According to a report of the World Economic Forum, there will be more plastic in the world’s oceans by 2050 than fish 1“The New Plastics Economy. Rethinking the future of plastics” , World Economic Forum, 2016, p. 7, http://www3.weforum.org/docs/WEF_The_New_Plastics_Economy.pdf, accessed September 22, 2018.. The plastics industry has grown from 15 million tons in the 1960s to 311 million tons in 2014 and it is expected to triple by 2050. Today, plastic amounts to 80% of all ocean debris 2Communication from the Commission to the European Parliament, the Council, the European economic and social Committee and the Committee of the regions “A European strategy for plastics in a circular economy”, Brussels, 16.1.2018 COM(2018) 28 final, p. 1.. While the prevention of waste pollution of the marine environment is ensured by several legal documents on international, regional and national levels, the effectiveness of such initiatives is still not clear. For the present, there is no convention directly dedicated to solving the problem of marine plastic pollution, and no unified mechanisms to regulate and control its spread. Taking into account that marine pollution stems both from land-based and sea-based sources, this article will provide an overview of measures directly regulating marine pollution and more general measures aiming to reduce the production, sale and consumption of plastic, which can play a role in reducing marine pollution.
Back in 2015, the UN General Assembly adopted the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development, which aims to “prevent and significantly reduce marine pollution of all kinds, in particular from land-based activities, including marine debris and nutrient pollution” by 2025. However, this goals seems very difficult to achieve, given that waste management systems and the relevant legislation are very different for country to country. In order to achieve these objectives countries should solve several problems related both to this infrastructure and to the amount of plastic produced, keeping its life cycle in mind. Thus, plastic can be produced, sold, used, recycled or disposed in different regions and affect various ecosystems, causing unpredictable damage to the environment.
Europe produces 25 million tons of plastic waste yearly, and less than 30% of this waste is recycled 3Ibidem.. A significant part of the collected waste is sent for recycling to developing countries, where its fate remains unknown. According to the European Commission, the production of plastic and the incineration of plastic waste leads to the release of about 400 million tons of CO2 per year. Globally, between 5 and 13 million tons of plastic are dumped into the oceans each year. Thus, the plastic industry is harmful to human health, the environment and, in particular, to marine biodiversity. Numerous species, including invertebrates, seabirds, turtles, seals, sea lions, whales and fish, swallow plastic waste or get tangled in it. This constrains their movement, causing infertility, ragged wounds, ulcers and death 4TROUWBORST A., “Managing Marine Litter : Exploring the Evolving Role of International and European Law in Confronting a Persistent Environmental Problem” , Utrecht Journal of International and European Law 27(73),, 2011, p. 7..
A striking example of the complexity of the plastic pollution problem is the Great Pacific garbage patch, where ocean currents bring debris from all over the world. Moreover, a particular concern is the spread of microplastics. When introduced into the food chain, they pose a risk to human health and, in particular, lead to hormonal disorders. Despite the fact that at the moment ocean cleaning technologies are being rapidly developed by private companies to remove visible plastic waste, their activities will not fully solve the problem, the stumbling block of which is microplastics. Although new legal instruments are regularly adopted, the legal framework covering marine plastic pollution is still fragmented and ineffective. The issue is treated differently in developed and developing countries, in different regions and cities. The intensity of a state’s anti-plastic policy is largely determined by whether or not it has access to the sea and by its population’s awareness of pollution issues. We have collected several examples to illustrate the current state of affairs.
Initially, international conventional law did not contain any provisions concerning the issue of plastic pollution as such, including plastic in the category of all other wastes that could be hazardous for the marine environment. For example, in 1982 the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea obliged States to develop a legal framework “to prevent, reduce and control pollution of the marine environment by dumping” 5Article 210 (1). However, according to the Convention, a State “has the right to permit, regulate and control such dumping after due consideration of the matter with other States which by reason of their geographical situation may be adversely affected thereby” 6Article 210 (5).. The pollution of the world ocean by waste, and especially by plastics, is very difficult to control as it is often even difficult to determine the source of this pollution. Thus, the measures envisaged by the Convention to resolve this problem seem to be ineffective.
If we take a look at more modern international instruments, apart from the aforementioned Sustainable Development Agenda of 2015, the UN has also developed a Draft resolution on marine litter and microplastics. As a result, an Ad Hoc Working Group was established to study the obstacles to combat marine litter and microplastics and to identify the range of response options and their various economic, social and environmental costs. At the last meeting of the working group in May 2018, the importance of both public and private initiatives in the fight against pollution was underlined.
However, private initiatives in this field are no longer unusual. For example, in 2017 a Cross Industry Agreement for the prevention of microplastic release into the aquatic environment during the washing of synthetic textiles was signed. In addition, major global brands are also switching to a more environmentally friendly lifestyle: McDonald’s plans to ban plastic straws in its restaurants in Ireland and the UK before 2019, and IKEA committed to withdraw disposable plastic from its stores and restaurants by 2020. Such initiatives are very important, because microplastics and larger pieces of single-use plastic end up in rivers, and subsequently in oceans. Thus, the more corporations ban plastic, the less plastic ends up in oceans.
The European Union and the developed countries There have also been some developments on both regional and national levels. In 2018 the European Union has published several documents aiming to reduce marine plastic pollution and the use of disposable plastics. Thus, the draft EU directive “On the Reduction of the Impact of Certain Plastic Products on the Environment” 7Proposal for a Directive of the European Parliament and of the Council on the Reduction of the Impact of Certain Plastic Products on the Environment, Brussels, 28.5.2018 COM(2018) 340 final. envisages various measures regarding basic plastic products usually found in the sea (food containers, disposable cups, balloons and plastic holders for them, plastic bags, tobacco products, personal hygiene items, etc.). Different measures are provided for each type of plastic, such as consumption reduction, market restrictions, producers responsibility, awareness raising measures (see the chart below). In addition, this year the European Commission has developed an EU strategy for plastics in a circular economy 8Сommunication From the European Commission, “A European Strategy for Plastics in a Circular Economy”, Brussels, 16.1.2018 COM(2018) 28 final..
Similar trends are observed in some US cities. For instance, in 2007 San Francisco became the first city to ban plastic bags. Two years later, Washington introduced a 5 cents fee for plastic bags, and in December 2018, Boston also plans to ban ordinary plastic bags, while retaining the 5 cent fee for biodegradable or paper bags. Thus, Boston is going to prompt consumers to switch to reusable shopping bags. In the US, several hundred cities and municipalities have joined the movement to ban plastic bags.
Along with other developed countries, Australia and New Zealand also joined the fight against the plastic epidemic. In July 2018, Australia introduced a complete ban on plastic bags, and New Zealand plans to follow suit next year. While the ban on plastic bags or the introduction of fees for their use has clearly proven effective in reducing their consumption in supermarkets, the solution to the problem of the use of other disposable plastic items is still shelved and does not show such bright results. While demand for plastic bags has dropped down to 86% since the introduction of fees in some countries, stopping the mass consumption of this habitual item is only a small part of what should be done to reduce the pollution of the seas.
Differences between EU countries and Russia
In order to compare the plastic policies of the EU member states and Russia, it is worth taking the example of France, which has been actively working on implementing and improving separate waste collection infrastructure since 2011. The basic principles of environmental law (such as the prevention principle, the sustainable development principle and the precautionary principle, etc.) are enshrined as environmental rights of French citizens in the Environmental Code and the Charter for the Environment, which is part of the French Constitution. There is also a law regulating plastic pollution 9Loi transition énergétique : https://www.legifrance.gouv.fr/affichTexte.do;jsessionid=A9EFD72755B813B6E99E38ED0C4A1E20.tplgfr21s_2?cidTexte=JORFTEXT000031044385&categorieLien=id.
This law stipulates gradual inclusion of all types of plastic into the system of waste separation and recycling by 2022. France is also planning to completely ban disposable plastic cups and plates unsuitable for household composting by January 2020. Passing out free plastic bags and selling them at the cash desk has been banned by the law since 2016, while the distribution of disposable plastic bags intended for packaging of goods in retail outlets has been banned since 2017, with the exception of bags that are fully or partially made of biomaterials.
A minimum amount of these biomaterials in plastic bags was established by a special decree. Moreover, the so-called oxo-biodegradable plastic bags, that are in fact ordinary plastic bags coated with a special solution in order to accelerate their degradation, are also banned. Despite the fact that such packages decompose faster, they are not absorbed by microorganisms and cannot be composted. In addition, sending advertisements, magazines and newspapers by mail if they are packed in non-biodegradable and non-compostable plastic was prohibited in the same year. A parliamentary report on the impact of the new rules on the environment and the country’s economy is also in the works.
Unlike France, Russia has no Environmental Code and lacks any laws dedicated to the regulation of plastic pollution. The Russian Constitution does not enshrine the fundamental principles of environmental law. Practically, the Constitution does not guarantee anything except the right to a healthy environment in Article 42 and the obligation to preserve nature, natural resources and the environment in the Article 58. However, new amendments to the law On production and consumption waste have been introduced and will come into effect in January 2019. According to these amendments, local authorities will have the authority to collect (as well as separately collect), transport, process and dispose solid household waste 10Article 8 as of 29 July 2018.. Given that such decisions will be made on the local level, citizens and NGOs will be able to have more influence in developing the infrastructure for the separate collection of waste and in questions concerning the location of waste collection points and recycling plants.
While Russian legislators seem to have made an important step towards a new plastic waste management policy, its positive impact is still very uncertain. For instance, the aforementioned law vests in the local authorities not a “duty” to organize separate waste collection, but only a “power.” This clearly does not add much strength to the new amendment. In addition, in order to obtain funding for construction and reconstruction of waste collection points, local authorities have to prepare an investment program and go through a series of bureaucratic procedures. This issue is even more critical in coastal cities, where plastic waste is prone to end up in the sea very quickly if not collected properly.
However, there are still some positive points. This year several Russian cities (for example Sochi and some Moscow satellite towns) have installed containers for separate waste collection on the threshold of changes in legislation. Unlike the EU Directive proposal on single-use plastic, neither the aforementioned French legislation nor the new version of Russian law contain provisions considering the life cycle of plastic and the prevention of marine plastic pollution.
It is worth noting that some private Russian companies have taken the iniative to ban plastic. This summer, the Retail Companies Association, which includes such Russia’s biggest retail chains such as Pyaterochka, Perekrestok and Karusel, Magnit, Lenta, Auchan, and Dixie, has reported that negotiations have been launched on banning plastic bags and replacing them with paper or fabric bags. Despite the attempts of companies to be more socially responsible, it is worth planning the transition to more environmentally friendly packaging in a reasonable way. Thus, in terms of carbon dioxide emissions leading to global warming, paper bags are much worse than plastic ones. In addition, while paper bags recycling requires a large amount of water, production of new bags out of raw pulp leads not only to excessive use of water resources but also to deforestation. It turns out that disposable bags, whether they are made of plastic or paper are not an option. The best solution is to use reusable fabric bags, which, unfortunately, are very difficult to find in ordinary Russian supermarkets.
While measures are being taken to reduce the use of plastic bags in many developed countries, consumption of other types of disposable plastic, tons of which are being dumped into the world ocean, is still not controlled properly and, obviously, it is difficult for countries to switch sharply to a new regime. For example, the UK only plans to completely ban disposable plastic within the next 25 years, and is currently only gradually increasing restrictions on the sale of plastic bags. While in 2015 the UK introduced a 5 pence fee for plastic bags in the country’s 7 largest retail chains, this year it plans to double the fee and to extend the new rule to all stores. Meanwhile, developing countries are more rigorous in their plastic policies.
In India, the ban on plastic bags came into force in 2016, and according to the Indian Prime Minister, all disposable plastic will be banned by 2022. Meanwhile, Costa Rica plans to ban single-use plastic, including plastic straws, bottles, cutlery, cups and bags, by 2021. To achieve this objective, the Costa Rican government invests money in the development of alternatives to disposable plastic. Dominica, a small island country in the Caribbean, plans to completely ban disposable plastic, styrofoam cups and food containers by January 2019. The country also wants to become the world’s first climate-resilient nation.
One of the most vivid examples of the movement to ban plastic among developing countries is Kenya. In August 2017, together with a total ban on plastic bags, a fine of $40,000 or an imprisonment of up to 4 years for production, sale or use of plastic bags was introduced. Although the country’s economy, business, and consumers suffered from this ban due to the lack of cheap alternatives, other East African countries are planning to follow Kenya’s example. In an interview given to “The Guardian” this April, a member of the Kenyan manufacturers association says that “the ban has undoubtedly aroused more public awareness of the need for a clean environment. We have achieved more in six months than in the previous five years”.
According to the UN report on national measures taken to stop plastic pollution, more than 60 countries currently have this issue on the agenda. However, despite such global mobilisation, new legal instruments are still little used in practice, or have not yet come into force. It is worth noting that there is a need to harmonise norms on an international level and, possibly, to create a special convention establishing common standards for the reduction, prevention, and control of plastic pollution, and containing liability mechanisms for the environmental damage it causes. The development of such a text will strengthen cooperation between countries in order to elaborate the most effective strategies. We should not forget that the issue cannot be solved at the state level alone, but must also involve private enterprises, NGOs and citizens. Moreover, it is very important to develop an infrastructure for plastic recycling and to raise public awareness of environmental issues. It is only such a combined effort that will enable societies to switch to a new model of consumption.
|↑1||“The New Plastics Economy. Rethinking the future of plastics” , World Economic Forum, 2016, p. 7, http://www3.weforum.org/docs/WEF_The_New_Plastics_Economy.pdf, accessed September 22, 2018.|
|↑2||Communication from the Commission to the European Parliament, the Council, the European economic and social Committee and the Committee of the regions “A European strategy for plastics in a circular economy”, Brussels, 16.1.2018 COM(2018) 28 final, p. 1.|
|↑4||TROUWBORST A., “Managing Marine Litter : Exploring the Evolving Role of International and European Law in Confronting a Persistent Environmental Problem” , Utrecht Journal of International and European Law 27(73),, 2011, p. 7.|
|↑5||Article 210 (1).|
|↑6||Article 210 (5).|
|↑7||Proposal for a Directive of the European Parliament and of the Council on the Reduction of the Impact of Certain Plastic Products on the Environment, Brussels, 28.5.2018 COM(2018) 340 final.|
|↑8||Сommunication From the European Commission, “A European Strategy for Plastics in a Circular Economy”, Brussels, 16.1.2018 COM(2018) 28 final.|
|↑9||Loi transition énergétique : https://www.legifrance.gouv.fr/affichTexte.do;jsessionid=A9EFD72755B813B6E99E38ED0C4A1E20.tplgfr21s_2?cidTexte=JORFTEXT000031044385&categorieLien=id|
|↑10||Article 8 as of 29 July 2018.|