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New Report Provides Global Criteria to Address Problematic, Unnecessary, and Avoidable Plastic Products

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Countries in which at least one plastic product is banned or restricted at the national or regional level. Image credit: Nordic Council of Ministers

One of the key approaches to addressing plastic pollution is to understand the problematic, unnecessary, and avoidable plastic products (PUA) that can be removed from the plastic supply chain. The issue was addressed in a January 24, 2024, report by the Nordic Council of Ministers.

PUA Definitions:

  • Problematic plastic products - have adverse impacts across the life cycle of the products (environmental and human health).
  • Unnecessary plastic products - have a function that is not essential because they do not provide significant added value to society.
  • Avoidable plastic products - have a function that is essential, but demand for the product can be reduced through non-plastic substitutes, alternate designs, and alternate practices.

The report lays out two main goals:

  • Goal 1 – Reduce production of plastics through the removal of unnecessary products from the market, replacement with safe non-plastic substitutes, and alternate business practices.
  • Goal 2 – Sustainable and safe management of plastics that remain on the market through redesign according to sustainability criteria, including safe alternatives and circular business practices.

The report contains a decision tree that provides a logical way of thinking about these plastic products and what to do about them to achieve these two goals.

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Image credit: Nordic Council of Ministers

The report assumes that the international plastic treaty process will establish a Secretariat to administer the treaty outcomes. One of those roles would be to develop a global database for products considered problematic, unnecessary, and avoidable. Criteria would be developed to stimulate the identification of these products at two levels:

  • Mandatory measures for listed products: At the international level, criteria provide the basis for identifying, nominating, and listing products. Once a product is listed, mandatory control measures could include three elements.
    • Bans and restrictions for products listed at the global level.
    • Trade measures between treaty signatories and non-signatories of listed products.
    • Time-restricted exemptions for products as deemed necessary on a case-by-case basis. 
  • Voluntary measures for non-listed products: At the national level, nations may use global criteria to voluntarily identify additional products not listed or regulated by the treaty to strengthen national actions.

The current lack of global regulation for plastic products highlights the urgency of understanding how listings can be supported by collaboration between researchers and policymakers. Given the pervasiveness of plastic, the report suggests that the determination of PUAs be made proactively and suggests a five-step model.

Potential criteria for problematic plastic products

These are the criteria, by category, for determining whether a plastic product should be listed.

1. Hazards

  • Contains chemicals or polymers of concern, including those derived from secondary plastics, or represents a health or environmental hazard.
  • Releases nano-, micro-, and macro-plastics during its production, intended use, or end-of-life.
  • Releases chemicals of concern during its intended use.
  • Is falsely promoted to be biodegradable under certain conditions.
  • Tends to be dispersed to the environment due to direct application in nature.

2. Impediment of circularity

  • Is non-recyclable per established recyclability criteria.
  • Has a high likelihood of not being collected and of not being properly disposed of or managed.
  • Does not comply with existing labeling schemes to guide correct end-of-life treatment, (including for easy identification, sorting and separation), impeding circularity, and leading to avoidable production of the product.

3. Lack of transparency

  • Lacks data to determine safety for the environment and human health across the full life cycle.

Potential criteria for unnecessary plastic products

1. Feasible and safe modified/alternate practices are available or possible to eliminate the need for the plastic product.

2. Has plastic components that can be removed without requiring a replacement or compromising the primary function of the product.

Potential criteria for avoidable plastic products

1. Availability of alternate practices

  • A feasible reuse or refill business model is available or can be developed.
  • A feasible remanufacturing business model exists or can be developed.
  • The lifespan of the product can be extended, e.g. through the right to repair, removing early obsolescence, and the provision of sharing services that also reduce associated waste generation.

2. Availability of non-plastic substitutes

  • Can be replaced completely with a nature-based product.
  • Can be produced using a non-plastic substitute material.

3. Availability of alternate design

  • Options for improved resource efficiency exist or can be developed, including extending the longevity of the product.

More details about the criteria, including examples for each criterion, are available in the report.

Capacity Building

The report notes that it will be important to address the need for capacity building, especially for developing countries, to ensure they can effectively participate in the proposal submission and review process. This could include technical assistance, training programs, and resource sharing.

Ultimately, the report contributes to the development of control measures for problematic, unnecessary, or avoidable plastic products under the international legally binding treaty on plastic pollution, including in the marine environment. This research will help develop those control measures.


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