15 Mar 2019 Story Environmental rights and governance

Tackling the environmental scourge of single-use plastics through legal and voluntary approaches

Marine litter leads to ecosystem degradation and costs economies billions of dollars every year, and the agricultural and fisheries sectors approximately 15 per cent of total revenue.

The recent UN Environment report on Legal Limits on Single-Use Plastics: A Global Review of National Laws and Regulations (the first global study of its kind) provides a global overview of national regulatory frameworks adopted by countries to control plastic bags, single-use plastics, and microplastics pollution through national laws. According to the report, only eight countries in the world have regulation on microbeads.

The panel discussion Addressing Single-Use Plastics – Legal and Voluntary Approaches, which took place at the Fourth UN Environment Assembly, gave different stakeholders an opportunity to share experiences and plans on regulating single-use plastics.

The panel included :

  • Geoffrey Wahungu, Director General of the National Environment Management Authority of Kenya
  • Hugo Schally, Head of Unit of Circular Economy Strategy at the European Commission
  • Carole Excell, Project Director at the World Resources Institute
  • Julie Duffus, Sustainability Manager at the International Olympic Committee.

The problem

Plastic waste is a major problem to marine life, humans and our natural world. When consumed by fish and livestock, plastic waste ends up in our food chain. One third of plastic produced globally is not recyclable, and yet global plastic production is on the rise. Eight million tonnes of waste are being dumped into the ocean every year. It is estimated that by 2050, there will be more plastic than fish in the ocean.

Since 2014, the UN Environment Assembly has passed three resolutions on marine litter to bring together governments to phase-out marine litter and better conserve the marine environment.

In 2017, UN Environment launched the CleanSeas Campaign to engage governments, the general public, civil society and the private sector in the fight against marine litter. Fifty-seven countries have so far signed up for the campaign, which encourages innovation in the design and production of environmentally friendly products.

Decisive national action can curb plastic pollution but cannot address the scale of impact witnessed and experienced globally. That is why there is a need to continuously promote awareness of impacts of marine litter as well as better ways of recycling plastic, to major groups and stakeholders, and relevant bodies at regional and global levels.

Most countries are yet to implement comprehensive schemes to regulate plastic waste. Most of the regulations developed by countries suffer gaps. When partial bans are imposed as alternatives to complete bans, they give space for loopholes through which some plastic products get into markets and eventually back into the environment. In the above-mentioned report, it was found that only one country in the world has developed and implemented a complete ban of plastic production.

Way forward

Governments should introduce restrictive production bans at every level of the production cycle, including design of products, application of recommended alternatives and accepted regulations, processes for collection of materials and products, and packaging.

Awareness needs to be raised among Member States that biodegradable plastics have not been gazetted anywhere in the world. Stakeholders should look to simple and quick substitutions for plastic materials such as pens, drinking straws, etc., with other alternative materials.

Intensive monitoring needs to be carried out along borders regionally, to curb the illegal movement of plastics in and out of countries which have banned certain plastic products.

Countries should tap into the sports sector to promote awareness of the impacts of single-use plastics. The CleanSeas Programme introduced this strategy into its campaign, in collaboration with the International Olympic Committee, to promote a global wave of plastic elimination and promotion of best alternative products, such as turning plastics into clothes and fishing nets into volleyball nets, an initiative that has brought about positive impacts. 

We cannot solve the plastic problem through waste management but through cycles of processing plastic products, from design, production, use and disposal, and their re-introduction into the value chain. Improving waste management alone is not efficient or sufficient.

For more information, please contact: Lara.Ognibene[at]un.org I Niamh.Brannigan[at]un.org I Catherine.Abuto[at]un.org.