Piecemeal policies will not save the planet – we need global action to turn off the plastics tap
An estimated 11 million metric tonnes of plastic enter the ocean each year
The global plastics problem is growing worse by the year. We must all work together to rise to the challenge
As the future health of our planet lies in the balance, it is deeply disappointing that all current government and industry commitments combined will only slow the acceleration of plastic entering our oceans by a meagre seven percent by 2040.
Despite the public appetite and commitment, the current policy mix will not “turn off the plastic tap”, which sees an estimated 11 million metric tonnes of plastic enter the ocean each year. It is predicted that without meaningful action over and above current commitments, this number is set to almost triple to 29 million metric tonnes in the next 20 years.
At the University of Portsmouth we want to help bring solutions and not just highlight the issues, contributing to a sustainable plastics transition through our Revolution Plastics initiative. Our world-leading research into plastic digesting enzymes, for example, was recognised as the Times Higher Education STEM project of the year in 2019. We are also establishing an independent plastics policy analysis hub to generate objective advice to support more effective public and private sector plastics policy-making.
Clearly, current policy commitments on plastic do not match the scale of the worsening global plastic problem. We urgently need a stronger policy response to better reflect the level of action required.
The critical challenge is that systemic change within the plastics economy is required on a global scale. Piecemeal policies and actions are insufficient to create the necessary changes in how plastics are produced, used and disposed.
The University of Portsmouth is contributing to the evidence base to inform policies and decisions across the plastics life cycle; for governments, scientists and businesses. We are working with the G20 group of nations to identify policy options to reach net zero plastics entering the ocean by 2050. This is part of the G20 Osaka Blue Ocean Vision, endorsed by around 80 countries.
A global plastics agreement requires national commitment in its development and implementation. At present, despite the global public outcry about plastic pollution, national level plastics policies are rare. Those that do exist tend to focus on banning or taxing individual plastic items rather than focusing on systemic change in the plastics economy.
In short, a global agreement should tackle plastic pollution at its source and promote a transition to a circular plastic economy. It should consider the entire plastics life cycle, rather than focusing on “downstream” solutions only as is common at present.
In late 2020, the UK government joined several other countries in supporting a new global treaty on plastics. Agreeing the terms and focus of a global treaty will be a major diplomatic and scientific undertaking which may take many years. Once agreed it could then take longer still for change on the ground to be seen. After all, the success of existing environmentally focused global agreements has been mixed. This raises concerns that a future global agreement on plastics may not capture the urgency of tackling the problem, and may direct political energy and resources from other more effective approaches.
The underlying reality is that the challenges associated with unsustainable consumption and production of plastics are interconnected and global, requiring systemic transformation of the plastics economy. The extent to which this can be achieved without a legally binding global agreement is uncertain. As a minimum, coordinated efforts are needed to start a global sustainable plastics transition. Behind any global approach is the need for high-quality evidence to inform national and private sector action.
At the University of Portsmouth we are leading the way, working with the food industry to develop more sustainable alternatives to plastic packaging; with cities in Europe, Africa and Asia to support enhanced plastic recycling capability; with the fashion industry to reduce its reliance on plastics; with citizens to map and tackle urban plastic pollution, and we are examining the effects of exposure to plastics on human health.
We are dedicated to making our science matter and contribute to tackling some of the world’s most pressing problems. Only together can we take the action that will create a healthier world.
My team and I will be at COP26 and would welcome further discussions with you. If you’d like to contact me before then you can email me direct at email@example.com. Or for more information, please visit: port.ac.uk/revolution-plastics
Steve Fletcher is professor of ocean policy and economy at the University of Portsmouth
Get the inside track on what MPs and Peers are talking about. Sign up to The House's morning email for the latest insight and reaction from Parliamentarians, policy-makers and organisations.