Plastic catastrophe looms without political intervention

January 25, 2021
Fighting corruption might help in the fight against plastic pollution. (Unsplash/Tanvi Sharma)

Fighting corruption might help in the fight against plastic pollution. (Unsplash/Tanvi Sharma)

A group of ecological economists have warned that the amount of plastic waste produced around the world each year is dangerously unsustainable — and called for governments to provide education and fight corruption in order to avert further disaster.

If the world continues on its current path, the amount of inadequately managed plastic waste will reach more than 5 billion metric tons by 2050 — a roughly 80-fold increase from the estimated 61 to 72 million metric tons of waste present in 1990, a group of international researchers found in a paper set to be published in the April 2021 issue of Ecological Economics

The astronomical increase in plastics would suffocate millions of seabirds, fish, whales and turtles while blanketing coastlines around the world with layers of garbage, the authors argued. Plastic waste would also contaminate the global food supply with carcinogens, causing diseases in both humans and animals, and contribute significantly to global warming. 

But this dire level of environmental catastrophe is avoidable, according to the economists, who quantified the potential effects of steps governments across the globe can take to cut down on plastic pollution. 

Specifically, raising education levels would have a dramatic effect on plastic pollution. Providing children in the highest-polluting countries with a minimum of 12 years of schooling could reduce the amount of mismanaged plastic waste by 44%, the researchers found.  

“It’s better to have an educated population,” said co-author Mateo Cordier, an ecological economist at Université de Versailles-Saint-Quentin-En-Yvelines outside Paris, France. 

Cordier wrote the paper alongside his Université de Versailles-Saint-Quentin-En-Yvelines colleagues Juan Baztan and Huijie Yan, as well as Bethany Jorgensen of Cornell University and Takuro Uehara of Ritsumeikan University in Japan. 

In addition to examining the effect of education on plastic pollution, the researchers found that cracking down on corruption — a category that includes illegal transaction such as  bribes as well as some lobbying maneuvers in countries with loose regulations  — could cut inadequately managed plastic waste by 28%.  

In regions like India and Africa, that would mean toughening environmental laws, Cordier said. In the U.S., however, it would mostly require reducing corporate lobbyists’ power to influence government regulation. 

 “That’s perfectly legal, it’s totally immoral,” said Cordier of America’s lobbying system. 

To reach these figures, the researchers constructed a model based on World Bank data for 217 countries and territories from 2011 to 2017. 

In order to measure corruption, the researchers utilized a score for each country designed to measure “the extent to which public power is exercised for private gain, including petty and grand forms of corruption along with ‘capture’ of the state by elites and private interests.” 

For education, the researchers examined the average number of years that people 25 years old or older had attended school. 

Examining corruption and education in relation to plastic pollution is an unusual approach. Other studies have centered on a concept called the Kuznets curve, which proposes that as gross domestic product per capita goes up in a given country, pollution increases until individual income hits a tipping point. After the tipping point, pollution per capita will decrease as citizens become more aware of environmental issues and demand better stewardship of their surroundings, even if GDP continues to rise.

Yet Cordier and his colleagues found this model too limited in scope. 

“If we only look at GDP to solve the problem of plastic, it will never work,” Cordier said. “We needed to supplement the model of the Kuznets curve.” 

In fact, the researchers found that GDP per capita growth explained just 11% of change in the volume of plastic pollution. 

“GDP might be a small part of the solution,” Cordier said. 

Cordier first started seriously considering plastic pollution in 2014, when he visited co-author Juan Baztan in Brittany, on the western coast of France. 

While walking on the beach, Cordier saw that plastic had washed up all over the shore. 

“I thought it was dead shellfish,” he said. “It was plastic.” 

The experience sparked Cordier’s interest in economic systems surrounding plastic pollution. 

As part of their research into the topic, Cordier and Baztan visited the Canary Islands, a Spanish archipelago off the northwestern coast of Africa suffering from plastic pollution. 

After Cordier talked about the issue during a public meeting, he said that a lobbying group representing local supermarkets placed misleading articles about the researchers in local Canary Islands newspapers, claiming that their efforts would destroy the local economy. 

“All the regional newspapers were telling lies against our project,” Cordier said. 

The experience underscored the overwhelming influence of lobbyists in shaping discourse and policy around pollution, Cordier said. 

“I’m not against lobbying because I think it’s important the government has contact with business,” said Cordier. “But we have to find a better balance.”

In February, Cordier said he plans to start another research project with co-author Takuro Uehara. The two will model where plastic pollution will go over the coming decades — how much will go into the deep sea, on top of the ocean, on beaches and so on  — in order to help design plans for cleanup. 

Cordier is also developing an economic model that will treat plastic as a “co-responsibility” between companies and consumers. 

“We don’t want to say that citizens are as responsible [for plastic pollution] as industries. Citizens are much less responsible,” he said. However, treating plastic as a shared problem among industry and individual citizens is the best way to address the issue, according to Cordier. 

The paper, titled Plastic pollution and economic growth: The influence of corruption and lack of education, will be published in the April 2021 issue of Ecological Economics. The authors are Mateo Cordier, Juan Baztan and Huijie Yan of Université de Versailles-Saint-Quentin-En-Yvelines, as well as Bethany Jorgensen of Cornell University and Takuro Uehara of Ritsumeikan University. Cordier is lead author. 

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