounting of the many threats posed by plastic pollution to the environment, wildlife, humans and our economies. The solutions specified in the report take account of the fact that the vast majority of communities around the globe are not able to manage non-biodegradable plastic waste because there is no plastic recycling infrastructure or market, and the volume of plastic waste overwhelms landfill capacity. Furthermore, the report acknowledges that plastics are produced and marketed around the globe by corporations that must take part in effective management of the resulting plastic waste. United Nations Under-Secretary-General and UNEP Executive Director Achim Steiner is quoted in the report with a message he delivered to the 5th International Marine Debris Conference in 2011:

Marine debris -- trash in our oceans -- is a symptom of our throw-away society and our approach to how we use our natural resources. It affects every country and every ocean and shows us in highly visible terms the urgency of shifting towards a low carbon, resource efficient Green Economy... However, one community or one country acting in isolation will not be the answer. We need to address marine debris collectively across national boundaries and with the private sector, which has a critical role to play both in reducing the kinds of wastes that can end up in the world's oceans, and through research into new materials. It is by bringing all these players together that we can truly make a difference.

Significantly, the report focuses on pre-consumer solutions that have been largely ignored in the governmental discourse on marine plastic pollution to date. The report states:

Current awareness and implementation of best practices in addressing the causes of marine debris are primarily centered on end-of-pipe solutions. However, a substantial, but relatively neglected, underlying cause that results in plastic debris entering the sea from the land lies within unsustainable production and consumption patterns. This includes the design and marketing of products internationally without appropriate regard for their environmental fate or ability to be recycled in the locations where sold, inadequate waste management infrastructure, and inappropriate disposal. Often there is geographical separation between production in relatively developed economies and consumption/disposal which is global. From a life-cycle perspective, the current linear use of most plastics from production, through a typically short-lived usage stage to disposal, is a major barrier as well as a major opportunity to tackling the challenge of marine debris.

The report recommends the following itemized strategies be implemented to choose solutions on a regional basis, taking into account the types of plastic waste accumulating in the specific region and regional capacity to manage the waste:

1. An appropriate starting point is to identify a specific problem in terms of the types of marine debris of concern (e.g., consumer waste, industrial waste, and packaging), including volumes and flows. It is essential that this evidence base considers all stages in the supply chain relating to the item(s) of debris: e.g. where and in what quantities are they made, for what purpose, how best to achieve their primary purpose, what is the lifespan and what are the local options at the end-of-life. This effort should be based on the perspectives and priorities of those in the affected region. 

2. The next step is to bring together the key players in the supply chain, and organize an evidence-based dialogue aiming at the identification of ways to reduce the accumulation of debris. This could be a reduction in production of the waste, a reduction in the need for the material that becomes waste, and/or a better approach to dealing with end-of-life material in order to prevent it from accumulating. It is worthwhile establishing what can be done straight away together with any potential gaps in the evidence base requiring research and development and time needed to address such gaps. 

3. The next step would be to facilitate the most desirable immediate and long-term options via a range of implementation strategies such as public awareness, development incentives and regulation.

4. Finally, it is crucial to measure success via monitoring of both changes in the scale of the marine debris problem identified at the outset, and assessment of the effectiveness of the individual implementation strategies and action plans. Raising awareness is a cross-cutting activity that will facilitate the development and implementation of all elements of the framework.

Key Pre-Consumer methods of reducing plastic pollution, identified in the report, that can be integrated into regional solutions include:

1. Molecular redesign of plastics through "green" chemistry incorporated into the production of goods and packaging so that they will be safer to use and less harmful to the environment when they become waste. In this context, the design of products ensures they are (i) fully effective; (ii) have little or no toxicity or endocrine disrupting activity; (iii) break down into innocuous substances if released into the environment after use; and/or (iv) are based upon renewable feedstock, such as agricultural wastes. 

2. Design criteria to develop new polymers and products including specifications to enhance reusability, recyclability or recovery of plastic once it has been used; and

3. Extended Producer Responsibility (EPR) to help redistribute the burden of handling end-of-life plastic from governments and individuals who may be impacted by the waste, to producers whose interests would then be aligned with those of the region. Under an EPR approach, producers have the responsibility to bear the costs of managing their waste products. This in turn incentivizes innovation to find ways to reduce the amount of plastic packaging used, as well as to ensure it is properly recovered when the product has reached the end of its useful life. In an EPR oriented system, the costs of running programs and building new infrastructure, including recycling and other waste management facilities, are redistributed away from national governments. EPR allows for design flexibility--bounded by clear performance standards-- so innovative companies rather than those that push costs off onto regional governments can succeed in the marketplace, and programs can be tailored to the governance, capacity, and institutional realities of any given nation.

Finally, the report offers a pragmatic approach to combating an environmental crisis even as research continues. After listing several knowledge gaps that call for increased study, the report cautions that lack of a complete accounting of every impact and/or methodology to control plastic pollution should not be used to delay immediate efforts to halt the accumulation of plastic pollution in our environment. "The authors believe that sufficient empirical knowledge exists to support progress on this issue now. The knowledge gaps outlined...should be considered as means of refining actions, rather than defining or delaying them." It is only with this type of rational approach to environmental protection that we can hope to make significant and timely reductions in any of the pollutants threatening our environment, from plastic pollution to the carbon that is warming our planet, so that we can avert disaster before all systems are overwhelmed.

Marine Debris as a Global Environmental Problem: Introducing a solutions based framework focused on plastic was prepared on behalf of the Scientific and Technical Advisory Panel (STAP) of the Global Environmental Facility (GEF) by Richard C. Thompson (University of Plymouth, United Kingdom), Bruce E. La Belle (California Environmental Protection Agency, United States), Hindrik Bouwman (STAP, North-West University, South Africa), and Lev Neretin (STAP).

The authors of the report give thanks for input from experts in the field including the United Nations Environmental Programme, Natural Resources Defense Council and Plastic Pollution Coalition.

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