How proper monitoring can contribute to adequate legislation
Proper monitoring and standard setting is of crucial importance to successfully combatting plastic pollution. This blog discusses the relationship between data and the effective regulation of plastic pollution.
Nowadays, newspapers and news channels report on plastic pollution and its consequences at least on a weekly basis. It is safe to say there has been a lot of attention for the topic. This has led to many creative initiatives, from bamboo straws to bee-wax food wrapping and everything inbetween. Nonetheless, it seems to remain hard for societies to change their attitude towards plastic and the use of plastic. Plastic pollution is a modern and complex issue and its causes are manifold - there is no easy fix. Due to this complexity, it is hard to establish the magnitude of the problem and to reach consensus about how we should solve it. This blog discusses the important role that monitoring and standard setting might play in this respect.
Although plastic pollution has been high on the political and social agenda for quite a while, there is still no consensus about the actual magnitude and specific impact of the problem. Researchers have provided us with indications that the problem is growing since the pollution is getting worse – but up till now, it has been difficult to use their findings to influence public opinion and steer members of society towards a lifestyle using less plastic. Researchers have found plastic particles in the most distant, uninhabited places on earth, and still, people are asking themselves: “Is this a problem?” “Should we care that there is plastic everywhere?” To be able to come up with a solution, it is very important to first define the problem and establish its scope and effects. Otherwise, the debate will always circle back to the question: “But does it matter?” An example of this is the recent nitrogen debate in the Netherlands. The parties involved keep arguing about the facts and therefore they do not reach a productive stage to find a solution. Proper monitoring can play an important, and arguably indispensable, role in establishing these facts – and therefore it could be an integral part of the strategy to combat plastic pollution. Once there is clear information about how large the problem actually is, adequate measures can be taken. But as long as we remain unaware of our starting point - our baseline - we will remain unable to formulate goals that we can work towards.
As said before, proper monitoring may be of great help in reducing plastic pollution. States need to know what the current state of plastic pollution is in their country for them to be able to set goals and take measures to reduce plastic pollution. Without knowing what the baseline or starting point is, it is hard, not to say almost impossible, for scientists to say whether the measures that are taken are as effective as was hoped. Scientists need data for them to be able to say what measures are the most effective. A great example of monitoring that resulted in an effective strategy to reduce pollution is the Marine litter assessment along the Tyrrhenian coast. By assessing the annual accumulation rates of beach litter along the Tyrrhenian coast of central Italy and with that providing the characterization of litter following European standardized guidelines, researchers have found temporal and spatial differences in the abundance and composition of litter between seasons and between sites. Furthermore, their research has led them to propose a more effective strategy to reduce litter pollution by devising specific management procedures focusing on the most abundant items.
This approach is in line with the Marine Strategy Framework Directive (2008/56/EG, MSFD) aimed at protecting the marine environment across Europe. Each Member State is obliged to take the necessary measures to achieve or maintain good environmental status in its territorial sea. The obligation regards the prevention and reduction of input in the marine environment, in order to phase out pollution. Key to the directive is the development of criteria and methodological standards to ensure consistency and comparison of a good environmental status of marine regions. Initial assessments can then be compared with ongoing assessments in the future. One of the indicators of the environmental status is the presence of marine litter. A report that was published in 2017 for implementation of the MSFD led to further legislation on plastic, most prominently the Single-Use Plastics Directive in 2018.
Moreover, monitoring plastic pollution makes it possible for States to compare their results with the results of other countries. There are two reasons why the ability to compare different countries is so important when it comes to reducing plastic pollution. First and foremost, when a State becomes a party to a treaty, the state takes on an obligation. The more specific this obligation is, the easier it will be to track whether the obligation has been met. In this respect, you need monitoring data - both to set a clear goal and to establish whether or not the State is making progress. It is of importance that the data is available and that it can be understood. This links to the second point: the data can only be used in a comprehensible manner when the methods used to collect data are comparable. If countries use the same standards and ways of establishing their baselines, it becomes easier to track their progress and see what type of measures have the best effect.
In conclusion, monitoring and standard setting plays an important role in combating plastic pollution for multiple reasons. Without the data, that can be provided by monitoring, it is hard to steer public opinion. Before getting to the stage of solutions, we need the problem to be acknowledged and the facts to be sorted. Once we get to the point of taking measures, the data can help us establish realistic goals, based on the current baseline, and adequate legislation to reach these goals. Monitoring remains of importance throughout the process, since it is useful to compare the situation ‘before and after’, and results from different States amongst each other. After a certain period of time, we should be able to establish what measures work best, and these are the type of measures we need to invest in.