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Evaluating the Plastic Problem: How Will We Know When We Are Successful?

November 5, 2018

Plastic pollution is a problem that doesn’t seem to be going away. Global plastic manufacturing has produced 8.3 billion metric tons of plastic since the 1950s and most now resides in either a landfill or the natural environment. It’s a necessary material in virtually everything we use on a day-to-day basis, from our cell phones to food packaging to mattresses to cars. Unfortunately, neither we nor nature have figured out how to dispose of plastic waste without impacting our ecosystems, water supplies and food. For example, a study of 159 samples of tap water, beer and commercial sea salt found that 81 percent of the tap water samples and all of the beer and salt samples contained plastic fibers.

First Steps
Voluntary actions by businesses coupled with some government policies represent initial steps toward tackling the plastic problem. American Airlines, Sodexo, Bon Appetit, Aramark, Red Lobster, Starbucks and United Airlines are just a few major companies to ban, limit, phase-out or eliminate plastic straws, cups and other items from their operations. California took a page from behavioral economics and passed a law preventing restaurants from automatically giving customers straws. Recently, the U.S. Congress stepped up by passing the Save our Seas Act, which reauthorizes funding for the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration to spend a maximum of $10 million per year for five years to remove plastic trash from the oceans and encourages federal trade negotiators to push foreign government to improve their waste management. These laws and policies are by no means comprehensive, but they represent powerful first steps to address this new type of pollution.

However, as governments and industry explore and test policies to reduce plastic pollution, powerful tools and metrics will be necessary to evaluate the success of these policies. How should we measure our global reliance on plastics? How do we estimate the health and safety costs and benefits associated with plastics? Did the cost of a given policy outweigh the benefits? These data will allow for effective policy-planning.

Is It Working?
After periods of monitoring and evaluation there should be enough information to determine what changes are needed to improve a policy. Maybe the policy in question did not achieve its intended outcome and should be abandoned altogether. Maybe there is another policy hindering the success of the policy under review that can be tweaked to improve results.

Industry has signaled that plastic straws, cups, and coffee stirrers are the least costly items to remove from operations and thus represent the lowest hanging fruit given the available substitutes. However, when it comes to removing other plastics for which there are fewer substitutes—things such as food packaging, clothing, phone, or other daily use products—a proper framework for quantifying the benefits of eliminating plastic will be crucial to tackling plastic pollution and ensuring our oceans, waterways and ecosystems stay healthy for future generations.

Focus Areas
Regions
North America
 
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