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Nicholas Institute for Environmental Policy Solutions
April 2022

Pricing Plastics Pollution: Lessons from Three Decades of Climate Policy

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Pricing Plastics Pollution: Lessons from Three Decades of Climate Policy
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Plastic is now the most widely used human-made substance on the planet, and plastics pollution impacts marine and coastal ecosystems, local economies, and human health. Local and national governments are increasingly responding by banning plastic bags and other specific plastic products, taxing the use of certain plastics, and improving waste management and recycling. These are important steps, but alone they will not result in a meaningful reduction in cumulative plastics pollution or encourage development of sufficient alternatives to plastic. Additional policy measures are necessary.

This Article argues that climate change and plastic pollution share numerous similarities, and these similarities allow policymakers to benefit from the three decades of climate policy experimentation when choosing plastics pollution policy instruments. Both are collective action problems with local, national, and global impacts. Unilateral policies will do little to address total accumulation of the pollutant. There are countless sources of plastics pollution and the plastics have different uses and characteristics. Technological breakthroughs are necessary to recycle and reuse large amounts of plastics or reduce carbon pollution. There are influential, established interests in value chains that produce and use plastics or fuels that emit greenhouse gases.

The Article focuses on one key policy instrument in climate policies—pollution pricing—and identifies lessons from carbon pricing that can inform the design of plastics pollution policies. The Article begins by summarizing the global impacts of plastics pollution and the current international, national, and subnational plastics pollution policies. It then argues that broader market-based approaches can help address the global challenge of plastics pollution, identifies policy design choices for market-based pollution policies, elaborates on the similarities between plastics pollution and climate change, and then describes lessons from climate policy that can inform the design of plastics policies. The Article concludes by describing the applicability of these lessons from climate change to the emerging policy response to plastic pollution.