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Navigating the Global Plastic Pollution Crisis: Strengthening the Science-Policy Interface

The innovation by chemists, resulting in the creation of a long polyethylene chain out of the small chemical monomer ethylene, has been a ground-breaking discovery, awarded the Nobel Prize in Chemistry in 1963. This remarkable discovery paved the way for highly useful industrial processes and set the stage for widespread use of plastics, which transformed our world in once unimaginable manners.

Today, exactly six decades later, the extensive use of plastics and their products is posing a threat to human health and the environment at the extent of a planetary crisis. These crises do not have borders, as today's consumption and production patterns are globalized, often putting developing regions and people in vulnerable situations at risk. Plastic pollution, in the form of microplastics, can be found in the most remote places, from the highest peaks to the Arctic and Antarctic.

The situation urgently demands to base our future on scientific evidence and profound knowledge to create a robust set of policies that can tackle the immense plastic challenge throughout its life cycle. The milestone resolutions adopted by the fifth session of the United Nations Environment Assembly, concerning the establishment of a Science-Policy Panel on chemicals, waste, and pollution (res 5/8), and mandating intergovernmental negotiations to develop a global legally binding instrument to end plastic pollution are the backdrop of this journey (res 5/14).

The Intergovernmental Negotiating Committee (INC) is working tirelessly to create a legally binding instrument on plastic pollution, including in the marine environment. In parallel, the negotiations are ongoing to establish the Science-Policy Panel. In this article we will explore the key principles and components guiding this endeavour and emphasize the importance of a multi-faceted approach.

Principles of the Plastic Pollution Battle

Credibility, salience, and legitimacy are the cornerstones of any successful science-policy interface. They ensure that decisions are grounded in rigorous research, relevant to the challenges at hand, and supported by the trust of the public and stakeholders. Equally important is the principle of integrity, which guards against conflicts of interest. Inclusivity is another vital principle, ensuring that diverse voices from different regions, genders, and disciplines are heard. It also acknowledges the value of local, traditional, and Indigenous Knowledge systems, which often hold invaluable insights.

Components of the science-policy interface

The development of the science-policy interface for the plastics pollution is divided into three main components:

· Internalizing science-policy functions: This involves embedding science-policy functions within the plastics instrument which is presently undergoing international negotiations. Carrying out of functions is meant to support the policy-making process by informing with the latest scientific findings.

· Supporting and complementing functions: The ultimate goal of the two negotiation processes is reaching the agreement on what potentially will be called the Global Plastics Treaty and establishment of the Science-Policy Panel. The cooperation between the agreement and the panel could be potentially reflected in founding documents. This cooperation enhances the breadth and depth of the expertise available for addressing plastic pollution.

· Leveraging existing bodies: Numerous other science-policy interfaces, particularly those within multilateral environmental agreements, can reinforce the science-policy interface of the plastics instrument, creating a network of support.

Ten key potential functions of the science-policy interface for plastic pollution, spanning across the four phases of the policy cycle – agenda setting, policy formulation, implementation, and evaluation – have been identified.

Agenda setting: This phase focuses on identifying potential threats, including emerging risks related to novel entities and legacy plastics. The Science-Policy Panel's horizon scanning function is instrumental in recognizing these challenges.

Policy formulation: Extensive scientific and technical support is essential in this phase. Scientific criteria for control measures, subsidiary bodies for chemical and product safety, and committees for assessing alternatives and non-plastic substitutes are crucial.

Broader Assessments is part of policy formulation. Comprehensive assessments of plastic pollution's impact on ecosystems, biota, and human health are necessary. The Science-Policy Panel, with its independence and intergovernmental nature, plays a pivotal role in providing credible information.

Implementation: This phase requires the development of expert working groups, the establishment of a knowledge management mechanism, and interdisciplinary data utilization. Collaboration between the plastics instrument and the Science-Policy Panel is essential.

Evaluation: Data-centric, this phase emphasizes global monitoring of progress and effectiveness. The plastics instrument is pivotal in reporting, monitoring, and data collection, supported by the development of an indicator framework and standardized methodologies.

Beyond these stages, capacity building and commutations act cross all policy phases.

Capacity building and communication

It is imperative that all countries are equally involved in both the Science-Policy Panel and the plastics instrument negotiations. Developing countries require an additional attention. Initiatives such as fellowship programs, strengthened foundational competencies, and facilitating developing country representatives' involvement are key to building a global, inclusive outcome.

In conclusion, the fight against plastic pollution requires a robust science-policy interface. Design of a high ambition plastics instrument would take the lead in handling the crises by establishing a set of principles and performing necessary functions.As we continue to navigate the complexities of plastic pollution, it is essential that we embrace science and policy as allies in the quest for a cleaner and more sustainable world.

Release date: 07 Nov 2023


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