This year, Collins Dictionary selected “single-use” as its word of the year, and it’s not difficult to understand why: In 2018, the topic of plastic, particularly of the single-use variety, was a hard one to escape. If the current trends around plastic production and use hold steady, plastic may account for 20% of the world’s oil use by 2050. Cities and food service companies, for instance, are moving so quickly on banning plastic straws that a paper-straw manufacturer in the U.S. has had to build a new factory to meet demand. Los Angeles just announced that it would join cities like Seattle in banning plastic straws throughout the metro area.
A new report from the U.N. Environment Program and the World Resources Institute shows that it’s not happening in a vacuum. For the report, the agencies surveyed 192 countries to come up with a first-of-its-kind report on the number of national policy instruments to regulate the manufacture, sale, use, and disposal of single-use plastics.
As of July 2018, U.N. Environment and WRI found that 127, or 66%, of the countries they surveyed have implemented some type of policy to regulate plastic bags. Dating back to the early 2000s, countries began experimenting with different measures to reduce dependency on plastic bags, and the most common is limiting their free distribution through retail stores. These measures can be very effective: Australia recently reported that its gradual plastic bag ban has resulted in an 80% reduction of use. Around 27 countries place a tax on the production of plastic bags, and 30 charge consumers a fee if they want to use them. Another 27 countries have adopted legislation that either bans or restricts other single-use plastic, like straws or dishware.
Another way that countries have tried to address the pileup of plastic waste is offering payments for returned plastic items. Twenty-three countries, mainly in Europe and the Pacific Islands, have established plastic collections centers or rebate schemes that enable people to earn a small amount of money by returning items like plastic bottles. This strategy also helps countries meet recycling targets for plastic, which around 26 countries have implemented.
While U.N. Environment and WRI found that laws and policies to regulate both the production and recycling of things like plastic bottles and bags are taking off, the report noted one area in which national policies are lagging far behind: regulation of microbeads. Microbeads are manufactured plastic particles–no bigger than one millimeter–that are commonly found in beauty products and cleaning supplies. They’re among the most pernicious plastic products in waste streams. Bottles and bags are more visible, but animals and humans alike are ingesting the near-invisible microbeads, which carry chemicals that could impact health. Only eight countries, including the U.S., the U.K, Korea, and Sweden, have regulations around the use of microbeads, but they often only apply to cosmetics (the beads are commonly found in products like facial exfoliators). To really curb the potential environmental and health damages of microbeads, the agencies say that regulations need to become both more widespread and wide-ranging.
The report focuses mainly on national policies, and does not really delve into local legislative moves–like the new plastic straw ban in Los Angeles–or the decisions of specific companies or agencies to implement their own regulations. But U.N. Environment and WRI do not discount the importance of these smaller-scale policies. Indeed, the report notes that localities and companies adopting progressive policies around plastic may work to spur national action, just as national policies can bring various players that have not taken adequate action to address plastic waste up to speed.