The globe is facing a plastic pollution problem. Single-use plastics have undoubtedly played an important role in international commercial development, but they now saturate the world’s coastlines and landfills. However, heightened public and private action and overall awareness indicate an increased willingness by the international community to develop the types of sustainable solutions necessary to effectuate long-term change. As nations continue to reduce their reliance on single-use plastics, greater consideration should be given to an approach that utilizes the existing international legal framework, while building on current national and local efforts.
Plastic waste obviously poses a serious problem to the environment, but the focus is often on where plastic ends up, rather than where it came from or why. Understanding the history leading to the proliferation of single-use plastic is an important step in developing alternative solutions. Single-use plastic is wildly popular because it is cheap. The petrochemical industry is responsible for extracting the fossil fuels used to produce 99% of plastic. Because of this, the affordability of plastic is largely tied to global oil production, which has experienced a dramatic uptick resulting from new technologies like fracking. Similarly, successful lobbying efforts by these large petrochemical companies has led them to secure significant subsidies to further reduce operating expenses and produce cheap plastic. Additionally, the petrochemical industry has cleverly marketed their products, pushing for consumers to take personal responsibility for waste reduction. As long as plastic remains cheap to make and is heavily supported by fossil fuel subsidies, plastic will keep coming. In emerging markets like Africa, single-use plastic packaging has been growing in popularity.
For countries in the global West, “recycling” often means exporting the trash and then turning an eye to the problem. Importing plastic waste is a booming industry, but single-use plastic products are not as recyclable as people often believe. Today, much of the world’s plastic waste ends up in landfills in Southeast Asia. Up until recently, China bought a significant portion of the world’s plastic waste, recycled it, and sold it back into the market. However in 2017, China announced it would ban imports of plastic waste. After China stopped accepting the world’s plastic, much of it got diverted to countries like Thailand, Indonesia, and Vietnam, but Malaysia has been the key country to step forward in China’s place.  The Malaysian government estimated that the plastic waste import industry in the country was worth up to $840 million in 2019. Unfortunately, recyclers have been unable to keep up with the flow of plastic coming into the country—leaving Malaysia responsible for disposing of the world’s plastic waste. In an attempt to make profit from the overflowing plastic waste, illegal plastic recycling operations have popped up. Different types of plastic have different value and illegal recycling operations buy mixed plastic in bulk, then burn or dump the material that is less valuable to process, further contributing to environmental pollution. Amidst growing complaints about illegal recyclers and the sheer volume of plastic waste coming into the country, the Malaysian government set forth a plan to entirely phase out plastic waste importation over the next three years. Malaysia’s eventual plastic importation ban has placed increasing pressure on other governments to ban and develop alternatives to single-use plastics.
Upwards of 50 countries have imposed varying bans on single-use plastic goods, and a 2018 United Nations Environment report found that at least 127 countries have adopted some form of legislation to regulate plastic bags in particular. Groups of states have also begun enacting regional policies. The East African Legislative Assembly passed a bill banning the manufacture, sale, import and use of certain plastic materials across its six member states. In 2018, the European Union Parliament approved a ban on a handful of sing-use plastic items by 2021, including cutlery, plastic plates and straws. The ban also calls for a 25% reduction in single-use plastic food packaging by 2025, and a 90% reduction in plastic bottles by 2029. While many of these efforts are still in their beginning phases, the United Nations has estimated that 30% of these measures have reduced consumption of plastics. This figure suggests that such measures are effective and that further multilateral phase-out efforts are worthwhile, perhaps even in the form of an international treaty.
There is precedent for the successful creation and implementation of multilateral phase-out treaties. The most obvious is the 1987 Montreal Protocol on Substances that Deplete the Ozone Layer (“1987 Protocol”), which created a phase-out plan for the use of chlorofluorocarbons in a variety of products.  Chlorofluorocarbons contributed greatly to ozone depletion. The 1987 Protocol has been hailed as an example of international cooperation, in part due to its widespread adoption and implementation. The 1987 Protocol mandated effective burden sharing and provided financial support to countries needing help transitioning out of chlorofluorocarbon usage. As the impacts of plastic pollution continue to be felt, phasing out single-use plastics is becoming increasingly important, and the creation of a multilateral treaty similar to the 1987 Protocol could provide the mechanism for such a plan. An international plastic phase-out treaty could build on the regional, national and local frameworks that already exist and would likely create opportunities for businesses to develop more plastic substitutes.
Malaysia and China’s experiences with plastic waste importation have demonstrated that the burden to recycle the world’s plastic is too heavy for any single country to shoulder. The plastic pollution problem is complex, and it requires equally complex, global solutions. There is a need to call for increased producer responsibility. Companies should design their products with a plan for how they will be reused, composted or effectively recycled. Similarly, efforts need to be put in place to better educate consumers on the plastic supply chain. International leaders should push back against the large fossil fuel companies who are fighting to keep the single-use plastic system in place with their extensive monetary and lobbying power. And, the international community should pursue phase-out plans that utilize existing international legal framework and build on national and local efforts.
- The Revelator, The Story of Plastic: New Film Exposes the Source of Our Plastic Crisis, EcoWatch (Oct. 12, 2019), available at https://www.ecowatch.com/story-of-plastic-new-film-2640943980.html?rebelltitem=1#rebelltitem1. ↑
- Id. ↑
- Id. ↑
- Zoë Schlanger, A Documentary That Will Never Let You See Plastic the Same Way Again, Quartz (Dec. 12, 2019), available at https://qz.com/1764780/the-story-of-plastic-changes-the-way-we-think-about-consumption/. ↑
- Kenneth Chaw, Netflix highlights Malaysia’s plastic dumping problem in documentary, Asia One (Dec. 17, 2019), available at https://www.asiaone.com/entertainment/netflix-highlights-malaysias-plastic-dumping-problem-documentary. ↑
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- Schlanger, supra note 4. ↑
- DeAnne Toto, Number of illegal plastics recycling plants in Malaysia grows, Recycling Today (Jan. 28, 2019), available at https://www.recyclingtoday.com/article/impact-of-illegal-plastics-recycling-plants-malaysia/. ↑
- Supra note 5. ↑
- Id. ↑
- Ivan Watson, China’s recycling ban has sent America’s plastic to Malaysia. Now they don’t want it—so what’s next?, CNN (April 27, 2019), available at https://www.cnn.com/2019/04/26/asia/malaysia-plastic-recycle-intl/index.html. ↑
- Brian Taylor, Malaysia takes another step back from plastic scrap, Recycling Today (Oct. 31, 2018), available at https://www.recyclingtoday.com/article/malaysia-plastic-scrap-imports-phase-out-three-years/. ↑
- Brian C. Howard, et al., A Running List of Action on Plastic Pollution, National Geographic (June 10, 2019), available at https://www.nationalgeographic.com/environment/2018/07/ocean-plastic-pollution-solutions/. ↑
- Carole Excell, 127 Countries Now Regulate Plastic Bags. Why Aren’t We Seeing Less Pollution?, World Resources Institute (March 11, 2019), available at https://www.wri.org/blog/2019/03/127-countries-now-regulate-plastic-bags-why-arent-we-seeing-less-pollution. ↑
- East African Legislative Assembly, EALA Passes Bill on Polythene Materials Control (2019), available at http://www.eala.org/media/view/eala-passes-bill-on-polythene-materials-control. ↑
- European Parliament, Parliament Seals Ban on Throwaway Plastics by 2021 (March 27, 2019), available at https://www.europarl.europa.eu/news/en/press-room/20190321IPR32111/parliament-seals-ban-on-throwaway-plastics-by-2021. ↑
- Id. ↑
- U.N. Environment, Single-use Plastics: A Roadmap for Sustainability (2018), available at https://wedocs.unep.org/bitstream/handle/20.500.11822/25496/singleUsePlastic_sustainability.pdf?isAllowed=y&sequence=1. ↑
- Montreal Protocol on Substances that Deplete the Ozone Layer art. 5, Sept. 16, 1987, S. Treaty Doc. No. 100-10 (1987), 1522 U.N.T.S. 29, 34. ↑
- Id. ↑
- Id. ↑