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Analysis Takes Stock of Policies to Address Oceanic Plastic Pollution
By Jeremy Ashton
Each year, millions of tons of plastic are estimated to flow out to sea from points around the world, endangering marine life, threatening food chains, and polluting shorelines. While that scale of the problem is certainly sobering, public opinion has recently been galvanized in many countries by images and videos of animals that have been tangled up in or eaten plastic.
Awareness has grown that everyone has a role in addressing the problem—from companies that make plastic products to the consumers who buy them. In particular, it is difficult to envisage solutions without action from governments, by virtue of their regulatory powers.
For this reason, researchers from Duke University’s Nicholas Institute for Environmental Policy Solutions and the Nicholas School of the Environment set out to determine how governments around the world are responding to the problem. Their search led them to compile and analyze an inventory of nearly 300 policies instituted between 2000 and mid-2019 to address plastic pollution.
– John Virdin, Nicholas Institute for Environmental Policy Solutions
"At the international and national level, we think this is probably the most detailed attempt to date to measure what governments are doing in response to plastic pollution, though admittedly incomplete," said co-lead investigator John Virdin, director of the Ocean and Coastal Policy Program at the Nicholas Institute for Environmental Policy Solutions. “The next step would be to try to work with modelers and others to estimate how much of an effect these observed government responses will have on the problem.”
Creating A Roadmap for Reducing the Flow
The Duke analysis was funded by The Pew Charitable Trusts as part of its Preventing Ocean Plastics project. Seeking to build on the growing public momentum for action, Pew pledged to work with governments, industry, scientists, and nongovernmental organizations to create a roadmap for significantly reducing the flow of plastics into the world’s oceans by 2040.
To inform that roadmap, Pew commissioned two reports:
- An economic analysis on plastic production to assess the costs and mitigation potential of various scenarios for preventing the flow of plastic into the ocean
- A review of regulatory actions taken at the local, national, and international levels
For the latter, Pew connected with Duke through Steve Roady, a Nicholas Institute faculty fellow and professor at Duke Law School. Roady was part of another Nicholas Institute team that conducted a similar analysis for the United Nations Environment Programme on international policies to protect coral reefs. That culminated in a report presented at the fourth session of the U.N. Environment Assembly in March 2019.
The plastics policy analysis was led by Virdin, who also headed up the coral reef report, and Amy Pickle, director of the State Policy Program at the Nicholas Institute for Environmental Policy Solutions. Rachel Karasik and Tibor Vegh, two Nicholas Institute policy associates, were instrumental in developing and carrying out the research plan for the coral reef policy analysis that would be applied to plastics.
In assembling the research team, Virdin and Pickle also tapped into the wealth of knowledge on marine plastic pollution at the Nicholas School of the Environment and the Duke Marine Lab.
The team benefited from the expertise of Daniel Rittschof, Norman L. Christensen Distinguished Professor of Environmental Sciences in the Nicholas School of the Environment. Rittschof’s research has long focused on the effects of polymers and plastics on marine organisms.
Zoie Diana, a Ph.D. student in the Nicholas School’s Marine Science and Conservation Department, also became involved in the project after working as a teaching assistant for Roady’s class on ocean and coastal law. Diana works with Rittschof on studying the toxicological effects of plastic pollution, but she is keenly interested in looking forward to policy solutions.
“Obviously, we already have a lot of plastic in the environment out there,” Diana said. “What are the ways that policy can help us to manage this plastic, to produce it more responsibly, and to dispose of it in more responsible manners?”
A Clear Upward Trend with Gaps to be Filled
While the coral reef report focused on international agreements and treaties, the plastic policy analysis cast a much wider net, also pulling in policies from the national, state, and even local levels. Policies identified ranged in scope from a U.N. Environment Assembly resolution encouraging member countries to address the environmental impacts of single-use plastics to a plastic bag ban implemented in 2007 in Leaf Rapids, Manitoba, Canada (population: 582).
Analysis of the policies showed a clear upward trend in government responses to plastic pollution at all levels, particularly over the last decade.
“That is evidence of increasing awareness of the problem and perhaps also the increasing physical evidence that citizens are seeing across the globe of the actual plastic pollution on their beaches and in their waters,” Pickle said.
The rise in the sheer number of policy responses was largely driven by attempts to regulate plastic shopping bags and, to a lesser extent, bottles. Different regulatory approaches generally broke down along geographic and socioeconomic lines—lower-income countries and the “global south” were more likely to opt for bans, while wealthier countries tended to favor taxes, levies, or fees.
During the nearly 20-year analysis period, national governments instituted some type of policy addressing plastic bags in more than 40 countries—including China and India—covering a cumulative population of 3.7 billion people.
The focus on plastic bags is certainly a step in the right direction, but Pickle said it may not sync up well with the lifecycle of plastics and leaves out other types of plastics that are ending up in the world's oceans.
“While you see this increasing amount of policy effort that governments at all levels across the planet are putting in, there are gaps in geographies, types of regulatory instruments, and across the plastic lifecycle,” she said.
One of the biggest pieces missing in the regulatory landscape is a lack of measures to address microplastics, such as clothing fibers or from tire abrasion. National policies aimed at microplastics are a recent phenomenon largely concentrated in Europe or North America. The inventory includes just nine national policies targeting microplastics, all but one introduced in the last five years.
While not as visually obvious as plastic bags, Rittschof knows well from research in the field how microplastics threaten marine ecosystems and create a food security issue for people. For example, Rittschof cited a 2018 study led by Chinese researcher Heng-Xiang Li that found oysters contained significantly higher levels of microplastics, particularly clothing fibers, in urban areas of the Pearl River Delta compared to rural areas. More than 60 million people live in that area of China.
– Daniel Rittschof, Nicholas School of the Environment
"All the plastic that’s outside in the environment—even if it doesn’t show up in the ocean—is delivering chemicals to the ocean because it’s getting rained on," he said. "Think about an automobile, think about polyvinyl chloride siding, think about fences, think about all the clothing. Everywhere you look, there’s plastic."
The analysis also highlighted significant potential geographic gaps in government responses. Among the top 20 biggest plastic polluters according to one model, seven have no national policy document in the inventory, and another four had policies related only to plastic bags. As Virdin was quick to note, policies may actually exist in those countries but could have been missed because searches for the inventory were limited to certain languages.
Have Governments Efforts Worked?
While governments are increasingly responding to at least some types of plastic pollution, another question remains: Have those efforts worked? To try to find an answer, the research team searched the scientific literature for studies on the effectiveness of plastic pollution policies.
The bulk of the studies focused on regulatory efforts to curb single-use plastic bags, a natural result of the prevalence of those policies. The literature review showed that the policies consistently led to significant net reductions in plastic bag use—typically between 40 percent and 60 percent. They often came with unintended consequences, though, such as shifting demand to other types of non-reusable bags.
Most experts that the research team read suggested these policies tend to work better when packaged with public awareness or educational campaigns that clearly explain the need for action. However, few governments appear to be taking that additional step.
“Most of the studies we reviewed evaluated the effectiveness of plastic bag fees, taxes, and bans,” Diana said. “But bags are only one type of plastic. Many of our clothes, household items, packaging, and so many other objects are made of plastic, all of which produce microplastics and nanoplastics.”
Ultimately, the literature review found that there is still a lot to be learned about how well these regulations work. Fewer than 10 percent of the national policies in the analysis have been studied for their effectiveness. On average, the lag time between when a policy was introduced and when a study was published about it was six and a half years, a timeframe that excludes a large portion of the policies that were in the analysis.
“Any way you want to assess effectiveness, we can’t yet tell the world what's the right policy in the right place at the right point in time in the plastic life cycle,” Pickle said.
In Virdin’s eyes, that may be where this project can make its biggest contribution.
Working with Nicholas Institute web administrator Josh Wilson, the research team made the entire inventory of policy documents accessible through a searchable database. The database can serve as a resource for policy makers and other researchers to explore how governments are responding to different types of plastic pollution in different contexts. It is also intended to be dynamic, allowing for the addition of new policies as they are implemented or existing ones as they are discovered.
“The U.N. Environment Assembly has said that they would like to see a global monitoring of responses at all levels to this problem and progress in addressing it,” Virdin said. “This provides a tool for the U.N. to more systematically track how governments are responding.”
The Path Ahead
In July, Pew joined with SYSTEMIQ to publish “Breaking the Plastic Wave,” its roadmap for reducing plastic pollution.
The report used a “first-of-its-kind economic model” to compare the quantity of oceanic plastic pollution between 2016 and 2040 under six scenarios. Under the current trajectory, the model found that the amount of plastic entering the world’s oceans would nearly triple to 29 million metric tons per year without “immediate and sustained action.” The report, however, concluded that technology and solutions readily available today could reduce the flow of plastic into the ocean by more than 80 percent annually.
– Tom Dillon, The Pew Charitable Trusts
"There’s no single solution to ocean plastic pollution, but through rapid and concerted action we can break the plastic wave,” said Tom Dillon, Pew’s vice president for environment, following the release of the report. “As this report shows, we can invest in a future of reduced waste, better health outcomes, greater job creation, and a cleaner and more resilient environment for both people and nature.”
Back at Duke, work on the analysis brought out the breadth of research being conducted on plastic pollution across the university. A Catalyst Program grant awarded by the Nicholas Institute for the 2020–2021 fiscal year seeks to create a Plastic Pollution Working Group that would bring together an interdisciplinary group of faculty and students to foster community and develop research projects that contribute to solutions. A website is also in the works to highlight what Duke researchers are doing and speakers that they are bringing to Duke.
For the team that conducted the policy analysis, future areas of study are already underway. As Virdin and Pickle both pointed out, the analysis focused specifically on government action, but there are other ways of addressing plastic pollution. With that in mind, the team has begun a similar effort to track how large companies are responding to the problem.
Meanwhile, a project at Duke Kunshan University is taking the methodology from the global analysis and applying it to a review of Chinese government policies at the national, provincial, and local levels. Kathinka Fürst, associate director of DKU’s Environmental Research Center and a Nicholas Institute faculty fellow, is leading the team of student researchers on the project.
“China is undoubtedly a pivotal driver in the global plastic pandemic, but the country also could hold important keys to addressing it,” Fürst said. “China is stepping up restrictions on the production, sale and use of single-use plastic products, and throughout the country we’re seeing new and innovative policies and technological advancements to mitigate the plastic pandemic.”
As with virtually everything else in 2020, COVID-19 is shaping the world’s plastic pollution reduction efforts. The pandemic has led many governments—particularly at the local level in the United States—to “push the pause button” on plastic reduction efforts, wrote Virdin, Pickle, Diana, and Michelle Nowlin, co-director of the Duke Environmental Law and Policy Clinic, in a July piece for the Nicholas Institute’s “Policy in the Pandemic” email series. That appears to have been borne largely out of an ongoing public health debate about the risk of transmission of the novel coronavirus from surface materials.
“As new information on COVID-19 transmission emerges and the pandemic passes, we would expect local government responses in the U.S. to change,” the quartet wrote. “U.S. municipalities have the opportunity to reassess risk and refine best practices for preventing COVID-19 and reducing the use of single-use plastic bags.”
Work on this project was funded by The Pew Charitable Trusts.