How to curb the world’s plastics pollution problem

Transforming the global plastic packaging market requires a suite of solutions, from public policy interventions and corporate commitments to sustainability and financial incentives, as well as changes in human behavior, according to an expert in the Center for Energy Studies at Rice’s Baker Institute for Public Policy.

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Rachel Meidl, fellow in energy and environment at the Baker Institute, outlined her insights in a new report, “Plastics and the Precautionary Principle.”

“Without a doubt, we produce, use and discard massive amounts of plastics each year, but the body of scientific evidence reveals limited understanding of the human health impacts and ecotoxicology of plastics, especially in land-based ecosystems,” Meidl wrote in the report. “Although microplastics are present in aquatic environments and may influence the feeding, growth, reproduction and survival of freshwater and marine biota, the extent and magnitude of potential effects are also still poorly understood. Taken together, this suggests that more definitive scientific examination is needed.”

Given the growing problems associated with plastics, policies invoking a modified version of the precautionary principle might be a useful approach to manage global plastic pollution, Meidl said.

“Traditional versions of the precautionary principle state that when the risks of a particular activity are unclear or unknown, policymakers should avoid or regulate the activity to protect human health and the environment,” she said. “However, modified applications of the precautionary principle do not have to lead to precipitous bans if a gradated and practical approach is applied.”

The lack of understanding could lend support to radical interpretations of the precautionary principle that ultimately result in bans or trade restrictions, Meidl wrote.

“Precaution is certainly a guiding principle that can mediate environmental degradation, and we do have a responsibility to protect public health and the environment, but acute applications of the precautionary principle are not a sound basis for public policy,” she wrote. “Aggressive approaches such as launching plastic bans without safe, equitable and economically proven alternatives are a departure from the historical system of measuring risk and exposure, assessing the reasonableness of that risk and considering the costs and benefits.”

In January, a European scientific advisory body concluded that there was no evidence microplastics pose a widespread risk to the environment and human health.

“Still, a lack of evidence for risk does not imply there is no risk,” Meidl wrote. “Work should also be committed to developing internationally consistent sampling, testing and measurement methods to determine the fate, effects and risks of microplastics and nanoplastics. This could help close the gaps in our limited understanding of the magnitude of potential effects on the ecosystem. Despite growing evidence that additional research is warranted, one single study alone cannot force change.”

Some eco-friendly plastic alternatives, such as biopolymers, were prematurely introduced to the market, Meidl said. Those alternatives ultimately use more energy and have greater impact on the environment than the plastics they were intended to replace, Meidl said. “Thus, applying a strict version of the precautionary principle would lead to banning all existing and future alternatives to plastics,” she wrote.

Meidl also stressed that any idea for reducing plastic pollution that is feasible in one part of the world may not work in all economies, especially when social or political factors are considered.

“For instance, inorganic carbon in plastics does not decompose through the anaerobic digestion processes, and it therefore lacks emissions when disposed in a permitted and secure landfill,” she wrote. “From a policy perspective, in regions or countries that lack recycling infrastructure or advanced technologies and resources, such as Southeast Asia (which happens to have the highest share of mismanaged plastic waste in the world), the lowest carbon choice and perhaps most economical choice may be to manage plastics in a regulated and secure landfill, at least in the short term. While this may not be the most socially or politically palatable choice, it could at the very least prevent the migration of plastics into waterways.”

Meidl concluded, “Local and state governments and the international community are increasingly focusing their policies and resources on plastics management. If applied in a modulated, consistent and practical manner, elements of the precautionary principle, as derived from the EU Commission Communication (of 2000), do not necessarily have to be a policy of absolute risk avoidance. Conversely, in the face of scientific uncertainty, there can still be a science-based approach to risk management that considers a range of scenarios, doses, impacts, costs, benefits and ways to reduce the impact of plastics and their possible alternatives.”

Meidl, who joined the Baker Institute in July 2018, is a former deputy associate administrator of the U.S. Department of Transportation’s Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration. Prior to her role in federal government, Meidl was the director of regulatory and technical affairs at the American Chemistry Council in Washington, D.C., where she advanced a broad range of regulatory and policy issues that involved enforcement, compliance, investigations and litigation.

About Jeff Falk

Jeff Falk is director of national media relations in Rice University's Office of Public Affairs.