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Getting a Plastics Phase-Out Right in the Maldives

Opinion Editorial by Jo Royle, the Managing Director of Common Seas, a UK-based NGO that is a partner and adviser to the Namoona Baa waste reduction initiative. She has advised numerous governments on how to deal with plastic waste.

16 July 2019, MVT 11:48
Plastic waste dumped on a beach in Maldives. PHOTO: COMMON SEAS
16 July 2019, MVT 11:48

The Environment Minister, Dr Hussain Rasheed Hassan, tweeted recently that Maldives is planning a phase-out of single-use plastics. On 18 June, Addu City Council passed a resolution banning single-use plastics in the southern atoll from June next year. And most recently, the parliament voted in favour of a single-use plastics ban. For anyone who has witnessed the environmental horror of hundreds of plastic bottles littering Maldivian beaches, plastic bags tangled up in coral reefs, or the open bonfires of plastic garbage on local islands, this is wonderful news.

The Environment Ministry has not yet announced which plastics will be phased out, but is expected to do so soon. Likewise, Addu City Council hasn’t yet drawn up the details of its ban. As the head of an NGO, Common Seas, that has advised numerous governments on phasing-out the use of single-use plastics, I think it might be helpful to set down a few recommendations, because implementing plastics ban is trickier than it might seem.

Here are three lessons, drawn from our international work on this issue, including on-the-ground in Maldives, which might be helpful.

Firstly, know what to aim at. Sometimes, it is tempting to just ban one or two high profile plastic items, generate some positive media headlines, and assume the problem has been solved. However, this doesn’t usually lead to effective policy. For over a decade, environmental organisations and governments in various countries have tried a range of interventions to address plastic waste, but much of this work has been piecemeal and unquantified, and plastic consumption and pollution have carried on seemingly unabated.

Jo Royle at Thilafushi, Kaafu Atoll. PHOTO: COMMON SEAS

To respond to this challenge, Common Seas has developed Plastic Drawdown, which is the most comprehensive approach for decision-makers today, to truly understand the magnitude and complexity of the problem they are trying to solve. The model starts with the identification of a country’s plastic waste and the proportion of this that ends up in the ocean, paying particular attention to 29 different high-leakage micro- and macro- plastics, from plastic bottles to tiny particles released from vehicle tyres. It forecasts how this will change under a business as usual projection, to show the scale of this escalating crisis and assesses how policy interventions can reduce the amount of plastics entering the environment. This enables the government to design policy to maximum effect, because strategies are developed that target the unique characteristics of a county’s plastic pollution problem (see Figure 1).

Figure 1: baseline plastic waste entering the sea under a ‘business as usual’ projection, 2010-2030, Indonesia.

Secondly, local context matters. When it comes to tackling plastic waste, there is no one-size-fits-all policy. Take the example of the UK. Common Seas recently did an in-depth analysis of the UK government's plans to reduce plastic waste. We found that of all the plastic waste that ends up in the UK’s rivers and seas, over half is from one single source: micro-plastics released from vehicle tyres. Yet the UK government’s strategy does not focus on tyre wear, and solutions are extremely challenging given the high volume of emissions, small particle size and lack of currently available alternatives. As a result, even under the most optimistic scenarios, there will still be more plastic waste entering Britain's seas and waterways in 2030 than there was in 2019. In Indonesia, by contrast, the majority of plastic waste is macro-plastics, such as bottles. By focusing on policies relating to effective waste collection and management, Indonesia has the potential to put a significant dent in the amount of plastics that end up in the sea.

Thirdly, we have found that the ‘wedges’ approach that scientists and governments use for reducing carbon emissions works well for reducing plastics too. The wedges approach visualizes how much of the plastic pollution that is predicted to enter the rivers or ocean can be avoided by different potential interventions (see Figure 2). Governments can then zero-in on the most effective measures to reduce plastic waste.

Figure 2: Reducing plastic pollution in Indonesia, using a ‘wedges’ methodology. The diagram shows how each policy intervention (listed on the right hand side) leads to a reduction in plastic pollution from a business as usual scenario (represented by the brown line).

Common Seas is currently working with 21 Commonwealth countries, to help them make positive steps to tackle plastic pollution. In the past, some of these countries announced plastics bans without a comprehensive action plan, and have since found their bans ineffective. This is partly because the governments did not properly engage other stakeholders, including businesses. The Plastic Drawdown approach aims to build consensus among all stakeholders, understand the problem comprehensively, and ensure policy-making is evidence-based. This makes policy more effective, and plastic waste is reduced.

The Maldives should be commended for planning bold and radical action to rid the country of plastic garbage, which is spoiling the nation’s world-famous pristine environment. If the country approaches the issue wisely, it will be able to significantly reduce the amount of plastic waste entering the natural environment. Then the Maldives will rightly be heralded as a world leader in environmental sustainability.

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