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Five Policies to Reduce Plastic Pollution

January 15, 2021

With more than 11 million tons of plastic flowing into our oceans each year from land-based sources around the globe, there is an urgent need to amplify current efforts to reduce plastic pollution through a more coordinated and ambitious approach.

Part of that implementation requires restructuring the global supply chain from a linear to a circular economy (an economy that maximizes resources and reduces waste). In doing so, it will fall on local municipalities to manage plastic pollution more effectively. A report by WWF, the Ellen MacArthur Foundation, and Boston Consulting Group suggests that a new international treaty on plastic pollution could help governments and businesses push for large-scale change. Additionally, the U.N. recently established the Basel Convention the Plastic Waste Partnership (PWP) to provide a more coordinated and ambitious approach to eliminating plastic waste generation.

Plastic Pollution and Greenhouse Gases

While working with local policymakers, one of the most frequently asked question we receive is about plastic. More specifically how does plastic affect my emissions? How can I tackle both greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions and plastic pollution with the same actions? To many our answer is a surprise. Plastic’s decomposition is slow and creates negligible GHG emissions. For example, one study from the University of Hawaii found that trace gases from virgin low-density polyethylene released methane emission rates at 5.8 nmol per grams of plastic per day when exposed to sunlight.

The main source of emissions from plastic comes from:

  1. The extraction of raw materials for production (e.g., oil),
  2. The manufacturing, and
  3. Transportation of the final products.

While analyzing collection and recycling rates of plastic using a model like EPA’s Solid Waste Emissions Estimation tool (SWEET, developed with support from Abt and used in over 40 cities on five continents), plastics rarely play a significant role in a municipality’s waste-focused GHG emissions. Therefore, when a local policymaker wishes to understand the GHG emissions from a specific plastic, a lifecycle assessment is really their best tool. These are cradle-to-grave analyses that assess the environmental impacts associated with all the stages of a product's life, from raw material extraction through materials processing, manufacture, distribution, and use. The results differ for different types of plastics, the location of its manufacturing, or the product. A quick Google search turns up hundreds of studies for dozens of plastic products in many circumstances.

Five Policies That Can Help

For a policymaker, these studies can be difficult to apply and understand in a hyper-local context. In addition, they can be expensive, only as accurate as their assumptions, and rely on privileged business information. Modeling GHG emissions from plastics use is resource intensive, so cities should focus on some practical steps that will inevitably reduce GHG emissions from plastic use. So to our original question, if you want to reduce plastic pollution and GHG together, what are some policy approaches?

  1. Pass policies that focus on the source of the pollution. Eliminate the consumption of the plastic in the first place.
  2. Foster the creation of local markets for recyclables. This could be encouraging residents to upcycle plastics into new products, or replace plastic products with reusable ones.
  3. Shift the consumption of plastic to other natural materials (woods, bio-plastics, natural textiles, glass, etc.).
  4. When biodegradable materials are collected, waste managers should dispose of them utilizing technologies that control GHG such as anaerobic digestion, composting, or managed landfills.
  5. Ensure waste managers collect and dispose of plastic in the appropriate facilities. This includes controlled landfills, recycling centers, or waste combustion facilities with pollution controls. Municipalities should avoid uncontrolled open dumps as much as possible.

Often cities with high plastic use, significant open waste burning, and low collection rates normally see these three problems coupled together. Such municipalities wishing to restructure their local economies into circular economies should focus on the amount of plastic that ends up in the waste bin. For tips on strategies, see Abt’s recent guide for decisionmakers in developing countries—written for EPA—that highlights best practices for managing waste to prevent marine debris.

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