Combating plastic pollution

Policy options to control plastic waste include bans, taxes and extended producer responsibility

Combating plastic pollution


lastic pollution has been recognised as a global crisis. An estimated eight million tonnes of plastic waste is entering the oceans annually, threatening ecosystems and human livelihoods. By 2050, the global production of plastic is estimated to quadruple. This surge in plastic production will lead to rising CO2 emissions and a severe threat to nature.

The Global Plastic Action Partnership (GPAP) is a multi-stakeholder platform dedicated to translating commitments to reduce plastic pollution and waste into concrete action. Pakistan is one of the GPAP members.

Pakistan plans to stop the flow of plastics into nature by eliminating unnecessary plastic products. The Ministry of Climate Change, with the help of the Global Plastic Action Plan, will soon launch its National Plastic Action Partnership (NPAP). The NPAP aims to create a framework for plastics to be led by local stakeholders to bring together the country‘s most influential policymakers, business leaders and the civil society to agree on an approach.

The group’s mission is to deliver a national action plan for radically reducing plastic pollution and connecting high-potential solutions with strategic financing opportunities. The academia have an opportunity here to exchange knowledge to advance national actions against plastic pollution.

Policy options to control plastic pollution include bans, taxes and extended producer responsibility (EPR).

Extended producer responsibility is one of the upstream policy instruments. It is a crucial policy option for transitioning to a circular economy. The policy approach holds manufacturers responsible for the post-consumer management of their products and packaging. Applying the “polluter pays principle,” EPR shifts the responsibility for, and the financial cost of the negative environmental impacts of products from public bodies and taxpayers to producers. It is expected to help increase collection and recycling rates and encourage the reduction of plastic waste at the design stage.

The EPR approach was first adopted in the early 1990s and is now widely used in the EU and other Western countries. In the EU, 26 countries have EPR for plastic packaging waste. Most countries feature a mix of collective and individual producer responsibility for packaging. Some EPR schemes take on only financial responsibility; others also take operational responsibility for waste collection and treatment.

All packaging EPR schemes in the EU include some primary fee modulation, with different producer fees for each packaging material. Some also charge specific fees for various types of plastic packaging. Others go further, varying the fees based on specific characteristics of packaging that influence its environmental impact.

Types of EPR for plastic and plastic packaging

A). Material-specific EPR: In this type of EPR, the producer is responsible for the collection, transport and recycling of a specific material. For example, a producer of PET bottles is responsible for ensuring that used PET bottles are collected, transported and recycled. The producer is rewarded when their recycling targets are met and penalised if they fail to meet the targets. Examples of this approach include deposit-refund systems, where consumers pay a small deposit on plastic bottles or containers at the point of sale, which is refunded when the container is returned for recycling.

An EPR mechanism has several steps, including assessing the scope, determining the waste reduction and recycling targets and financial contribution. Determining the financial contributions to cover the costs of post-consumer waste management is quite challenging. 

B). Shared Responsibility EPR: This type of EPR involves shared responsibility between the producers and other stakeholders, such as waste management companies and local authorities. The producer pays for the cost of post-consumer waste management, while other stakeholders are responsible for implementing the system. It is among the most popular EPR policy options.

Shared responsibility EPRs have several steps, including assessing the scope and determining the waste reduction and recycling targets and financial contributions. Determining the financial contributions to cover the costs of post-consumer waste management is quite challenging. Typically, the contribution amount is based on the producer’s market share.

C). Performance-based EPR: In this type of EPR, the producer must meet specific performance targets, such as recycling rates or waste reduction targets. The producer is then rewarded or penalised based on their performance. In some countries, producers must meet specific recycling targets for plastic packaging waste. For example, the European Union has set a target of recycling 55 percent of all plastic packaging waste by 2030. Producers are penalised if they fail to meet the targets. Performance-based EPR programmes incentivise producers to design their packaging with recycling in mind, such as using easily recyclable materials or reducing plastic use.

D). Voluntary EPR: In this type of EPR, producers voluntarily take on responsibility for the post-consumer management of their products and packaging. This can be done through industry-led initiatives or agreements between producers, governments and other stakeholders. The best example of a voluntary EPR is the Alliance to End Plastic Waste, a global organisation of more than 50 companies across the plastics value chain, including producers, waste management companies and consumer goods companies. The Alliance’s mission is to end plastic waste in the environment. As part of this mission, the Alliance has committed to invest $1.5 billion over five years to help end plastic waste.

Engro Polymer and Chemicals (EPCL) from Pakistan has joined the Global Plastic Action Partnership (GPAP) as part of its sustainability efforts to promote a circular economy. EPCL is also establishing a Circular Plastics Institute (CPI), a not-for-profit think tank, to promote research and development in Pakistan‘s circular plastics economy.

The government of Pakistan can support such individual efforts by encouraging other companies and to contribute to the government’s efforts to combat plastic pollution. The best way to proceed is by developing an alliance of businesses similar to the Alliance to End Plastic Waste. The Alliance should work with governments, NGOs and other stakeholders to develop solutions to the plastic waste problem. The government can also encourage the Alliance to invest in research and development to improve plastic recycling technologies and find new ways to use recycled plastic or improve waste collection and recycling infrastructure.

E). Financial EPR: In this type of EPR, the producer pays a fee to the government, which is used to finance the collection and recycling of post-consumer waste. Examples of financial EPR include advanced disposal fees (ADFs) or recycling fees.

EPR can enable decision-makers to solve various environmental issues while removing the financial burden of running waste management systems from municipalities. Businesses can gain a head start in the transition towards the circular economy, thus mitigating reputational and regulatory risks while ensuring cost-efficient waste management systems roll out. However, EPR programmes require coordination and cooperation between producers, waste management companies and local authorities for effective and efficient waste management practices.

The writer is an associate professor at the Department of Economics, COMSATS University Islamabad, Lahore Campus

Combating plastic pollution