GeoLog

GeoPolicy

Geopolicy: Combating plastic pollution – research, engagement and the EU Plastic Strategy

Geopolicy: Combating plastic pollution – research, engagement and the EU Plastic Strategy

Awareness around the prevalence of plastic pollution, particularly in our oceans, has been growing over the last few years. This is not surprising considering that plastic production has surged from 15 million tonnes in 1964 to 311 million tonnes in 2014 and models have shown that this number will double again within the next 20 years in a business as usual scenario. Furthermore, research conducted by the European Commission estimated that Europeans generate a combined 25 million tonnes of plastic waste annually with less than 30% being collected for recycling.

All this sounds quite overwhelming but the real problem is, while we can estimate the production of plastic with some certainty, it is extremely difficult to know exactly how pervasive plastic pollution is on a global scale and how it is impacting human health and our environment. There are a huge number of researchers from a variety of scientific disciplines currently working on these issues. Some prominent research areas related to plastic pollution include:

  • Microplastics – a plastic pollutant that we still understand relatively little about. Microplastics are small plastic particles (<1 mm) that originate from larger plastic waste erosion and through the abrasion of synthetic fibres commonly used in clothing. A 2017 study on microplastics found that 80% of the drinking water samples collected on five different continents tested positive for the presence of plastic fibre. The exact environmental and health implications of microfibres still isn’t clear.
  • Location and movement – Understanding the location and transport pathways of plastic pollution can help us estimate how much there is, where it is and how it might be impacting the ecosystem. Unfortunately, the location of most plastic pollution is still unknown. Recent research suggests that there are roughly 300 billion pieces of floating plastic in the polar ocean while other research shows a significant amount of plastic is entering the food web.

A bottle dropped in the water off the coast of China is likely to be carried eastward by the north Pacific gyre and end up a few hundred miles off the coast of the US. Photograph: Graphic. Credit: If you drop plastic in the ocean, where does it end up? The Guardian. Original Source: Plastic Adrift by oceanographer Erik van Sebille. Click to run.

  • Lithosphere – Although the location of some plastics is unknown, others are now being found where we would least expect them… as part of the lithosphere! A new type of stone (plastiglomerate) has recently been discovered in Hawaii. This stone, which the research team believes is a result of burning plastic debris in an open environment, was found to be primarily composed of melted plastic, beach sediment, basaltic lava fragments and organic debris.

The methods used to communicate plastic pollution research, and its potential impact on the environment and human health, have been extremely effective in both mobilising citizens to reduce their own plastic use and is showing policymakers that the public wants a large-scale transformation.

As a result, plastic pollution is now being tackled by the EU Plastics Strategy, a political action that was largely driven by research and the subsequent public advocacy.

What is the EU Plastics Strategy?

The EU Plastics Strategy was adopted on 16 January 2018 after research into the extent and impacts of plastic pollution was conducted by a research team commissioned by the European Commission. The strategy aims to change the way plastic products are designed, used and produced within the EU. The strategy also outlines the European Commission’s primary goal of a 55% plastic recycling rate, with all plastic packaging in Europe recyclable or reusable, by 2030.

To achieve this, a €350m budget for research into innovative plastic design, production and collection has been reserved with the additional possibility of a tax on unsustainable plastic production.

Furthermore, the strategy is proposing better recycling programmes across all EU countries, clearer labelling on packaging so consumers fully understand its recyclability, easier access to tap water in public areas to reduce the demand for bottled water, and a ban on microplastics in cosmetics and personal care products.

With these aims, the European Commission hopes that the EU Plastic Strategy will reduce plastic pollution while also help the EU transition into a circular economy and reach their goals on sustainable development, global climate and industrial policy.

There’s still a long way to go

The release of the Plastics Strategy is just the beginning of the EU’s fight against plastic pollution – it’s the blueprint for legislation that will be implemented over the next couple of years. You can view the European Commission’s timeline of actions, directives and policies related to the strategy here.

Although the Plastics Strategy is only the first step towards implementing legislation, it is a strong signal to investors and the private sector that there is a lucrative market in plastic alternatives and recycling technology. This means that there is likely to be more money pumped into finding solutions on top of the €350m reserved for plastic research and innovation by the EU.

What’s the positive take home message?

Despite plastic pollution being a challenging and frightening problem, it is also a fantastic example of how researchers, civil society, policymakers and the private sector play different but complimentary roles in creating large-scale change. With the initial crisis highlighted by researchers, mobilised by civil society, acted upon by policymakers and invested in by the private sector, the threat of plastic pollution can also be seen as the beginning of a success story – we just have to follow it through!

Further information

GeoPolicy: Reaching out on Twitter – casually engage with policymakers!

GeoPolicy: Reaching out on Twitter – casually engage with policymakers!

Reaching out to policymakers and sharing your research with them can seem like a daunting task! While there are many formal outlets for engaging with policymakers (such as completing questionnaires, contributing to workshops and participating in paring schemes), there are also more casual methods that can be done sporadically and with less effort. One example of this is engaging with policymakers on Twitter.

In a 2016 social media analysis, Twitter was found to be the primary social network used by world leaders. For policymakers, social media has gone from being an afterthought, to being a primary method of stimulating citizen engagement and managing their public image. In 2011, just 34% of the Members of the European Parliament (MEPs) were on Twitter. As of December 2017, that number is 81%. Members of the EU Commission are also largely on Twitter, including all of the EU Commissioners. Furthermore, each of the EU Commission’s Directorate Generals has its own official Twitter account.

 

So, policymakers are online… but why should you follow them?

  1. There are thousands of policymakers on Twitter within the EU alone. Following all of these policymakers would be an information overload and counterproductive. However, selecting some key policymakers working within your area of expertise is a fantastic way of keeping up with what information and research is needed.
  2. Following official EU Twitter accounts and key policymakers may give you inspiration for new research ideas, while also helping you understand how you can make your next research project more useful for policymakers.
  3. Funding! EU funding is extensive and new projects and funding opportunities are often advertised on Twitter. In addition, openings for traineeships and workshops are promoted heavily on the official EU Commission Twitter accounts.

 

Actively engaging

Following various policymakers and official accounts allows you to gain a better understanding of the policy landscape, but actively engaging will help you build or maintain relationships and ideally be seen as an expert in your field.

Communicating with policymakers through Twitter might be easier than some more formal engagement outlets, but it still requires time, perseverance and communication skills that generally aren’t used in everyday life. The rules for communicating with policymakers still apply – common language (rather than scientific jargon) should be used at all times, graphics should be simple and clear and you should be able to summarise your idea or argument in 3 sentences or less. Some more tips for actively engaging with policymakers are outlined below.

  1. Don’t just mention the official EU accounts in your tweet. While your tweet may reach a number of other people who manage the account, it is unlikely to reach individual policymakers. Instead, focus on specific people who are working on a project or policy that relates to your research. This may include high-level policymakers (such as an MEP or Commissioner), legislative assistants and policy officers. You can create different Twitter lists for policymakers working on particular issues or projects. This allows you to keep track of those policymakers you should be following more closely and those who you can include in tweets on particular topics.
  2. If you’re responding to a policymaker’s tweet on a topic relevant to your area of expertise, don’t be afraid to introduce yourself and your research. This will highlight your knowledge on the issue and hopefully leave a lasting impression.
  3. When you’re tweeting about your own research, try to connect it to relevant policy issues and tag specific policy institutions and people. This enables those working in the policy-realm to see your research’s application to their own work, without having to do additional thinking!
  4. Be unique. Make your posts stand out by using infographics, pictures, short videos or links.
  5. Don’t switch off over Christmas! While some policymakers have assistants managing their Twitter profiles, many formulate their own tweets or manage their account during the weekend and holidays! So, if you want to try engaging with policymakers on Twitter, the upcoming holiday period could be a great place to start. And if you want to take a break from technology over Christmas but also want to engage with policymakers, don’t worry… You can have your Christmas pudding and eat it too! By using a content management tool such as tweetdeck, you can compose tweets and release them at predetermined times.

 

Twitter has the potential to help you share your research for policy impact but understand your limits! Most of the researchers I know already work long hours and definitely don’t have time to spend two hours per day tweeting… and that’s okay! Do what you can, try to be consistent with the amount you post and have fun!

 

Further reading