What happened at the Global Plastics Summit?
20 October 2023
The Economist Impact's inaugural Global Plastics Summit 2023 provided a powerful, progressive platform, at a critical juncture in the plastics treaty negotiations —just before the anticipated first treaty draft at INC3—bringing together stakeholders to fuel momentum and support for the most ambitious treaty possible. Our Dr James Clark was at the Summit to facililate discussions in the working group: ‘Small Island Developing States (SIDS): Unique plastics challenges and crafting appropriate solutions.’
‘The 38 SIDS countries have a unique set of challenges with plastics and plastic waste. They are neither producers of plastic, nor designers of plastic products or packaging, but rather importers and consumers of plastics—with very few options except (overstretched) landfill for disposal of plastic waste. They also experience plastic waste from elsewhere floating on to their shores, legacy plastics, and must clear this up.’ [Source: Economist website]
We first asked Dr James Clark if he could tell us more about the discussions held in the session and some of the key issues highlighted for the issue of plastic pollution on Small Island Developing States (SIDS).
“The session was pulled together by Economist Impact, working with Common Seas and others, and in consultation with representatives from SIDS. I co-facilitated a working group discussion with Tanya Cox from Fauna & Flora International. We discussed several of the issues faced by SIDS, including legacy marine plastic pollution – where plastic pollution from other countries drifts to their islands. This is a serious problem for SIDS which can negatively impact their local environment and their economy.”
“Time was also spent discussing mechanisms that might help address the problem of plastic pollution, at least locally. These are mechanisms that are explicitly mentioned in the UN’s Zero Draft, and include reuse, refill and the concept of Extended Producer Responsibility (EPR).”
Above: Dr James Clark (right) with Professor Richard Thompson of Plymouth University (left) at the Global Plastics Summit.
Next, we asked James how his research and PML’s research feeds into and helps address the issue of plastic pollution.
“I have worked on several research projects relating to plastic pollution. Primarily, my work has focused on studying how plastics move and where they accumulate once they enter the marine environment. An example of work of particular relevance to the treaty is a recent project collaboration with economists to study the incentives for countries to collaborate on reducing levels of plastic pollution in the ocean. The work is currently being peer reviewed following its submission for publication.”
We then asked James if he could tell us about some of the solutions suggested, or any case studies from other areas of the world that are successfully tackling plastic pollution that could also potentially help the SIDS.
“Without going into specifics, there were some excellent examples where reuse, refill and EPR have been put into action. We were able to discuss what worked and where challenges still exist. Examples of challenges include improving the convenience of reuse and refill schemes, and scaling up local solutions so they can have a bigger impact.”
Above: The working group for ‘Small Island Developing States (SIDS): Unique plastics challenges and crafting appropriate solutions.’
We asked James what comes next, how will this progress?
“There will be a summary report, which is being prepared by Economist Impact. When it’s ready, it will be possible to download it from the event’s web page (https://events.economist.com/global-plastics-summit/). The report will summarise discussions from the whole meeting. In addition to the SIDS working group, I attended a session on “Localising a global mandate”, where, among other things, we had fruitful discussions on how to monitor the effectiveness of any future treaty.”
Above: Dr James Clark pictured with participants from his working group
Monitoring the efficacy of the future treaty is an important area of work, to ensure it is making real progress. We asked James if he could next tell us what outcomes he hoped to see for the 38 SIDS countries?
“The issues faced by SIDS are two-fold. First, what is the most effective way for SIDS to eliminate plastic pollution that is locally generated? Second, how do SIDS eliminate the damage associated with legacy plastic waste, and especially that which washes up on their shores having originated from elsewhere? I would very much like the final treaty to contain mechanisms that effectively deal with both these issues.”
“From a personal perspective, in addition to eliminating plastic pollution, I would like to see a plan within the treaty that points toward the elimination of new plastic production from fossil fuels. There are several examples from Earth’s history where a particular organism or group of organisms evolved a new way of doing things that led to the unconstrained build-up of by-products in the environment, with often catastrophic consequences for the biosphere of the day. Life helped to solve these problems by evolving efficient recycling loops that keep nature in balance. We need to do the same.”
“Lastly, I was heartened on my return from the meeting by a trip to the market in my local village. There was a stall there selling liquids of various types (shampoo, hand wash, disinfectant and so on), which were all stored in large, reusable containers. One can turn up at the stall with empty, refillable containers and buy what one needs. When the shop’s reusable containers are empty, they go to the factory to get them refilled. No new plastic needs to be purchased or sold. If one wants to make a difference, even if it’s only small, there are opportunities to do so.”
Above: Dr James Clark at the Economist Impact’s Global Plastics Summit 2023
About Dr James Clark:
Dr James Clark is a Senior Scientist in our Marine Ecosystems Modelling team, and he has over a decade of experience working on marine plastic pollution.
His early collaborative work on the impact of microplastics on marine invertebrates, and the role these organisms play in redistributing microplastic in the ocean, informed UK legislation banning the use of microplastic beads in wash-off cosmetics.
More recently, he has collaborated with social scientists and economists to study the social cost of plastic, and the conditions under which countries would be incentivised to reduce levels of plastic in the ocean.
Given his experience, earlier this year he was invited to facilitate a working group at the Global Plastics Summit in Thailand: ‘Small Island Developing States (SIDS): Unique plastics challenges and crafting appropriate solutions.’
Find out more about Dr Jim Clark and his work here >>