Plastic pollution prevention efforts slowed during pandemic, according to Duke research

A new analysis from Duke University’s Nicholas Institute for Environmental Policy Solutions on February 25 suggests efforts to address plastic pollution have slowed worldwide during the COVID-19 pandemic. That time period has also seen a documented rise in medical waste and single-use and disposable plastics for personal protective equipment and packaging.

For two years, a team of researchers and students has maintained and regularly updated an inventory that now contains more than 570 public policies introduced around the world since 2000 to target plastic pollution. While the number of national policies had steadily increased for 20 years, the trend appeared to stall in 2020 and 2021, according to a brief detailing the researchers’ analysis.

“The overall effect of the ongoing pandemic on plastic pollution and policy implementation is not fully understood yet, but a few findings are beginning to percolate,” said the brief’s lead author, Rachel Karasik, policy associate at the Nicholas Institute. 

“The increase in plastic consumption and waste resulting from the pandemic is happening at the same time that many governments are reversing or pausing implementation of plastics policies. Some countries, however, have continued to address plastic pollution by passing policies that are more comprehensive — for example, targeting single-use plastics other than plastic bags.”

An estimated 11 million metric tons of plastic enter the world’s oceans each year, and the accumulation of plastic pollution threatens marine ecosystems and the communities that depend on them. Plastics are also arriving in unexpected places — from the deep sea to the atmosphere to soil — creating a range of potential environmental, public health and socioeconomic issues.

The brief is intended to be the first in a series of annual updates tracking worldwide trends and gaps in government responses to the problem. In addition to the recent slowdown in new national policies, other key findings include:

  • Nearly 130 countries have at least one national or subnational policy documented in the inventory. The policies are written in a total of 34 languages.
  • Regulations, such as bans on the use of specific types of plastics, tend to be the policy tool favored by governments for addressing plastic pollution. Research shows that these policies, as well as taxes and fees, are most effective when paired with public education or outreach campaigns, but these approaches are rarely coupled on the national level.
  • Since 2017, national policies have increasingly targeted plastic bags and other single-use macroplastics. There is also movement toward considering the benefits and harms of substituting fossil-fuel-based, single-use plastics with biodegradable or compostable ones.
  • Growing scientific evidence shows that microplastics — including microbeads in toothpaste, clothing fibers and tire abrasions — have a significant ecological impact. Yet few national policies exist to address them, and there “appears to be little to no momentum in acting” at the national level.
  • Policies targeting the production and use of plastics outnumber policies targeting the management of plastic waste.

Photo credit: iStock/ Farknot_Architect

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