Key findings from first-of-its-kind database of plastic pollution public policy

Every year, an estimated 4.8 to 12.7 million metric tons of mismanaged plastic waste enters the ocean. A growing body of evidence shows the environmental, economic, social and health challenges plastic pollution creates. It is one of the most pressing issues our planet faces.

Every year, an estimated 4.8 to 12.7 million metric tons of mismanaged plastic waste enters the ocean. A growing body of evidence shows the environmental, economic, social and health challenges plastic pollution creates. It is one of the most pressing issues our planet faces.

Governments have a critical role in addressing plastic pollution through implementing effective policies. Which is why, this week, we welcomed a key report led by Duke University – “20 Years of Government Responses to the Global Plastic Pollution Problem: The Plastics Policy Inventory.”

The report was funded by The Pew Charitable Trusts and Common Seas was proud to partner with Duke to help deliver it. The inventory synthesises ocean plastic pollution policies from around the world, providing a comprehensive database of public policy on plastic pollution management. This first-of-its-kind resource is vital for governments, advocates and other actors to inform the substance and direction of policymaking going forwards.

Key findings from the study

1. A third of the biggest polluters lack a plan

Duke’s findings reveal a clear upward trend in policies to address plastic pollution over the last decade. However, the research also uncovers that, among the top 20 biggest plastic polluters, seven have no national policy action plan. Another four countries only have policies to address plastic bags, which is indicative of a wider trend for government action to be limited to single item bans.

The analysis shows that by mid-2019, national governments had instituted some type of policy addressing plastic bag pollution in more than 40 countries—including China and India—covering a cumulative population of 3.7 billion people. This is an impressive figure, but the report clearly demonstrates the need for a more holistic, system-wide response to the issue, especially in those countries that still lack basic solid waste management.

2. Size matters: why microplastics fall through the policy gap

The inventory reveals important gaps in policy making to address microplastics, identifying just nine national policies aimed at microplastics. This is concerning: for example, Plastic Drawdown analysis has shown microplastic pollution, largely from car tyres and clothing fibres, makes the biggest contribution to marine plastic pollution in the UK.

3. The ‘right’ policy portfolio is the one that works

Crucially, the analysis shows that fewer than 10 percent of the policies in the inventory have been studied for their effectiveness – an important reminder that the number of policy documents is a crude indicator of the success of our global movement to end plastic pollution. The report discusses major limitations within policy design and implementation, which result in policies languishing on paper with minimal positive impact, or worse, creating unintended negative consequences, through the proliferation of inappropriate or hard-to-manage substitute materials, and the emergence of black market trade in single-use plastic.

How Common Seas supported this landmark study

Common Seas was delighted to partner with Duke and Pew Trusts to support this landmark study. Our Programme Director, Ben Jack, helped develop the methodology and review the findings, drawing from Common Seas’ Plastic Drawdown and its role enabling plastics policy development across the Commonwealth.

Common Seas works with governments to drive policies that change how we make, use and dispose of plastic. Plastic Drawdown is our modelling framework for developing effective policy interventions. The tool currently supports action in Greece, the Maldives and Indonesia. It also provides a framework to support the UK Government’s Commonwealth Clean Ocean Alliance – a £10m technical assistance programme to support Commonwealth Governments.

Plastic Drawdown works by mapping a region’s plastic waste flows - from consumption through to capture or pollution. Then, drawing on a global policy review, it visualises the impact of different interventions, which – in this case - provided a comprehensive bank of policies to help shape the inventory.

What next: insight must be paired with action

Going forward, governments require more support to develop and implement effective policy. We need to invest in self-sustaining circular solutions to replace single-use plastic, and public policy must be paired with public awareness and education to support behaviour change.

The Global Plastics Policy Inventory paves the way for the Pew Trusts’ forthcoming report, produced in partnership with SYSTEMIQ, Common Seas, the University of Oxford, the University of Leeds and the Ellen MacArthur Foundation. Due for release at end of this month, this report will answer important questions about how effective today’s commitments are likely to be in addressing the problem of plastic pollution. It will outline the key solutions needed and highlight that urgent action is required, from governments, business leaders and investors, if we are to solve plastic pollution crisis within a generation.

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