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January: A Year In Preview
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A Year In Preview

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Beginning to Understand Plastics, Waste, and Policy.

by frank
January 7, 2019

The Plastic Pollution Emissions Working Group is made up of scientists, policy wonks, and conservationists. How do the professionals on this team work across disciplines?

We are all passionate about the issue of plastic pollution. For many of us, the reason we do science is because we want to contribute in some way, and working towards reducing the impacts of our waste on the natural world is a noble cause. In keeping the group relatively small we have been able to build strong. We recognise each other’s unique skills, and respect differing opinions and perspectives, and there are no overwhelming egos in the group, which creates a rich and productive environment to work in.

Being unbound by methodology allows you to meet a task where it’s needed most – do you think that government institutions have that freedom? Or are they bound by something that disallows real movement and solutions?

Governments make the rules, they have the capacity to create rapid change simply with the stroke of a pen. What inhibits this movement is political will, or lack thereof, but also the inherent pragmatism that needs to be acknowledge and appreciated in politics. What I want as an individual is different to what somebody else wants, and government agencies are bound by the balance of those often competing positions. For instance, some would argue that companies who produce plastic products should be made responsible for the end of life process to minimise environmental impacts, those companies however will argue that it is the consumer of that product who should dispose of it responsibly – our values are diverse, so how do governments come up with solutions that everyone is happy with? Is it even possible? Unfortunately, reaching a truly pragmatic policy is challenging, and the balance is generally decided by those with the loudest voices, which doesn’t always mean the best outcome for others.

You work to inform governments – do you see your information, data, research, and suggestions being implemented with enough passion and purpose?

We have only just started but the initial response is incredibly positive. We have had government representatives approach us willing to share data, and start a dialogue to ensure that we are going to provide information that is useful to them. We are trying to answer a very important question that will help governments decide how to write policies on plastic waste that are most effective while balancing other societal needs, the world recognises plastic pollution is a major issue, and there is a lot of hunger to find solutions.

Does this research leave you optimistic about the future of waste?

Plastic pollution is a problem created by people, which means we can solve it. It is an enormous challenge, but we have seen awareness around the issue and political interest in solving it grow incredible rapidly, even in the last few months. Governments are actively seeking answers about the best strategies they can take to reduce plastic emissions to the environment, because of the social and economic costs of pollution – that drive is what gives us optimism that we will see steps towards solutions on the issue.

Importantly, the grass-roots activity on the issue is the momentum behind the policy response, we can all be a part of the solution simply by how we choose to live our lives, which demonstrates to our leaders and the producers of plastic products that change is wanted and needed.

How much do you think policy factors into waste?

Policy is crucial in creating solutions to plastic waste. It would be a utopia where everyone was responsible for their own waste, but we don’t live in such a place. Some of us have the capacity to deal with our waste in an environmentally sound way, but there are many inequalities in the world and that means in many other situations basic needs are prioritised over environmentally sound waste management. Policy has a large role to play in righting those inequalities, at multiple levels of governance, from local to the international community.

For example, wealthy nations currently have no limitations on sending waste to developing economies, which often results in those countries being blamed for pollution because of inadequate waste management – this is waste colonialism.

Good policy can overcome those inequalities and improve not only waste management, but societal inequities.

Is it possible to change the discourse of plastics and waste from consumer responsibility (on the user to reduce, reuse, recycle, so to speak) to something top-down. Where consumers no longer have the choice?

The plastic pollution problem is so vast that we all have to take responsibility, as individuals and at the government level. This means that individuals, retailers, producers, and governments all need to contribute to solving the issue, which includes educational programs around reduce, reuse and recycle, as well as broad scale bans on unnecessary packing and plastic products, improved recycling capacity, and waste management infrastructure.

What are the largest barriers for carrying the work you do out of the “lab” and into larger practice?

We are only at the beginning of the project, so currently our biggest challenge is collating the data to run our model and produce robust outputs.

What is the most exciting policy you’re working on right now?

We are evaluating as many policies as we can get reasonable data on, waste is generally not a sexy or exciting subject! What we are excited about is the opportunity to use our research to help inform effective policies for reducing plastic pollution in diverse political contexts.

What is the most underutilized policy that already exists?

Environmental standards for plastic products, which includes things like requiring a product to be recyclable, but to also have reporting and enforcement that it is being done. For example, legislation could require that a company that produces soda in plastic bottles makes them out of recyclable PET, and that they have a system in place for collection, i.e., a container deposit scheme, and that the collected bottles are recycled at a rate of 95% or similar – and that this process has reporting standards. Placing requirements on the types of plastics produced will drive innovation and better environmental outcomes because it applies to all producers - making an even playing field, and if those changes are costly then it will drive innovation.

Which strategies for the reduction of plastic waste do you see working long term?

There is no one solution that will work long-term, it involves a multi-pronged and ambitious approach. The mechanisms to see drastic reductions would include; consumer reduction of plastic use for non-essential products, funding waste management collection and infrastructure in places limited in financial capacity, alternative feedstocks that are truly biodegradable, recycling with plans for plastics ‘downcycling’ (i.e., plastic is not infinitely recyclable in the same way that glass is because it loses the properties required for the original product type and can also sorb hazardous chemicals more readily making it unusable for consumer products), and cleaning up the environment.