Environmental Law

Envt'l Law News Spring 2014, Vol. 23, No. 1


by Leila Monroe, Natural Resources Defense Council, San Francisco*

According to numerous studies around the world, it has been shown that 60-80% of marine litter originates on land, and the majority of that is plastic.1 Global production of single-use disposable products, such as food packaging and plastic bags, has steadily been on the rise.2 While plastic is a useful material with myriad applications, most plastic, including plastic designed for single use, is made from non-renewable, fossil fuel-based materials that do not break down easily. Single-use plastic products are the most common items collected on International Coastal Cleanup Day.3 These plastic materials require careful lifecycle management to minimize their negative impacts to the terrestrial and aquatic environment, human health, and sustainable economies. Yet to date, most nations do not have the recycling infrastructure to keep pace, and the "throw-away culture" strongly influenced by disposable consumerism has spread to the far corners of the world.

Plastic polluting the environment imposes costs on local governments and businesses, creates navigational hazards, kills birds, turtles, dolphins and other marine life, and a growing number of scientific studies illustrate the threat plastic pollution poses to human health. A 2012 assessment by the Convention on Biological Diversity found that 663 species have been harmed or killed by marine litter.4 New information is continually being revealed about the range of negative impacts that plastic pollution is having on the marine environment.5A recent Natural Resources Defense Council ("NRDC") survey of data reported by 95 cities in California shows that local governments are spending $428 million every year to prevent waste from reaching waterways.6

NRDC is evaluating ways to tailor Product Stewardship and Extended Producer Responsibility policy approaches to apply them to the problem of plastic pollution in the aquatic environment. The Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development ("OECD") defines Extended Producer Responsibility as: "(1) the shifting of responsibility (physically and/or economically; fully or partially) upstream toward the producer and away from municipalities, (2) to provide incentives to producers to incorporate environmental considerations in the design of their products."7 By building on the lessons learned through producer responsibility programs in place around the world, these policies can be tailored to impact a number of the underlying drivers of plastic pollution. This could help address the many different types of single-use plastics that pollute the environment by creating incentives for industry to use less plastic packaging for their products, to make packaging fully recyclable, and to ensure that recycling is occurring at high rates.

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