Plastic debris was already observed in the world’s oceans in the 1960s. From then on, the contamination of ecosystems by plastic debris started to raise concerns. Nevertheless, to this day governance has not been successful in tackling the issue of plastics.
Why is that? What is holding us back to take appropriate measures? In this blog, we describe some of the key challenges and possible approaches to overcome these challenges.
Our reliance on plastics has left us with a so-called ‘wicked problem’. Wicked problems are problems that are difficult to solve as they characterized by many interdependent factors, making them highly complex. Plastic in the environment can be seen as trash, a resource and as an economic, societal and systematic problem, making it a transboundary issue. These different layers and the interconnectedness of the problem complicate the development and implementation of effective governance strategies. There are already many well-intentioned initiatives out there that focus on one specific aspect of the problem, such as material design, source reduction, plastic reuse, recycling, and many more. However, to develop a strategy with maximum benefits, while minimizing undesired consequences, it is important to apply an integrated, multidisciplinary approach that takes into account the context of the entire plastic supply chain.
Speaking of a system-wide approach, it is important to discuss some considerations for plastics in relation to the circular economy. Though circularity is a promising idea, it is important to remember that, firstly, economic growth will in most cases demand a perpetual inflow of new materials. Secondly, recycling as a strategy should only be applied after reducing and repeated reuse, as continuously down-cycling material streams, such as plastics, lowers the quality and will inevitably result in waste. Moreover, additives also flow through the cycles, polluting future resource streams. Therefore, in order to successfully implement circularity, it is recommended to look at the system as a whole and take action accordingly.
Another challenge has to do with the involvement and collaboration with actors from across the supply chain. One obstacle has to do with the overlapping and, at times, conflicting agendas of actors, which complicate the collective commitment needed to change the incentives and rules around plastics. These overlapping agendas also appeared in the tire case study of the LABPLAS project. This was reflected in how certain stakeholder groups had a different point of view than others and thought in different possibilities. Secondly, plastic pollution is a problem that should be solved at a global level, however, it is often seen as a local problem. This leads to a challenge concerning responsibility the and accountability. In order to overcome these challenges it is important to foster constructive collaboration in order to develop an effective strategy that is carried and supported by enough actors in the field. To support this collaboration it is important that discussions are founded on factual information that is translatable to governance. This need for factual information was emphasized in the collaboration with stakeholders in the LABPLAS project’s case study on tires, as certain stakeholders suffered reputational damage in the past due to possible factual inaccuracies.
Creating scientific evidence that can support decision making is one of the aims of the LABPLAS project. To this end, the project brings together a range of stakeholders, explores the potential of technological advances, and collects modelling and real-life data.
In short, we need a holistic, integrated approach that uses scientific expertise, stakeholder participation and supply chain-wide strategies to address plastic pollution. Governance can play a key role in bringing these aspects together, while research projects like the LABPLAS project can play an important role in creating a solid scientific foundation. There are a number of obstacles to take, but with the right approach and mindset it is possible to overcome themI