Dr Dannielle Green of Anglia Ruskin University (ARU) is part of an international group of experts calling for the production of new plastics to be capped to help solve the problem of plastic pollution.
Two months after the United Nations’ historic decision to adopt a global treaty to end plastic pollution, governmental negotiations on the agreement are set to begin on 30 May. These will foster intense debates on what kind of measures will be needed to end the pollution of the air, soils, rivers and oceans with plastic debris and microplastics.
In a letter to the journal Science, a group of scientists and experts, including Dr Green, argue for tackling the issue at the source, by regulating, capping, and over the long term phasing out the production of new plastics.
Dr Green is researching the impact of plastic pollution on the natural environment, and was a lead author on the UN report From Pollution to Solution: A global assessment of marine litter and plastic pollution published last year
Dr Green, Associate Professor in Ecology at ARU, said: “If we want to solve the issue of plastic pollution, we need to focus on the whole life cycle of plastics, not just their end of life. This includes capping production of virgin plastics.”
Melanie Bergmann of the German Alfred-Wegener-Institute, the initiator of the letter to Science, said: “Even if we recycled better and tried to manage the waste as much as we can, we would still release more than 17 million tons of plastic per year into nature. “If production just keeps growing and growing, we will be faced with a truly Sisyphean task.”
Research published in Science in 2020 shows that plastic emissions can only be cut by 79 per cent over the next 20 years if all solutions available today are implemented, including replacing some plastics with other materials, and improved recycling and waste management.
Co-author of the letter Bethanie Carney Almroth, of the University of Gothenburg, Sweden, said: “The exponentially growing production is really the root cause of the problem, and the amounts of plastics we have produced thus far have already exceeded planetary boundaries.
“If we don’t tackle that, all other measures will fail to achieve the goal of substantially reducing the release of plastic into the environment.”
Phasing out the production of new plastics from fresh feedstocks should be part of a systemic solution to end plastic pollution, the experts from Canada, Sweden, Germany, India, Norway, Turkey, the UK and the US argue. This approach is supported by the best science available today and in line with what political and legal experts proposed in Science last year.
Co-author Sedat Gundogdu of the Cukurova University, Turkey, said: “Overproduction of plastics also feeds the plastic waste trade from the Global North to the Global South. “Many countries that receive the waste don’t have the means to process it, so it just gets dumped or ends up in the environment.”
Along with measures to address the consumption and demand side of the problem — such as taxes — a comprehensive approach must also cover the supply side, meaning the actual amount of plastics produced and put out on the market.
Cutting plastics production by banning the manufacture of new plastics will come with many societal, environmental and economic benefits, the scientists say.
Co-author Martin Wagner, an ecotoxicologist at the Norwegian University of Science and Technology, added:
“Reducing the production of new plastics in the long run will increase the value of plastics, boost other measures to curb plastic pollution, help tackle climate change and promote our transition to a circular and sustainable economy.”