This article was originally published by UN Environment and is republished with permission.
Geneva, 06 December 2018 – Released today, a groundbreaking report from the United Nations Environment Programme and the World Resources Institute offers new insight on the global movement to curb single-use plastics. Through a first of its kind accounting, the report provides an overview of policy instruments and progress from countries regulating the manufacture, sale, use and disposal of single-use plastics. The assessment reveals widespread momentum for policy action, with often disparate environmental impacts.
Legal Limits on Single-Use Plastics and Microplastics was developed with support from the French government after a year in which single-use plastic pollution rose to the top of the global environmental agenda. Authors based their findings on a review of national legally-binding instruments that include bans and restrictions, taxes and levies, and waste management measures to enhance disposal, encourage reuse and recycling, and promote alternatives to plastic products.
Among the key findings, the report found surging momentum for plastic bag bans, while other harmful single-use products, such as microbeads remain largely overlooked. 66 percent of countries worldwide have adopted some form of legislation to regulate plastic bags, while only eight out of 192 countries assessed (4 percent) have established bans of microbeads through national laws or regulations.
“Having one planet means that we must do all it takes to safeguard future generations. Countries must now do more to develop and implement legislation against harmful single-use plastics and microplastics” said Joyce Msuya, Acting Executive Director of UN Environment. “The massive momentum we have built this year in our global fight against single-use plastic, must now be complimented by policies and actions that lead us in the right direction.”
In 2015, plastic packaging waste accounted for 47 percent of the plastic waste generated globally, with half of that appearing to come from Asia. While China remains the largest worldwide generator of plastic packaging waste, the USA is the largest generator of plastic packaging waste on a per-capita basis, followed by Japan and the European Union. Plastic bags, disposable single use plastic items, and microbeads are three important sources of plastic pollution with plastics being described as the world’s number one consumer item. In business-to-consumer applications, plastic packaging is mostly single-use, and a majority of it is discarded the same year it is produced.
“The disastrous effects of plastic litter on beaches, rivers and ocean wildlife show that there are major gaps in the ways plastic is regulated by different countries,” said Celine Salcedo-La Viña, Research Associate, World Resources Institute, one of the lead authors of the report. “This report suggests more comprehensive regulatory approaches must be explored that will integrate the life-cycle of plastic products: from production to use, and distribution to disposal. Countries must seriously consider alternatives to plastics that are causing at least $8 billion of damages per year.”
The analysis details a wide range of methods to regulate single-use plastic bags, plastic single-use items and microplastics containing products at the national level. However, these approaches vary by region, countries and type of plastic product, and include bans, market and trade-based mechanisms and voluntary measures. This presents an important role for governments, the private sector and civil society to identify and promote effective solutions to regulation and limiting plastic pollution. World Resources Institute’s new Ocean program will include this workstream.
UN Environment has been at the forefront of leading the fight against marine litter through the Clean Seas campaign, which urges governments to pass plastic reduction policies; encourages industry to minimize plastic packaging and redesign products; and calls on consumers to change their throwaway habits, before irreversible damage is done to our seas. Launched in 2017, the campaign has garnered commitments from over 50 countries, representing over 60 percent of the world’s coastline, including high-profile commitments from India to eliminate single-use plastics by 2022.
If the growth in plastic production continues at the current rate, by 2050 the plastic industry may account for 20 percent of the world’s total oil consumption. The report was first presented during the second meeting of the Ad Hoc Open-Ended Expert Group on Marine Litter and Microplastics, held in Geneva from 3 to 6 December 2018. The report will also inform the deliberations of the fourth United Nations Environment Assembly, which will take place from 11 to 15 March 2019.