Marine plastics pollution is a global problem, so will it require a stronger global solution like some sort of tax on plastics to pay to clean up waste in developing countries?
That provocative idea was on the table at a high-level United Nations meeting on plastic marine litter and microplastic pollution Dec. 3-7 in Geneva.
The main purpose of the gathering was to examine whether the world needs a new global treaty for managing plastic waste, a sort of Paris Climate Agreement or Montreal Protocol for polymers that could put binding requirements on countries.
The group's recommendations will feed directly into the next meeting of the United Nations Environment Assembly, slated for March in Kenya.
Most of the push for global funding seemed to come from environmental groups like the World Wildlife Fund. But governments from Norway to Indonesia, while deferring on thorny questions of how to finance, were pushing for stronger action from governments.
The plastics division of the American Chemistry Council had a representative to the five days of discussions and its senior executive said that even though different viewpoints were aired, there was broad agreement new approaches were needed, even if it was hard to agree on what that would be.
“We have reached an inflection point where there is rapidly growing awareness and commitment to action on the need to prioritise waste management around the world, in particular in emerging economies,” said Steve Russell, vice president of the plastics division for the American Chemistry Council.
“I think there's also growing recognition that ‘business-as-usual' is unlikely to be our way forward, whether it's disruptive technology or financing mechanisms or advances in different systems to create value from waste,” Russell said. “There is now collective resolve.”
In a report prepared for the meeting, the World Wildlife Fund called for fees on plastic products and new, legally binding treaties.
“The plastic production industry makes annual revenues of $700 billion, and one option could be to introduce levies on plastic products,” the WWF report said. “This would create a win-win situation as such a levy could be designed to reduce unnecessary consumption, stimulate use of recycled content and recollection, in addition to generate the necessary funds to feed a trust fund and to invest into waste management systems.”
At the last UN Environment Assembly in late 2017, Norway said it wanted to explore binding legal treaties, and it said current global rules have too many gaps for regulating plastic, allowing too much debris to slip into the oceans.
Not all governments were in favor of new treaties. In an official statement, Indonesia — generally considered the second-largest source of plastics waste in the ocean after China — said it's “uneasy” with a legally binding treaty.
It said it could take a long time to overcome technical and political hurdles to such a treaty. But still, the government in Jakarta urged much stronger action.
It favored much more international cooperation and said within its borders, it's getting ready to tax plastic bags and introduce extended producer responsibility around packaging. It wants society to focus on “avoiding unnecessary use of plastic products.”
It said developing countries need financial help building waste management systems.
The meeting was well attended by the plastics industry. Besides ACC, representatives from the PlasticsEurope trade group and from the industry in Malaysia and South Africa attended.
An official statement from the industry, endorsed by ACC, cautioned participants against rushing to replace plastics with packaging materials that can have several times the environmental footprint of plastics, doing unintended harm. It said that companies are working on new technology like breaking polymers into monomers for recycling.
Still, the industry statement said plastics companies recognise changes are needed in how plastic waste is handled: “We agree that the status quo is not an option.”
There are other funding ideas floating around. One academic at Trent Nottingham University in England, for example, has said the fee oil companies pay to clean up spills would be a good model for setting fees on plastics to fund waste cleanups.
Some environmental groups told the gathering that the world should look at producing less plastic, arguing that even much better waste management will not be able to capture enough of the huge increase in plastic production expected.