SUSTAINABILITY AND THE ENVIRONMENT
POLICY PUSH FOR PLASTICS ACTION
Pioneering research into developing holistic solutions to global plastics pollution , especially in the oceans , is gaining momentum with an initiative to help governments and businesses respond more effectively .
The challenge – to reset plastics as a versatile , functional and valuable material that is fully recyclable – has created a very busy space that is filled with a lot of competing agendas .
– Professor Steve Fletcher
G overnment and industry responses to growing community pressure to curtail the amount of waste plastics in the environment will be put under the microscope at a dedicated policy research hub in the UK . The Global Plastics Policy Hub aims to fill the gap between broad community recognition of plastics pollution and its environmental and human health impacts , and effective policy responses .
The hub is an initiative of the University of Portsmouth and is being funded by the Netherlandsbased Flotilla Foundation , which funds research to protect marine environments . Without action , the annual flow of plastic into the ocean is predicted , by 2040 , to nearly triple to an estimated 29 million metric tonnes a year – equivalent to 50 kilograms of plastic per metre of coastline worldwide .
The recently announced hub will provide evidence-based analysis on policies implemented by governments and industry . It will build on the research initiatives already in place under the University ’ s Revolution Plastics programme and its Centre for Enzyme Innovation .
The Director of the University ’ s Sustainability and the Environment research theme , Professor Steve Fletcher , says the hub seeks to fill a critical gap that exists between awareness of the plastics issue and effective action .
“ The challenge – to reset plastics as a versatile , functional and valuable material that is fully recyclable – has created a very busy space that is filled with a lot of competing agendas .
“ The need is for evidence-based policy that ’ s not twisted and turned and pulled by the various agenda-holding groups that exist .”
Professor Fletcher says the need for such a hub became apparent when the University team was asked to help the G20 group of countries to investigate policy options to eliminate ocean plastic pollution .
“ It proved really problematic because there ’ s very little evidence out there for what is good plastics policy . There ’ s lots of advocacy and lots of supposition , but very little analysis of policies that have been put in place and the factors that determine their varying levels of success , or otherwise .
“ For example , in some countries a legal framework helps . In others it doesn ’ t . In some countries economic incentives are the focus . In others it ’ s about personal behaviour . So you can ’ t just say this or that policy will work everywhere . You have to tailor it to the appropriate context in which a problem exists .”
The new research hub is beginning with the analysis of 100 different plastics policies adopted around the world .
Complementary science Professor Fletcher says the policy research will complement science such as the University ’ s plastics-eating enzymes research . He regards this complementary approach as crucial if any meaningful progress is to be made .
“ Solutions like the enzymes won ’ t work unless there ’ s a favourable policy framework for the science to fit into . You can ’ t put in place isolated policy interventions and expect them to magically work if they don ’ t have a supporting legal , economic and institutional framework , all of which is only deliverable through policy .”
At stake , he says , is a continuing , calamitous buildup of plastics in the environment , especially marine environments , and microplastics in human food chains .
He says the evidence is out there , but not being acted on in any globally coherent way : “ The expert report , Breaking the Plastic Wave , produced by the Pew Charitable Trusts and SYSTEMIQ Ltd , spells out very clearly the cost of a ‘ business-as-usual approach ’. It shows that current government and industry commitments are only likely to reduce annual plastic leakage to the ocean by seven per cent . That means plastic stocks will quadruple and the volume of plastic waste entering the oceans will treble compared with business as usual by 2040 .”
Professor Fletcher says a large part of the answer is to move plastics from a linear economy to a circular economy .
“ We currently convert fossil fuels into plastic , make stuff , use it , then throw it away . It rarely
ISSUE 03 / 2021