Regulatory Regimes to Reduce Plastic Pollution

Can Extended Producer Responsibility schemes work for ocean plastic pollution?

The past year has seen a sharp increase in awareness and action on the issue of ocean plastic pollution. The challenge is significant – it is estimated that there are over 150 million tons of plastic already in the ocean with an additional 8 million tons of plastic entering the ocean each year. The cost to marine life, fisheries, humans and tourism is significant; and companies, industry associations, and governments around the world are taking actions to curb growth in pollution and reduce existing pollution.

For example, a growing number of companies have announced efforts to reduce or eliminate the use of plastic straws; over 250 organizations have joined a recently launched New Plastics Economy Global Commitment focused on reducing waste and pollution;  and UK supermarkets and food manufacturers launched the new voluntary UK Plastics Pact focused on transforming packaging and reducing avoidable plastic waste.

Governments are also taking action: In October 2018, the European Parliament voted to approve measures focused on single-use plastic across the continent. Several measures call for schemes to push manufacturers to take on more responsibility for what happens to their plastic products and packaging at the end-of-life stage. Additional measures include a ban on plastic cutlery and plates, cotton buds, straws, drink-stirrers and balloon sticks (products for which there are readily available alternatives, such as paper straws and cardboard containers); reduction targets by 2025 for other items such as burger boxes and sandwich wrappers; and a reduction in the consumption of wet wipes of 30% by 2025 and 50% by 2030.

These measures raise questions on whether Extended Producer Responsibility (EPR) schemes for small, individual items that collectively create waste and garbage can be effectively implemented – and if so, how to structure the schemes. An EPR scheme may be defined as a public policy in which manufacturers bear the financial and sometimes physical responsibility for the product throughout its entire life cycle. In this case, producers are responsible for the collection, transportation, treatment, and final disposal of the product at the end-of-life stage. EPR schemes have been used for a wide range of products like electronics, batteries and vehicles that pose a risk of damage to the environment.

Recent research by NERA outlined the respective challenges of three common approaches of EPR schemes as a measure to mitigate single-use plastic pollution (Exhibit 1).

Exbibit 1: Illustrative Extended Producer Responsibility Schemes

Practically, issues of efficiency and complexity arise for single use plastic products that form the bulk of littering and ultimately ocean plastic. The application of an EPR scheme can be easily derived for individual products that are collected separately. However, single use plastics are typically collected alongside other products that also litter the environment. Therefore, an EPR scheme should include all the products collected (full market coverage) instead of schemes specifically targeting single products such as cigarette butts or straws (partial market coverage). This would require structuring an EPR scheme involving multiple manufactures across a wide range of sectors.

Given the challenges in designing and implementing ERP schemes for small individual items, tackling plastic waste and pollution will require multiple approaches to reinforcement such as:

  • Awareness initiatives that address and call attention to uncivil behaviour associated with littering. Research has shown a positive relationship between an individual’s environmental knowledge, their perception of norms, and their behaviour with respect to environmental issues. Raising awareness, combined with information and signage on where and how to dispose of litter, can help reduce littering.
  • Deterrent measures such as on-the-spot fines. In Italy, for example, the fine for cigarette butt littering has been equal to €300 since December 2015.
  • “Nudges” which avoid command-and-control measures, such as bans or caps, and focus on how to steer people towards the desired choice. For example, nudging consumers not to use plastic straws in drinks by requiring businesses to only give them out if explicitly requested