ANALYSIS Julia Reiher 25 March 2022
Alarming pictures of burning landfills at the margins of our cities or dying marine species in large garbage swirls come to mind when thinking of the effects of plastic waste. Humans as well as animals are confronted with the omnipresent hazards of single-use plastic every single day: „There are more pieces of […] plastic in our environment than there are stars in our galaxy.”A rapid and notable change in the way products are used is imperative. To counteract plastic pollution, many treaties, petitions, laws, and regulations have already been established around the globe. Thinking further, these initial steps raise the question of whether the world population is aware of the far-reaching consequences of waste and what mitigation measures we have to fight for our planet.
Plastic Pollution and its Implications
Around the globe more than 2 billion tons of solid waste are generated per year, by 2050 it is expected to rise to 3.4 billion tons. The greatest component is plastic material accounting for 450 million tons produced worldwide each year. It is estimated that about 12% of plastics are still incinerated, and only 9% are recycled. Thus, the equivalent of more than 90% of plastics are not recycled. The most important reasons for the high level of waste pollution are industrialisation, rapid urbanisation, and steadily growing population. The excessive use has become increasingly visible in recent years as waste management and recycling measures were not given much attention and priority. This lasting waste pollution engenders a plethora of environmental challenges: It threatens biodiversity, food chains, water supply, and agricultural soil; it clogs drainage systems and water channels, and last but not least it triggers floodings, disease outbreaks, the formation of microplastics, and air pollution from the burning of waste.
Waste Management, Consumer Behavior and False Solutions
Waste management is a major issue that is unfortunately often underestimated. It affects everyone and cannot be ignored when it comes to waste pollution and its control. Therefore, it is particularly important to have a functioning and coherent waste management system with uniform collection services, safe and environmentally sound disposals, and consistent policy enforcement. Among these measures, the transformation towards a circular economy can be regarded as a model for effectively reducing negative environmental impacts while stimulating economic growth at the same time. Initiatives of some pioneering countries already demonstrate a certain degree of progress. However, this commitment is not universal, as the global challenge of these environmental problems is sometimes still attempted to be displaced by the export of waste.
There is an international consensus that recycling alone is not the best remedy, rather that the key for a more sustainable future is minimising waste. The so-called Extended Producer Responsibility (EPR) could be included in regulations with individual schemes such as consumer take-back programmes for used materials. This could then lead to a better recycling system with minimised amounts of plastic while encouraging change and innovation. New technologies and materials can also be indescribably positive, but these alternatives to plastic must be scrutinised for their own environmental impact and not spread as a phenomenon of ‘false solutions’. The use of imitation, recycling, and advertising with green façades by companies that see sustainability merely as an advertising strategy must be avoided.
In summary, change is inevitable: less incineration, better separation, more composting, a circular economy with more recycling, long-term used products and consistent collection of waste, civic engagement. This will probably require stricter legislation, more political activism and more awareness-raising and education campaigns. Furthermore, we must not stop working on researching new ideas and developing innovations.
Years of trying with voluntary agreements without visible economic incentives have not reduced the amount of waste pollution, thus the point has been passed to solve the environmental problem of waste pollution around the world on a voluntary basis. Moreover, it is generally assumed that the costs of changing environmental policy in the future will be less than the future environmental, social, and economic costs of cleaning up the damage. One approach to tackle this is through taxes and duties, strategies such as reduction, rethinking and reusability are encouraged. Those are designed to discourage consumers from spending too much, but also serve as a source of funding for the state. Another approach is strict bans, which is designed to regulate the use and consumption. Based on the figures and data already available, a significant decrease in the use of plastic can be observed in the case of bans. A compromise solution could be a mixed approach of banning some items and taxing others, primarily to discourage their use in the first place.
International Solution and Proposals
Global thinking should evolve further in order to unite the waste management cycles worldwide and establish a common agenda for the fight against waste “[…] since pollution is borderless, we will still suffer the flow of cross border […] if nothing is done.” Therefore, countries should learn and benefit from positive and negative experiences of other nations and work towards a joint environmentally sustainable and waste-reducing solution. At the political level, actors such as UNEP, the UN Climate Change Secretariat, the G20 Summit, Kyoto Protocol, Paris Climate Agreement, COP26 in Glasgow or others have also emphasized the need to adopt or strengthen climate action in recent years. So far, countries have only been willing to agree on common declarations of interest or intent. But an international treaty to combat plastic pollution with binding measures is needed and the 5th UNEA Conference in February/March 2022 might bring this breakthrough.
The investigation does not seem to be finished at all, as there are still problems with alternatives, consumer behaviour and the implementation of legal and political agendas. Legally binding regulations appear necessary in this context to strengthen the advanced technology and the awareness campaigns that already exist. On a large scale, economic incentives for waste management would have to be given to companies, states, and authorities. Some countries around the world have done a lot individually to combat the problem, but this should continue at the international level. Accordingly, an international legally binding treaty seems reasonable as otherwise particular industries, companies and individuals will always shirk their responsibility. The burden of the problems should not lie on future generations. What is needed is action and implementation for the future of our planet and its inhabitants. The destruction of the planet has been observed for too long: „our planet is drowning in […] pollution – it’s time for change!”
Julia Reiher is a student of law with additional courses in sustainability studies and international law at the University of Bayreuth.
 Andrew Spezowka UNDP, #beatplasticpollution in Malawi, min 0:11 – 0:15.
 CNBC International, How Singapore fixed its big trash problem.
 Tiso et al., p.212.; Hakuzimana, Break free, p. 27f.
 Plastic & Health p. 62; Turpie et al., p. 22ff.; What a waste 2.0, p. 117.
 What a waste 2.0, p. 117.
 Turpie et al., p.9.
 Turpie et al., p. 50.
 Plastic & Health, p. 64.; What a waste 2.0, 117.
 Turpie et al., p. 8.
 Turpie et al., p. 37.
 Hakuzimana, Break free; Turpie et al. p. 37f.
 Nshimiyimana/ Musore, p. 17. Mr. Innocent Musore.
 What a waste 2.0, p. xi.
 BMU, 02.09.2021 – Press release Nr. 219/29.
 UNEP, beatplasticpollution.