UN says bans 'effective strategies' to reduce plastic litter

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Photo by United Nations Environment Program Pollution in China's Yangtze River.

A new report from the United Nations environmental agency says bans and taxes on single-use disposable plastics can be an effective strategy for combating plastic litter. The report also highlights benefits of polymer materials and says there is a need for cooperation with businesses.

The report, released on World Environment Day 5 June, bills itself as the first comprehensive look at what's worked in dealing with litter from disposable plastics packaging.

"Government levies and bans — where properly planned and enforced — have been among the most effective strategies to limit overuse of disposable plastic products," according to UN Environment.

The report comes during a week that's shining a spotlight on plastic pollution concerns. The G7 gathering of leaders of industrial democracies in Canada 8-9 June is set to consider the issue, with some observers saying they could release a plastics charter.

As well, the theme of World Environment Day this year is the harm from plastics in the environment. Under the #BeatPlasticPollution hashtag, politicians, celebrities and the public were taking to Twitter to announce giving up some single-use plastics and challenging others to do the same.

While it was spearheading that campaign, the UN agency also noted the benefits of plastics. Erik Solheim, the head of UN Environment, called it a "miracle material" that has saved lives with its use in medical products and led to safer food storage.

But he said that with packaging accounting for half of global plastics waste, it pollutes oceans, harms marine life and gets into the food chain for people after its consumed by livestock.

"The good news is that a growing number of governments are taking action and demonstrating that all nations, whether rich or poor, can become global environmental leaders," he said. "Rwanda, a pioneer in banning plastic single-use bags, is now one of the cleanest nations on earth. Kenya has followed suit, helping clear its iconic national parks and save its cows."

Solheim was in India, the host country of this year's World Environment Day, to launch the report in New Delhi with Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi.

The report is designed to be a tool for policymakers to using in assessing what has worked and what hasn't, as they "introduce measures to regulate the production and use of disposable plastics," Solheim said.

"The assessment shows that action can be painless and profitable — with huge gains for people and the planet that help avert the costly downstream costs of pollution," Solheim said. "Plastic isn't the problem. It's what we do with it."

The report said that governments must improve waste management practices, a point made frequently by plastics industry groups.

But the UN also said that governments should put in place financial incentives so that consumers, retailers and manufacturers changes habits around single-use packaging.

While it advocated for bans and taxes as an effective strategy, the UN also acknowledged that in some cases the evidence is not available to draw firm conclusions.

"It is too early to draw robust conclusions on the environmental impact that bans and levies have had," the report said.

It said more than 60 countries have adopted bans or levies against single-use plastic, mostly against plastic bags thus far, but it said in about 50% of those cases it's either too early to tell if they've had an impact or data is inadequate.

In about 30% of the overall cases — about 60% of the cases where data is available — the bans have resulted in "drastic drops" in plastic bag consumption.

In the remaining 20% of the cases, there's been little or no change, with the main problems in those situations being lack of enforcement or lack of affordable alternatives, the UN said.

The report said public/private partnerships and voluntary agreements can be effective alternatives to bans.

It urged governments to target the most problematic single-use plastics and reach out to stakeholders, including manufacturers. But it added that "evidence-based studies are also necessary to defeat opposition from the plastics industry."

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