One of the most ambitious regulations in the world to tackle plastic pollution in the ocean, the EU Single-Use Plastics Directive (SUPD) will come into force on January 1, 2021. Even if the directive were copied by all countries of the world and rigorously implemented, the amount of plastic waste that enters the ocean every year would increase from the current 11 million tons to almost 22 million tons over the next 20 years. In practice, applying the provisions of the European Single-Use Plastics Directive globally would decrease the amount of plastic waste entering the ocean by only 15% between now and 2040.
This is one of the findings of the study Evaluating Scenarios Toward Zero Plastic Pollution published in July 2020 in the journal Science and promoted by Pew Charitable Trusts and SISTEMIQ together with the Universities of Oxford and Leeds, the Ellen MacArthur Foundation, Common Seas, and in collaboration with several international experts on plastic pollution. The study is intended to be a tool for the exploration of alternative action scenarios for the reduction of plastic waste, with the aim of facilitating the debate between governments, industry, civil society and academia to identify appropriate and effective strategies.
The scientific article is accompanied by the report Breaking the Plastic Wave - a comprehensive assessment of pathways towards stopping ocean plastic pollution - which examines in detail 8 system interventions that combined in various ways give rise to 6 alternative scenarios with different degrees of ambition, ranging from Business as usual (no action of pollution mitigation) up to the System Change scenario, where all system interventions capable of reducing plastic pollution are implemented simultaneously and immediately.
Researchers constructed the various system interventions taking into account that the proposed changes will bring the same level of utility to consumers, that is, that the same level of satisfaction is maintained with the consumption of a product or the use of a service. In the case of plastic, utility was defined as the services (as an example food protection) that are provided in the Business as usual scenario. In alternative scenarios, products and services must provide the same level of utility to consumers, but using less plastic. Furthermore, alternative scenarios are constructed by taking into account decent working conditions at all stages of the plastic life cycle, thus leading to an improvement in the health and economic conditions of the most fragile workers in the plastic waste sector.
The nightmare of Business as usual: 450 million tons of plastic in the sea
Due to its durability, plastic degrades slowly and can remain in the ocean for hundreds of years. In the Business as usual scenario, the total amount of plastic waste in the ocean could reach 450 million tons over the next 20 years, with serious impacts on biodiversity, the health of marine ecosystems and human health. Furthermore, the amount of plastic waste burned outdoors in the poorest countries would see a 3-fold increase, resulting in an increase in persistent toxic substances released into the environment and representing a major health risk for workers involved in the disposal of plastic waste and their communities. The study also shows how the Business as usual scenario is incompatible with the objectives of the Paris Agreement. The data analyzed show, in fact, that in 2040 the emissions associated with the production, use and disposal of all plastic waste would represent 19% of the total greenhouse gas budget not to be exceeded in order to contain global warming within 1.5oC. The private sector would also suffer financially in the Business as usual scenario because virgin plastic taxes or extended producer responsibility taxes could be introduced in the future to cover the costs of collecting and safely disposing of plastic waste, a global financial risk estimated at 100 billions of dollars a year.
Existing technologies can reduce the amount of plastic that reaches the ocean by 80%
Despite the dreadful consequences of the Business as usual scenario, the study clearly shows that there are solutions and technologies that can effectively address the problem of plastic pollution. "We have identified 8 system interventions that taken together can reduce by 80% between now and 2040 the amount of plastic that enters the ocean every year using already existing technologies and solutions" explains Sarah Baulch, senior associate with the Pew Charitable Trusts, to Renewable Matter. "The first intervention to be implemented is the reduction of the production and consumption of plastic, which represents the key element of the System Change scenario, otherwise the growth in the supply of virgin plastic could undermine efforts to prevent (further) plastic pollution” explains Baulch.
In addition to reducing the production and consumption of plastic, other interventions include its replacement with other materials, the improvement of the possibility of recycling (and in particular: design for recycling, improvement of waste collection, increase of mechanical recycling, increase in chemical conversion) and better management and elimination of waste that cannot be recycled (construction of infrastructure for the safe management of waste that is not yet possible to recycle, reduction of the export of plastic waste from richer countries towards the poorest countries).
Action must be taken immediately at the national level
The study shows that the implementation of the various interventions is technically feasible, economically sustainable and socially acceptable. It is not the lack of technical solutions that prevents solving the problem of plastic waste in the ocean, but rather the fact that current regulatory systems, business models, incentives and funding mechanisms are inadequate. An example cited in the report is that of the "perverse" incentives for the extraction of fossil fuels provided by governments, incentives that lower the price of virgin plastic. To implement the System Change scenario, the authors indicate three time scales of intervention: 2020-2022, 2025, 2030 and warn that it is necessary to start acting immediately. Postponing the implementation of the various interventions to 2025 would result in 80 million additional tons of plastic waste reaching the ocean. “Many of the regulatory actions can take place at the national level as early as 2020-2022 - explains Sarah Baulch - For example, implementing national policy interventions such as measures to eliminate overpackaging and avoidable plastic use is crucial. Another step is for governments to introduce economic incentives for reuse and refill systems and ensure plastic is designed for recycling and is actually recycled. For this to happen governments will need to introduce standards to ensure that producers are held responsible for their products and that there are recycled content requirements.”
The researcher explains that action at the national level is particularly important because as in the case of Climate Change, the mechanisms of international policy are often slow. In 2018, the International Maritime Organization adopted an Action Plan on Plastic Waste from Maritime Activities, while amendments to the Basel Convention on the Trade and Export of Plastic Waste will come into effect in 2021. The United Nations Environment Assembly has agreed on a series of resolutions on marine litter and microplastics. However, notes the expert, gaps remain, and an international binding agreement could be explored to ensure coherent, ambitious measures are taken globally.
Reduce plastic production and ban products that cannot be recycled
To achieve the objectives of the System Change scenario, the priorities for action are different in the various geographical areas. "In the global North - explains Enzo Favoino, a researcher at the Agricultural School of the Monza Park and one of the experts involved in the study - the priorities for action are the reduction of plastic production and the improvement of recycling capacities." The researcher explains that for this purpose the opportunities offered by the EU Single-Use Plastic Directive can be exploited, even if the directive "has a limited scope" because for example it does not include packaging, or considers beverage containers only up to three liters. “In the global South, however, it is necessary to improve the degree of coverage of waste collection. The fact that there are no formal waste collection systems must become "project data" for the type of packaging that is placed on the market - explains the researcher. That is, if a type of plastic product cannot be reused or recycled in a particular country, then it should be prohibited to put it on the market in that country.
Favoino explains the need to focus on "durability of plastic products and reuse models, and eliminate single-use plastics that cannot be recycled". As an example, the expert cites sachets, the small plastic packages used to sell single doses of cosmetic products which, given their low cost, are widespread in poorer countries. The sachets are marketed by multinationals from the global North. Even if collected, they have no value from the point of view of recovering the plastic material, and most of the time they are dispersed into the environment after use.
Italy must reorganize its environmental, health, tax and labor legislation
Like the other countries of the global North, to contribute to the realization of the System Change scenario, Italy must reduce the production of plastic and improve its recycling capacity. "An example of a tax incentive to encourage the reduction of plastic production is that of the European tax on plastics which will come into force on January 1, 2021 and provides for the payment of 0.80 euro cents for every kilogram of non-recycled plastic packaging” says Favoino. The expert explains that it is a somewhat strange formulation, because it is calculated in the final balance and will most likely have a moderate economic impact. “The simplest thing would be to introduce a tax on virgin polymers”.
"Member countries could also introduce supplementary measures, such as specific reuse and reduction targets, or prescribe essential requirements for packaging that stem from the new EU Packaging Directive, which obliges to promote durability and reuse." At the Italian level, the researcher cites the Climate Decree converted into law in December 2019 which in article 1 provides for the right to the consumer to use reusable containers brought from home for the purchase of fresh products over the counter, as well as a non-repayable contribution in favor of commercial operators to encourage the sale of detergents or food products in bulk or on tap. "It is insufficient, but it is a first step" says Favoino.
"Encouraging a circular economy of plastics at the Italian level requires a reorganization of environmental, health, tax, and labor legislation - explains Favoino - In fact, there are new types of services that must be codified and promoted, such as the new business model of the type Product as a service which consists in the rental of reusable containers and often also includes washing ". Favoino cites the example of the city of Berkeley, California, where a municipal ordinance requires the customer to pay 25 cents US dollars for the disposable cups used in bars, and the price must be clearly indicated on the receipt; while reusable cups cost 15-20 cents US (cost that includes rental and washing of the containers, such as in the Vessel system).
Reducing plastic pollution will have positive impacts on the global economy
The economic analyzes conducted as part of the study show that implementing systemic interventions to reduce the production of plastic waste and its dispersion into the ocean, as envisaged in the System Change scenario, would also have positive impacts from an economic point of view. In fact, the total cost for governments to manage plastic waste in the System Change scenario between 2021 and 2041 is estimated at around $ 600 billion, against the $ 670 billion that is needed in the Business as usual scenario.
In other words, while solving the problem of plastic pollution governments would also save money. And therefore citizens too.