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2018: is the tide turning on plastic?

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It was difficult to keep up with plastic pollution news in 2018. Barely a month went by without further evidence of the world waking up to the dangers posed by plastic waste.

But what actually changed in 2018? Here is the ClientEarth guide to the year that was in terms of action on plastic.

The year began with widespread public alarm over the amount of plastic waste in our oceans after David Attenborough’s Blue Planet II series had aired in late 2017.

There was explosive news from China. After years of accepting waste from richer countries, it announced it would stop accepting waste from overseas and its import ban on mixed plastic waste entered into force. Waste exports from G7 countries were then diverted to other Asian countries like Malaysia, Vietnam, Thailand and Taiwan.

Taiwan, Vietnam and Thailand later enacted regulations restricting such imports and Malaysia stopped issuing import licenses for scrap plastic.

Consumers took matters into their own hands. Shoppers around the world protested the amount of single-use plastics by dumping them at the till of supermarkets in ‘plastic attacks’, drawing international media attention.

Health hazard

The risks to human health were also scrutinised. A study found that 63 chemicals associated with plastic packaging – the most common application for single-use plastic – are hazardous to human health. Another study identified that the presence of microplastic fibres in the atmosphere creates the risk of lung disease.

With climate change also dominating public attention, the connection between global warming and the plastic crisis was laid bare. In a business as usual scenario, the combined emissions from plastics production and embedded carbon in plastic will make up more than a third of the whole carbon budget for a 2°C economy by 2100.

On top of that, it was revealed plastics produced two greenhouse gases, methane and ethylene, when exposed to sunlight, adding to fears of worsening emissions if more plastic is produced.

Reuse and recycle

In May, the European Union approved long-awaited reforms of its waste laws that included higher reuse and recycling targets. The EU reforms also detailed an extended producer responsibility, or ‘producer pays’, scheme as well as demanding member states boost reuse through deposit return systems, reuse targets and other incentives.

In June, the EU signed a cooperation agreement with China to share knowledge on the circular economy.

Meanwhile elected representatives everywhere were starting to respond to public concern. By July, analysis from the United Nations noted: 127 countries had already adopted legislation to regulate plastic bags, 27 countries had banned specific single-use plastic products, 29 countries had enacted taxes or charges on some single-use plastic products and eight countries had legally binding bans on microbeads. India, Jamaica and Costa Rica pledged to phase-out single-use plastics before 2022.

Business begins to get on board

While action from business was slow, companies were beginning to realise the risk. In November, Coca Cola Amatil noted consumer concerns about packaging and specifically, plastics had “escalated”.

“One big shift in consumer sentiment is businesses are no longer expected to merely mitigate packaging, we’re actually expected to eliminate it entirely through alternative materials or closed-loop solutions. In addition, this expectation is no longer pigeonholed as a sustainability goal, it’s actually fundamental to business’s licence to operate,” the company stated.

A month later, Bank of England governor Mark Carney said banks could be penalised through higher capital charges if they invested in polluting industries, because these sectors were more vulnerable to a clampdown in the future.

“We would be more open to a ‘brown’-penalising factor, if you will, because something that is quite damaging, quite polluting, one would expect at some point that there would potentially be some adjustment of regulation for that. And a consequence of that would potentially be higher risk,” Carney said.

New rules to protect the oceans

Also in December, the EU agreed to new port fees which would disincentivise fishing boats dumping plastic waste at sea. The bloc also passed measures that would help target the 10 most often found single-use plastic items on Europe’s beaches, as well as abandoned fishing gear.

The single-use measures included direct bans as well as allowing EU countries to have consumption targets, adopt market restrictions or to impose charges to achieve this reduction – measures which open the door for European nations having ambitious measures to reduce plastic pollution.

The UK followed this up with plans to introduce a drinks bottle return scheme, fees to make producers bear the cost of managing their products after their use and a tax on plastic packaging with less than 30% of recycled content. This followed the UK Treasury’s call for evidence about potential plastic taxes receiving the largest number of responses to such a call in its history.

2018 truly was the year the public and regulators started shouting about plastic waste. Here’s to 2019 being the year big business follows suit with meaningful action.

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Krizjohn Rosales

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