Categories: Pollution Article 1

Plastics Pollution: A New Common Concern of Humankind?

Balraj K. Sidhui1 and Bharat H. Desai*,2
1 School of Intellectual Property Law, Indian Institute of Technology, Kharagpur, India
2 School of International Studies at Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delh, India

*Corresponding author: desai@jnu.ac.in

EPL, Vol.48, Iss.5, pp. 252-255, 2018



In 1972, the United Nations General Assembly (UNGA) resolved to mark 5 June, the opening day of the Stockholm Conference on the Human Environment, as World Environment Day (WED). On the same day, another UNGA resolution established the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) and its Governing Council. This year’s WED celebration on 5 June 2018 came with a special focus on beating the menace of plastic pollution. India was the global host for WED 2018. The global production and consumption of plastic has been on the rise, as the “ubiquitous workhorse material of the modern economy”. Plastics (synthetic or semisynthetic organic compounds that are malleable) aren’t just one material but belong to a family of hundreds of different materials with a wide variety of properties. They are designed to meet the needs of each single application in the most efficient manner.

Currently, most plastics are derived from fossil fuel feedstock such as natural gas, oil or coal; although biopolymers are also being used. Some of the latter (such as polylactic acid) are biodegradable, although the most commonly used biopolymer materials (such as polythene derived from bioethanol) are not, as are the nonbiologically originated materials. As a result, most plastics accumulate, rather than decomposing, in landfills or the natural environment. According to a paper published in Science, more than 300 million tonnes of plastics are manufactured every year. India generates around 5.6 million tonnes of plastic waste annually. Delhi alone accounts for 9,600 metric tonnes per day. Over-reliance on single-use or disposable plastic has proven to be an environmental as well as human health hazard.

Marine Litter and Microplastics

Today, plastic debris or litter in the ocean is an environmental problem on a global scale. Microplastics – small particles or fragmmeasuringents of plastic less than 5 mm in diameter – have exacerbated both the problem and the challenge of response. The transboundary movement of plastic marine litter and microplastics is becoming a major concern as the durability of plastics means that they remain intact for a long time and spread throughout the oceans. In fact, many tons of plastic debris (that can vary in size from large containers and fishing nets to microscopic plastic pellets or particles) are discarded every year, polluting lands, rivers, coasts, beaches and oceans.

It was revealed recently that single-use plastic has even reached the world’s deepest ocean trench when a plastic bag was found in the Mariana Trench situated at 10,898 m below the surface. A vast proportion of the fish in the sea are now believed to have plastic in them. They think it is food and eat it, just as seabirds feed plastic to their chicks. Some of this is released as excrement and ends up sinking on to the seabed. Eventually, it enters our food chain and, in time, our bodies. Akin to the menace of acid rain in 20th century Europe, the planet Earth is slowly being covered with plastic in the 21st century.

Initial Institutional Efforts

In order to control the gradual increase in marine litter found on the sea, the sea floor and coastal shores, the Marine Debris Program, jointly run by UNEP and the US National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), was instrumental in the adoption of a global framework for the prevention and management of marine debris, known as the Honolulu Strategy (2011). The Strategy was designed to serve as a: "framework for a comprehensive and global effort to reduce the ecological, human health, and economic impacts of marine debris. It is intended for use as a planning tool, common frame of reference for collaboration, and a monitoring tool on multiple levels – global, regional, national, and local – involving the full spectrum of civil society, government and intergovernmental organizations, and the private sector."

Given that multiple causes and factors contribute in determining the nature, quantity and distribution of debris around the world, the 2011 Strategy sought to earmark a “template for global efforts addressing the problem of marine debris”. Following the adoption of the Honolulu Strategy, in 2012, representatives of 64 Governments and the European Commission, acting under the auspices of UNEP, sought to give a further push to global regulatory efforts by adopting the Manila Declaration on furthering the Global Programme of Action for the Protection of the Marine Environment from Land-based Activities. Global Programme of Action identified land-based marine litter as a priority area for the period 2012–2016 at the international, regional and national levels. Following the recommendations of the Manila Declaration, the Global Partnership on Marine Litter was launched at the Rio+20 Summit (2012). It is a global partnership gathering together international agencies, governments, nongovernmental organisations, academia, the private sector, civil society and individuals. It primarily seeks to protect human health and the global environment by the reduction and management of marine litter as well as giving impetus to the implementation of the 2011 Honolulu Strategy.

Addressing Plastics as Hazardous Waste

Basel Convention
Multilateral environmental agreements have emerged as a potent tool used by sovereign States to address global environmental problems. In fact, there seems to be a growing tendency among States to push for global agreements, especially to regulate sectoral environmental problems. Over the past four decades, a gradually thickening web of multilateral environmental regulatory tools has been developing, embodying a lawmaking approach that has resulted in a flurry of global environmental instruments, each adopted to deal with a specific issue. Concerning the challenge of plastic wastes, the Basel Convention on the Control of Transboundary Movements of Hazardous Wastes and their Disposal is the most comprehensive global environmental treaty that regulates hazardous and other wastes. Its overarching objective is to protect human health and the environment from the adverse effects of hazardous and other wastes (including household wastes). Some plastics are listed as “hazardous wastes” under the Convention and many household wastes may include plastics. In fact, under the umbrella of the Basel Convention, several aspects such as “minimization of the generation of wastes, their environmentally sound management as well as the control of their transboundary movement” could apply to plastics.

The sixth Conference of Parties (COP) meeting of the Basel Convention (2002) adopted the technical guidelines for the identification and environmentally sound management of plastic wastes and for their disposal. In the main, the COP’s decisions and approach sought to focus on technical aspects of the management of plastic wastes, with particular emphasis on their recycling. However, the volume of household wastes in many countries is growing. Their origin, composition and characteristics give an indication that they may contain hazardous materials mixed with non-hazardous materials. More recently, in order to understand the problem as well as to work out a proper plan for environmentally sound management of household wastes, the Basel Convention Parties set up an informal group, which has proposed, inter alia, the establishment of a Household Waste Partnership. A COP-13 decision specifically included a mandate to consider relevant options for addressing marine plastic litter and microplastics in the work programme of the Open-ended Working Group for the biennium 2018–19.

UN Sustainable Development Summit
The UN Sustainable Development Summit, held in New York in 2015, became an epoch-making event when it finally adopted a blueprint built around a set of 17 sustainable development goals (SDGs), to be addressed in a 15-year cycle. The SDGs were essentially designed as a sequel to the millennium development goals adopted at the UN Millennium Summit in 2000. The UNGA indicated that the SDGs are to be realised in an “incremental, persuasive and leisurely way”,23 to serve as the plan of action for a renewed quest to promote the global development of people, planet, prosperity, peace and partnership. The goals expressed in the SDGs include addressing challenges as diverse as inequality in living standards, infrastructure, water and sanitation, empowerment of women, access to modern energy, quality education, healthy lives, poverty and hunger. SDG-14 explicitly aims to “prevent and significantly reduce marine pollution of all kinds, in particular from land-based activities, including marine debris and nutrient pollution”.

In 2016, seeking to contribute to the attainment of the SDG 14, the UN Environment Assembly (UNEA) adopted Resolution 2/11 (2016) on marine litter and microplastics. As a corollary, in December 2017, it called all actors to step up actions, by 2025, to “prevent and significantly reduce marine pollution of all kinds, in particular from land-based activities, including marine debris and nutrient pollution”. It established an Ad Hoc Open-Ended Expert Group on Marine Litter and Microplastics (AOEG), which will undertake a comprehensive study of all barriers to combating marine litter and microplastics, including challenges related to resources in developing countries, and has a mandate to identify national, regional and international response options to combat marine litter and microplastics. The first AOEG meeting was held in May 2018 where it examined measures such as upstream management, integrated waste management, improved product labelling, also considering the adverse effect of fossil fuel subsidies on recycling efforts. UNEP also launched the UN Clean Seas Campaign in January 2017 in an attempt to increase global awareness of the need to reduce marine litter. In view of the wide variety of purposes for which plastics have come to assume centre stage, the approaches and efficacy of measures to combat plastics differ in different parts of the world. It is reflected in a lack of proper waste management infrastructure in some areas, while in others the challenge remains as to how to engage the general public’s awareness of the impact plastic litter has on the environment.

The Need to Make Choices

It is indeed a matter of serious concern that no part of the planet is free from the scourge of plastic wastes. Many countries are saddled with mountains of water containers, supermarket bags, polystyrene lumps, compact discs, cigarette filter tips, nylons and other plastics. Some are in the form of microscopic grains, others in lumps. The impact is often highly damaging. Even the polar regions, generally considered to be pristine zones, are now getting affected by plastics as is the case with mountain areas and rivers where tourists and rafters leave a trail of plastics behind, even on Mount Everest. In this context, the 2018 WED theme of “Beat Plastic Pollution” is a robust call for action to combat one of the greatest environmental challenges of our times. The theme invites all to consider how to make changes to reduce the heavy burden of plastic pollution on our natural places, wildlife and human health. It challenges us to make simple yet informed choices (e.g., carrying reusable shopping bags, coffee mugs, water bottles, etc.) and to support innovative measures, as exemplified by a canal tour company in Amsterdam which has initiated a campaign called “Plastic Fishing”, which engages tourists as volunteers to catch floating plastic in fishing nets. In another example, there is an age-old tradition in West Bengal, India of using small cups made of clay (bhars) that serves as a natural alternative to disposable paper or plastic cups.

Having been the global host for 2018 WED, India now needs to lead the way by making concerted efforts to clean its rivers and beaches cluttered with piles of plastic litter. Its Plastic Waste Management Rules 2016 are a useful contribution to these efforts. Section 5 of the Rules talks about plastic waste management:
(a) plastic waste, which can be recycled, shall be channelized to registered plastic waste recyclers and recycling of plastic shall conform to the Indian Standard: IS 14534:1998 titled as Guidelines for Recycling of Plastics, as amended from time to time;
(b) local bodies shall encourage the use of plastic waste (preferably the plastic waste which cannot be further recycled) for road construction as per Indian Road Congress guidelines or energy recovery or waste to oil etc. The standards and pollution control norms specified by the prescribed authority for these technologies shall be complied with;
(c) Thermo set plastic waste shall be processed and disposed off as per the guidelines issued from time to time by the Central Pollution Control Board; and
(d) The inert from recycling or processing facilities of plastic waste shall be disposed of in compliance with the Solid Waste Management Rules, 2000 or as amended from time to time.

A recent decision by the National Green Tribunal banning the use of plastic bags of less than 50 microns also shows that modest legal measures are underway. However, their success will depend upon corresponding changes in societal attitudes and habits.

A New “Common Concern”?

Banning plastic products is not the solution as plastic plays an important role in the daily lives of people and the economy. It performs multiple functions that can help in taking care of a number of societal challenges in many countries especially those with emerging economies. Light and innovative materials in cars or planes could save fuel and cut CO2 emissions. In packaging, plastics help ensure food safety and reduce food waste. Combined with 3D printing, biocompatible plastic materials can save human lives by enabling medical innovation. However, the problem lies in the way plastics are currently produced, used and discarded.

plastic pollution

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