Expert Speak Terra Nova
Published on Jun 05, 2023
This year’s World Environment Day is aiming to steer individuals, corporations, and governments towards the shared vision of reducing plastic production, consumption, and waste mismanagement
Collective action against plastic pollution: A global priority agenda Pollution from plastic is a growing concern due to the increased production of disposable and single-use plastics, making them a ubiquitous issue and prompting widespread action plans for mitigation. The rapid growth in the usage of plastics is attributed to their physical properties, such as ease of moulding and impermeable nature to liquids and gases. Global plastic production has grown continuously, doubling from around 230 million tons at the turn of the century to more than 450 million tons just before the COVID-19 outbreak. While the pandemic had short- and long-run impacts on output across sectors due to reduced economic activities, the consequences for plastics differed. During the pandemic, plastic was increasingly used to produce protective gear and masks. The use of plastics in medical applications was seen as a major contribution towards public safety and the healthcare sector. The face mask mandate by governments across the globe resulted in a spike in the supply of masks. Further, the demand for polymers rose due to an increase in the production of PPE kits; the demand for polycarbonate for face shields also grew, along with other medical equipment required during the pandemic such as propionate, acetate, PVC or polyethene terephthalate glycol. In contrast, heavy plastics used for construction and manufacturing decreased, leading to a net reduction in plastic production compared to 2019 levels.
The rapid growth in the usage of plastics is attributed to their physical properties, such as ease of moulding and impermeable nature to liquids and gases.
Although plastics proved to be an essential element during the health crisis, their harmful effects, particularly their usage of nano- and micro-plastics have not been ignored. Exposure to microplastics and toxic chemicals through inhalation and skin contact has proven to be carcinogenic, capable of inducing brain damage and being potentially fatal. Humans and animals are exposed to the harmful effects of plastic during its production, consumption, and  disposal. Although the exact amount of plastic ingestion by humans is not clear, according to a report by the World Wildlife Fund (WWF), it is estimated that an average human could be ingesting around five grams of plastic weekly. According to a 2019 estimate, plastic pollution-induced diseases have killed 400,000 to one million people in developing countries annually. Thus, there is a need for regulatory intervention to address plastic pollution to protect both human health and the environment. In this regard, the United Nations Environment Assembly passed a resolution in March 2022 to develop a legally binding agreement to end plastic pollution. It formed the Intergovernmental Negotiating Committee (INC) on plastic pollution, which aims to complete the agreement draft by 2024 that would cover critical aspects of the lifecycles of plastics and design recyclable and reusable products and materials. Thus, aiming towards plastic diplomacy based on enhanced international cooperation enables countries to access technologies and scientific knowledge-sharing for a collaborative approach to tackle plastic pollution. According to the recent United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) report, global plastic pollution can be reduced by 80 percent by 2040, provided countries and companies commit to systemic changes. While analysing data on plastic waste, per-capita waste generation is found to be greater in high-income countries, but it is found that lower- and middle-income countries have  to marine plastic pollution. One of the reasons for this is that these economies have a higher percentage of mismanaged plastic waste. At the same time, it is important to consider the waste trade wherein a few richer countries export their plastic waste to poorer countries. However, the importing countries are often unaware if these wastes can be recycled. As per a report by Basel Action Network, the waste trade has continued to grow rampantly despite the Basel Convention, which aimed to regulate the movement of hazardous wastes. Of the total disposed off plastic, data shows that less than 10 percent is recycled. At the same time, the rest has either found its way to landfills or been released into the environment, particularly water bodies. This is a cause for concern due to its potential to alter natural processes and habitats, reducing the ecosystem’s ability to adapt to climate change. 
Exposure to microplastics and toxic chemicals through inhalation and skin contact has proven to be carcinogenic, capable of inducing brain damage and being potentially fatal.
In global politics, the issue of climate change has been growing to be perceived as a security challenge. The increased involvement and discussions in the United Nations General Assembly, United Nations Security Council, G7, and G20 summits prove this. The issues of climate change and plastic pollution have emerged as non-traditional security issues, providing an avenue for research using various theoretical and conceptual frameworks such as the Green Theory in International Relations (IR), Constructivism theory, and the Securitization theory of the Copenhagen School. Barry Buzan has emphasised environmental security as an essential support system for humans. The securitisation of the issue has catalysed the state to respond effectively, by making it an issue of high politics where political leaders become accountable and responsible for negotiating for human and health security. With plastic pollution being a major threat to health and climate change, it necessitates a multilevel and collective action that can navigate through the geopolitical complexity of the issue. Issues such as microplastics in oceans are global and would require the consensus of diverse stakeholders along with the active participation of international organisations with the support of subnational entities. The concern now is if and how the existing intellectual and structural international architecture can cooperate to address global issues like plastic pollution. There is a need for a tailored package—a mixture of policy interventions and legislative instruments, which clearly define the goals and commitments of the stakeholders, individuals, corporations, and states. Therefore, the meetings, such as the second session of the Intergovernmental Negotiating Committee between 29 May and 2 June 2023, play a vital role in developing regulatory instruments while a continuum to existing norms are enabled with a degree of coercion to ensure compliance.
As per a report by Basel Action Network, the waste trade has continued to grow rampantly despite the Basel Convention, which aimed to regulate the movement of hazardous wastes.
It is imperative to formulate interventions that promote behavioural changes to curb plastic pollution by encouraging citizens to conduct themselves responsibly by reusing, recycling, reorienting, and diversifying as promoted by the UNEP. This can be achieved through awareness campaigns by educating people about the effects of plastic pollution and incentivising responsible plastic-waste disposal. On the policy front, local governments should increase investment in waste management infrastructure to ensure safe disposal and avoid plastic leakage. This basic initiative is critical in mitigating health and environmental hazards by reducing mismanaged plastics. Roads, cycling lanes, and walking pathways using plastic waste have proved to perform better than traditionally asphalted roads. India, which has been involved in building plastic roads, can promote this efficient method of plastic waste management. Several countries have already implemented Extended Producer Responsibility (EPR) to curb plastic pollution as it decreases the cost associated with the disposal of packaging and waste material by the producers. Under the EPR, charge for collecting and recycling plastic materials are levied on companies, incentivising them to reduce the usage of plastic and shift towards other environment-friendly materials. The EPR’s implementation across Europe has contributed towards improved waste collection and increased recycling rates. In France, it helped in reducing public spending on waste management, as approximately 15 percent of the cost was collected by EPR schemes.
There is a need for a tailored package—a mixture of policy interventions and legislative instruments, which clearly define the goals and commitments of the stakeholders, individuals, corporations, and states.
Companies could be incentivised to adhere to the EPR norms by tagging Environmental, Social and Governance (ESG) ratings with compliance scores. ESG reporting has grown to become one of the crucial indicators for businesses to prove their commitment towards sustainability by providing intuitional measures to manage environmental and social impacts. Therefore, mandating companies on their compliance with EPR during ESG reporting might lead them to take more proactive actions towards reducing their plastic footprints. Viewing climate change through the lens of securitisation helps to focus on the associated risks such as triggering cross-boundary conflicts, causing instability to businesses, and affecting the livelihoods of vulnerable groups. Plastic pollution has far-reaching social and economic implications around the world. This year’s World Environment Day, which also marks its 50th anniversary, has committed to focusing on “Solutions to Plastic Pollution”. It is a good platform for steering individuals, communities, corporations, and governments towards the shared vision of reducing plastic production, consumption, and waste mismanagement. The visible threat of plastic pollution calls for continuous deliberation to work towards gathering more data on the prevalence and effects of the presence of such materials in the long run, which could help in formulating adequate, efficient, and robust regulations.
Kiran Bhatt is a Research Fellow at the Centre for Health Diplomacy, Department of Global Health, Prasanna School of Public Health Aniruddha Inamdar is a Research Fellow at the Centre for Health Diplomacy, Prasanna School of Public Health. Sanjay Pattanshetty, Head of the Department of Global Health Governance and Coordinator of Centre for Health Diplomacy, Prasanna School of Public Health. Helmut Brand is the Founding Director of Prasanna School of Public Health.
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Contributors

Aniruddha Inamdar

Aniruddha Inamdar

Aniruddha Inamdar is a Research Fellow at the Centre for Health Diplomacy Prasanna School of Public Health. He is a recipient of the ERASMUS+ scholarship ...

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Helmut Brand

Helmut Brand

Prof. Dr.Helmut Brand is the founding director of Prasanna School of Public Health Manipal Academy of Higher Education (MAHE) Manipal Karnataka India. He is alsoJean ...

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Sanjay Pattanshetty

Sanjay Pattanshetty

Dr. Sanjay Pattanshetty Head of the Department of Global Health Governance and Coordinator of Centre for Health Diplomacy Prasanna School of Public Health Manipal Academy ...

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Kiran Bhatt

Kiran Bhatt

Kiran Bhatt is a Research Fellow at the Centre for Health Diplomacy Department of Global Health Prasanna School of Public Health Manipal Academy of Higher ...

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