Policymakers, Researchers Get New Duke Tools to Tackle Plastics Crisis
A new library connects individual policies to studies of their effectiveness, while a pair of publications explore overarching trends and gender considerations in the policy landscape.
The Nicholas Institute for Energy, Environment & Sustainability at Duke University is expanding its suite of resources dedicated to plastics policy to inform decision-making anywhere from global treaty negotiations to local ordinances.
A team of Duke scholars and students today released their second annual brief detailing trends in plastics policy around the world. The brief is based on findings from the Nicholas Institute’s Plastics Policy Inventory, a searchable database of public policies introduced around the world since 2000 that aim to reduce plastic use and waste.
As of January, the number of policies in the inventory has reached nearly 900, a more than 50 percent increase over the last major update. Many of the newly catalogued policies were enacted in 2020 and 2021. That suggests the pace of plastic policymaking at the national level was not slowed by the COVID-19 pandemic as last year’s annual brief hypothesized.
“We continue to see a rise in the number of public policy documents passed or amended by governments that are intended to address plastic across its life cycle,” said Rachel Karasik, a senior policy associate at the Nicholas Institute who leads development and maintenance of the inventory. “While this is encouraging, the policy landscape continues to be fragmented and major sources of plastic that harm human and environmental health—particularly microplastics—continue to be under-targeted. Likewise, solutions that are drawing cross-sector enthusiasm and may have climate benefits, including plastic reduction and reuse, are not directly targeted or encouraged in public policies.”
– Rachel Karasik, Nicholas Institute for Energy, Environment & Sustainability
Tracking Plastics Policy Effectiveness
The annual brief also serves as an introduction for the Nicholas Institute’s new Plastics Policy Effectiveness Study Library. Developed with support from research librarians and experts, the library contains nearly 120 studies of policy effectiveness linked to more than 80 specific policy documents in the inventory.
“We are excited to host additional resources that can support a comprehensive understanding of the plastics policy landscape,” Karasik said. “The Effectiveness Study Library connects the community of practice with over two decades of published literature based on qualitative and quantitative evaluations of implemented policy.”
The brief notes that the effectiveness of plastics policies remains relatively understudied, although the volume of research has increased in recent years. Analysis of the literature found that the majority of effectiveness studies focus on how bans or fees result in changes in the use of plastic bags, which is the type of plastic most frequently targeted in national or subnational policies. Nearly every plastic bag ban or fee studied in the library resulted in a reduction in use—anywhere from 20 percent to more than 90 percent.
Other metrics to measure the effectiveness of a particular policy include public attitudes toward the policy, volume of postconsumer plastic waste, recycling and recovery rates and reusable bag use.
Policies in the inventory generally underuse instruments such as taxes, fees and levies and public campaigns and educational materials. Yet researchers, nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) and industry leaders often recommend these economic and information instruments as ways to boost effectiveness.
Analysis of the Effectiveness Study Library also found growing research regarding the unintended consequences of plastics policies, such as increased use of garbage bags after plastic bag bans or the development of black markets for prohibited items. Studies show those unintended consequences can often have disproportionate socioeconomic effects on vulnerable populations.
Accounting for Gender
Nicholas Institute experts and Duke students dug deeper into the effects of plastics policy on one particular group—women—in a second publication that accompanies the annual brief.
“There is a growing evidence base demonstrating the inequitable distribution of harmful impact of plastic on women’s health, safety, income and employment and wellbeing,” Karasik said. “It is important to understand how the implementation of interventions to address plastic are alleviating or exacerbating these inequities.”
A search of the inventory identified only 25 policies that explicitly consider gender. Most focus on more formally incorporating women into the waste management sector or easing the burden of plastic bag fees on low-income women. None address health risks, such as pregnancy complications, that women face from chemical exposure during the plastics life cycle.
In addition to searching the inventory, the authors interviewed nearly a dozen experts working at the intersection of gender, plastics policy and solid waste management. Key recommendations from those discussions included:
- Supporting research to clarify the gender-differentiated impacts of plastic across its life cycle.
- Intentionally including women and women’s interests in policy design.
- Phasing out chemical additives that harm women’s and fetal health.
- Formalizing the informal waste sector, which is comprised mostly of women in many countries and inherently has minimal benefits and worker protections.
Some of these recommendations could potentially be incorporated into an upcoming global treaty, Karasik said. The UN Environment Assembly agreed last year to develop legally binding rules for the use and disposal of plastics. The third of five scheduled negotiating sessions is set for November.
About the Inventory and Plastics Research at Duke
The Nicholas Institute launched the Plastics Policy Inventory and a companion analysis in 2020 with funding and support from The Pew Charitable Trusts as part of its Preventing Ocean Plastics project. The inventory initially catalogued nearly 300 policies at the subnational, national and international levels from 2000 to mid-2019.
In March 2021, the U.N. Development Programme, with support from the governments of Sweden and Norway, recognized the inventory as one of eight winning projects in its inaugural Ocean Innovation Challenge. The Nicholas Institute has utilized challenge funding to expand the inventory, develop the Effectiveness Study Library and analyze trends in plastics policy. The institute has also compiled a list of additional resources to supplement its own work.
The inventory is just one example of interdisciplinary research being conducted into the plastics crisis at Duke. Comprised of more than 60 scholars and students from 12 Duke schools and departments, the university’s Plastic Pollution Working Group is aiming to better understand the issues around plastic pollution while working to develop solutions.
The Nicholas Institute has also forged partnerships with academic institutions and NGOs around the world to advance solutions to the plastics crisis. Recent journal articles identifying knowledge gaps in the effectiveness of national plastics policies and discussing the role of regulation for plastics cleanup technologies highlight ongoing collaborations with researchers across Europe and the United States.
Karasik, R., T. Vegh, R. Utz, A. Dominguez, M. Skarjune, J. Merlo, N. Dixon, and J. Virdin. 2023. 2023 Annual Trends in Plastics Policy: A Brief. NI R 23-04. Durham, NC: Duke University. https://nicholasinstitute.duke.edu/publications/2023-annual-trends-plastics-policy-brief.
Dixon, N., M. Skarjune, S. Mason, R. Karasik, and J. Virdin. 2023. Initial Assessment of Gender Considerations in Plastics Policy. NI PB 23-02. Durham, NC: Duke University. https://nicholasinstitute.duke.edu/publications/initial-assessment-gender-considerations-plastics-policy.
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