Trends in chemical management science and governance: Plastics as an example

Mark Rossi

    Melissa Wang
    Senior Scientist

Bird on beach with plastic pollution

At this year's Global Business Summit, Melissa Wang, Senior Scientist at Greenpeace, discussed the latest trends in chemical management science – and highlighted the issue of plastic pollution as something the world needs to address in the coming years.

Human beings learn from history. It has taken us plenty of late lessons to accept how important chemicals are in achieving the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development and its 2030 goals. Meeting these goals is fundamentally dependent on our choice when it comes to the production and use of chemicals – if, and how, this is done in an environmentally and socially sound way throughout the whole lifecycle.

We live in an environment that is exposed to multiple chemicals from a variety of sources. Throughout our long learning journey, the effectiveness of traditional and classical chemical-by-chemical risk assessment methods has been challenged. The problem of chemical mixtures and their ‘cocktail effects’ has moved beyond academic scientific research and into the policy arena, although substantial technical and scientific challenges remain. Examples of efforts to address this complexity include actions taken by the World Health Organization, United States Environmental Protection Agency (US EPA), European Commission and European Food Safety Agency (EFSA).

On the other hand, recent research on neonicotinoid pesticides has reminded people once again of the importance of accounting for multiple routes of exposure and unexpected effects on non-target organisms in risk assessment. With the advancement of science and insights, chemical governance and policy decisions are moving focus from purely end-of-pipe treatment to more effective upstream source control (eg Stockholm Convention on Persistent Organic Pollutants), with more emphasis on a comprehensive lifecycle view of the chemical value chain.

Science does indeed expand the boundaries of our understanding of chemicals. However, many data gaps and unknowns remain, particularly when we compare our knowledge of chemicals with what’s on the market. Policy, which should be informed by science, should also, therefore, create and foster a better enabling environment for credible scientific research on chemicals: hazards, risks, precautionary regulations and solutions.The need to strengthen such a two-way science-policy interface on global chemical governance, in order to enable both communities to better understand and support each other, has been well recorded in Global Chemical Outlook-II: Summary for policy-makers as one of the ten key findings and proposed actions. The ‘Beyond 2020’ process under Saicm (The Strategic Approach to International Chemicals Management) provides a good opportunity to review and explore the best way forward.

What’s needed to reach a sustainable solution to plastic pollution?

Plastic pollution in ocean

There could hardly be a more prominent example of the challenges ahead than plastic pollution, in terms of public, media, science and policy attention that it currently attracts.

The widespread and rapidly growing problems of plastic in our seas have been recognised as a major contemporary challenge for ocean governance (Nature Communications 9:667; 2018). The multiple sources and pervasive presence of microplastics in air, soils, lakes, rivers, seawater, sea ice, salt and seafood, however, are symptoms of a much wider malaise – when plastic enters the environment it stays persistently, attracts and/or releases hazardous chemicals (eg additives), can be transferred up the food chain, and becomes impossible to manage. Despite the understandable heavy focus on marine litter and microplastics and their impacts on wildlife, plastic pollution is not simply an ocean problem; rather, it’s another typical symptom rising from non-sustainable production and the consumption of chemicals and resources.

If we are to find a sustainable solution, some have argued that waste production must peak this century (Nature 502, 615-617; 2013). Achieving this will require a much more immediate shift in mindset away from overproduction and overconsumption of plastic, and to align material policies and product redesign with holistic lifecycle approaches. Curbing the growth of single-use plastics (SUPs) would be one sign of real progress (Science 347, 768 -771; 2015). It requires reflection on the essentiality of SUP products and packaging, as well as greater innovation in how goods and services are provided to institutions, communities and individuals, rather than simply substituting one material with another.

Material and system changes are vital. When plastic use is essential, products must be designed, manufactured and used within closed loops as part of a circular economy (Nature 494 169-171, 2013). Plastics are durable materials that lend themselves to multiple reuse and efficient recycling, not disposal. Manufacturing plastics without hazardous chemical additives, stopping the use of non-recyclable plastics and boosting support for consistent, effective collection and recycling by municipalities could, alongside consumer education, bring diverse benefits. On the other hand, for essential plastic products, a strict precautionary approach needs to be applied to any bio-based plastics to ensure biomass feedstock does not intensify competition for forest and agriculture land resources.

In December 2017, the Third Session of United Nations Environment Assembly (UNEA 3) resolved to convene meetings of an Ad Hoc Open-ended Expert Group on Marine Litter and Microplastics. This expert group met twice in 2018 “to further examine barriers to and options for combating marine plastic litter and microplastics”.  

The co-chairs’ report back will serve as the basis for further discussion at UNEA 4 to be held in March 2019. Agreements among experts to strengthen the science-policy interface at the international level are encouraging, which strategically could be linked to the aforementioned ongoing broad science-policy interface discussion on international chemical governance under the intersessional process of Saicm for a ‘Beyond 2020’ mechanism, to reflect the full lifecycle principle identified by the co-chairs.

Opinions on preferred governance options remain more diverse, though. Having previously noted the need for a comprehensive approach to lifecycle management of plastics, to address additives and to apply the principles of environmental impact assessment (EIA) and extended producer responsibility (EPR), UN Environment concluded in its 2018 Summary For Policy Makers document (UNEP 2018) that “current governance strategies and approaches provide a fragmented approach that does not adequately address marine plastic litter and microplastics… These efforts will provide some degree of progress, but combined may not reach the desired outcomes at a global level of protecting the environment, human health and food security.”

That’s why some countries and stakeholders see the needs, and strongly call for, a new global convention on plastic pollution with a mandate to manage the lifecycle of plastics. The aim is to prevent marine and other plastic pollution, which should anchor, build upon and complement existing regional and global voluntary and binding frameworks, allowing them to contribute within their core competencies.

Fortunately, most of these needs and missing elements have at least now been recognised, discussed and recorded by co-chairs in their report as major principles for enhanced coordination and governance (eg the full lifecycle approach). By the time of the Chemical Watch Global Business Summit 2019, and in the wake of UNEA 4, we can hope there will be more clarity on the next vital steps towards a more sustainable future.


UN Environment (2018) UNEP/AHEG/2018/1/INF/3:  Combating Marine Plastic Litter and Microplastics: An Assessment of the effectiveness of relevant international, regional and subregional governance strategies and approaches – Summary for Policy Makers.

Nature Communications 9:667; 2018: Plastic pollution of the world’s seas and oceans as a contemporary challenge in ocean governance.

Nature 502, 615-617; 2013: Environment: Waste production must peak this century.

Science 347, 768 -771; 2015: Plastic waste inputs from land into the ocean.

Nature 494 169–171, 2013: Policy: Classify plastic waste as hazardous.