Expert: 'No single, one-size-fits-all solution' to plastic waste problem

December 6, 2018 by Jeff Falk, Rice University
Expert: ‘No single, one-size-fits-all solution’ to plastic waste problem
Credit: University

Governments, businesses and people around the world must play major roles in managing the rapidly growing plastics economy and the waste it produces, according to an expert in the Center for Energy Studies at Rice University's Baker Institute for Public Policy.

Rachel Meidl, fellow in energy and environment at the Baker Institute, outlined her insights in a new issue brief, "Plastic Waste Management: Are We on the Right Path to Sustainability?" Her brief discusses the key elements and causes of the plastics problem and explores policy actions for reducing reliance on .

Plastic production has surged over the past 50 years, from 15 million metric tons in 1964 to 335 million metric tons in 2016, according to Meidl's brief. Since 1950, nearly 8.3 billion metric tons of virgin plastic have been produced and 6.3 billion tons of plastic waste have been generated, of which 9 percent has been recycled, 12 percent incinerated and 79 percent accumulated in landfills or abandoned in the environment. The largest industrial sector contributing to the waste problem is the packaging industry, which produces single-use plastic designed for disposal, and Meidl said this is where the majority of policy reform is concentrated.

"There has been an enormous rise in global policy actions directed toward dealing with plastic waste from 2014 onwards," Meidl wrote. "Governments have been increasingly implementing policies and taking action to curb the consumption of single-use plastics in recent years."

Currently, more than 60 countries have introduced bans or levies on single-use plastics, which a United Nations Environment Programme report concluded are the most effective tools to reduce the use of disposable plastic items when properly planned and enforced, Meidl said. Additionally, the European Parliament recently endorsed a proposal requiring all member nations to ban single-use plastics by 2021. The proposal also calls for 90 percent of plastic bottles to be recycled by 2025.

"There is an undeniable, complex relationship in the plastics economy," Meidl wrote. "Plastics ubiquitously deliver many societal benefits and offer technological, safety and medical advances. Yet, the findings of the UN report and the global reactions that followed, some immediate and precipitous, reveal a growing global momentum to address plastics management. Ten of the 13 selected case studies in the UN report focus on banning single-use plastics. However, the outright ban of plastics with no other available or affordable alternatives, or focusing exclusively on the promotion of understudied plastic alternatives as a singular solution, are simply not practical or global strategies given the world's entangled relationship with this commodity."

Absent in the UN recommendations are suggestions to fund, build and improve waste management and recycling technology, infrastructure and regulations, Meidl said.

"If the objective is to divert plastic waste from the environment, a mechanism must be created to support technological innovation and an operational framework that would sustain it," she wrote. "This is especially relevant since China's filing with the World Trade Organization last year, which ceased imports of 24 types of waste beginning January 2018, with 16 more items that will be banned by the end of 2019."

China imports two-thirds of the world's plastic waste, of which 89 percent is polymer groups often used in single-use plastic food packaging (polyethylene terephthalate, polyethylene, and polypropylene), Meidl said.

"This import ban, projected to displace up to 111 million metric tons of waste by 2030, will upend recycling economics, disrupt the global supply chain and further exacerbate the need to globally manage plastics," Meidl wrote. "China, as well as countries exporting to China, will be forced to establish and improve domestic management strategies to account for the prohibition."

Meidl concluded, "Ultimately, there is no single, one-size-fits-all solution to the plastics issue. Governments, businesses and individuals all play major roles in exploring data-driven pathways for improving how we manage the plastics economy. Rethinking, recalibrating and refining the functioning of such a complex value chain requires greater effort and cooperation by all key players, from plastics producers to recyclers, retailers and consumers. Any model should move beyond incremental, singular one-off solutions and have a shared vision to drive investment and innovation in the right direction. Regardless of our cultural values and belief system about plastics, they are significant components in the global economy. Increasing their sustainability can bring new opportunities for modernization, competitiveness and job creation, consistent with global economic, energy and environmental objectives."

Meidl, who joined the Baker Institute in July, is a former deputy associate administrator at the U.S. Department of Transportation's Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration. Prior to her role in , Meidl was the director of regulatory and technical affairs at the American Chemistry Council in Washington, D.C., where she advanced a broad range of regulatory and policy issues that involved enforcement, compliance, investigations and litigation.

Explore further: EU countries back single-use plastics ban

More information: Plastic Waste Management: Are We on the Right Path to Sustainability? … 2018-ces-plastic.pdf

Related Stories

EU countries back single-use plastics ban

October 31, 2018

EU countries on Wednesday backed the outlawing of certain single-use plastics, bringing the bloc a step closer to an outright ban on the products which account for huge quantities of waste in the world's oceans.

Stemming the tide of ocean plastics

April 18, 2018

As people in the developing countries become more affluent, they end up buying more plastics. But these areas often don't have good waste management procedures in place, so a lot of that plastic eventually ends up in the ...

Recycling plastic—Japan style

June 5, 2018

At a recycling plant outside Tokyo, workers in face masks pick through an unending torrent of plastic rubbish, fuelled by a national obsession with pristine packaging—and famously strict rules that ensure much of it is ...

Recommended for you

In colliding galaxies, a pipsqueak shines bright

February 20, 2019

In the nearby Whirlpool galaxy and its companion galaxy, M51b, two supermassive black holes heat up and devour surrounding material. These two monsters should be the most luminous X-ray sources in sight, but a new study using ...

Research reveals why the zebra got its stripes

February 20, 2019

Why do zebras have stripes? A study published in PLOS ONE today takes us another step closer to answering this puzzling question and to understanding how stripes actually work.

When does one of the central ideas in economics work?

February 20, 2019

The concept of equilibrium is one of the most central ideas in economics. It is one of the core assumptions in the vast majority of economic models, including models used by policymakers on issues ranging from monetary policy ...


Please sign in to add a comment. Registration is free, and takes less than a minute. Read more

Click here to reset your password.
Sign in to get notified via email when new comments are made.