With major supermarkets pledging to reduce their use of plastics in packaging and pledges from some multi-national companies we might think that our problems with plastics are soon to be over.

Plastic bag

Before we get too excited though, other recent news stories include major soil pollution by plastic and videos showing divers swimming under islands of plastic waste several miles long in the ocean.

The question is then – are these pledges by Tesco, Sainsbury’s, Morrisons, Aldi, Lidl, Waitrose and other major companies enough? The short answer to that question is no, they are not enough. First of all it is a voluntary commitment only and secondly it addresses only packaging.

One of the major issues with voluntary commitments is that those who do not sign up commit to them do not have any compunction to change their behaviour. Another is that, while voluntary commitments can lead to change, they are also easy to backtrack on.

Once the public attention turns elsewhere corporate interest in reducing packaging may also reduce. It is worth noting, for example, that some of the companies that committed to the UK Plastics pledge have also lobbied government against increasing the amount they pay towards collecting and recycling plastic (and other) waste. Something more than a voluntary pledge then is required if we are to make a real commitment to tackle plastics pollution and that something needs to cover more than just packaging.

Plastic pollution comes from a range of sources. As well as packaging it includes cotton buds, plastic fishing nets and ropes and tiny plastic nurdles as well as a whole host of other items. It is found in our rivers, our oceans, our drinking water, our soils and even in salt.  It enters the environment through dumping, discarding and even lawful disposal in landfill sites which are either poorly constructed or poorly managed.

There are laws in place that go some way (in theory at least) towards tackling plastics pollution.  The  United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea, for example, contains a commitment to “prevent, reduce and control pollution from land-based sources” which covers plastics.   More recently the Honolulu Strategy was agreed in 2011 to help tackle marine debris coming from land-based activities. If these commitments were to be fully met in relation to plastics then our plastic problem would be vastly reduced.

So why does the law seem not to be doing its job? First of all, the obligation to take action depends on plastic being recognised as harmful to humans or marine life.  The problem is that plastic has long been considered a wonder material, which makes modern life possible. It has helped medical treatments through, for example, the production of plastic syringes and helps preserve food through plastic wrapping. It has not been thought of as a polluting substance until very recently.

Like other “wonderful inventions” such as (the ozone eating) CFCs it is only as plastic has started to accumulate in the world that we have realised it is a problem. Alongside the pledges from major companies, individual States are now taking action to try to mitigate the plastics problem.

Kenya, for example, has adopted legislation banning single use plastic bags, others, such as the UK, have added a charge to their use. These are, however, the actions of individual States. In deciding whether or not to take action against plastics, each State if it acts on its own will weigh up the harm it faces from plastic with the economic benefits of its use.

This in part explains why Kenya has banned single use plastics where the UK simply introduced a charge.  In the UK waste removal facilities appear (at street level) to be good, in countries like Kenya, where waste disposal may be less available, plastic is more likely to be found clogging the streets and rivers and even in the stomachs of cattle. The potential harm in Kenya appears then to be more immediate and the benefit of a ban much easier for the public to see than it may  be in the UK.

The actions of States acting individually are also much like voluntary pledges by companies. The legislation does not change the behaviour of people in other countries and at any point in time the State that adopted the legislation may choose to repeal it.

There is, however, a potential way ahead. Governments faced the same sort of dilemma before.  The best known example, led to the adoption of the Ozone Convention. It was adopted in 1985 to tackle the harm to the ozone layer by chemicals used in refrigeration and aerosols.  Like subsequent treaties tackling other harmful chemicals, such as the POPs Convention, the Ozone Convention tackled the most harmful first and was designed to enable alternatives to be introduced. World leaders have paved the way for the adoption of a similar “Plastics Convention” with a UN Environment resolution calling for action on plastics. 

If public attention remains focussed on the plastics issue, world leaders may follow through with the adoption of binding commitments to phase out and prevent future plastics pollution.

Professor Elizabeth Kirk is a lecturer at Nottingham Trent University