Are the UN SDGs doing enough to encourage the reduction of single use plastics?

Photo by Angela Compagnone on Unsplash

Zara Babakordi, 19th November 2020

The UN SDGs were first established in 2012 at the UN Conference on Sustainable Development in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil (in 2015, all UN Member States adopted the SDGs). The SDGs were designed to replace the UN Millennium Development Goals (MDGs), with a core objective of creating a set of 17 ‘universal’ goals that, by 2030, address urgent environment, political and economic global challenges.  At the time of development, the SDGs did not have specific objectives or indices for (single use) plastics.  In 2017, however, the UN adopted an additional resolution in relation to Goal 14 (Life Below Water) including an agreement to implement:

“Long-term and robust strategies to reduce the use of plastics and microplastics, particularly plastic bags and single use plastics, including by partnering with stakeholders at relevant levels to address their production, marketing and use”.

United Nations, 2017

This addition to Goal 14 could be seen as indicative of the changing narrative associated with single use plastics in the past ten years—from one of many environmental issues to the ethical and moral issue. It can be inferred that framing single use plastics within Goal 14 alludes to an emphasis on the environmental concerns associated with problematic waste disposal methods rather than the problematics associated with continued production and consumption.

This nuance is further reflected in the ways in which various institutions interpret and reinterpret the SDGs for single use plastics. The British Plastics Federation, the main trade body for the UK plastic industry, argues that plastics support ten of the 17 SDGs, including Goal 14.  Within the context of Goal 14, the British Plastics Federation argues that societal failure to prevent littering and ineffective waste management practices are the core reasons for increased plastic waste entering marine environments.  Additionally, it draws attention to interventions supported by the plastics industry to reduce the impact of marine plastics, for example, Operation Clean Sweep and Waste Free Oceans.

Elsewhere, government institutions have interpreted pledges to ban certain single use plastic items as supportive of Goal 14. The UK Government, for example, suggests its ban on microbeads and the 2015 plastic bag charge (England)—amongst other planned interventions—help to prevent marine pollution, thus meeting its obligations towards Goal 14. To further support this, the UK Government also currently co-leads on the Commonwealth Clean Ocean Alliance which aims to bring governments, businesses and NGOs together and encourage global action on eliminating ‘avoidable’ plastic waste.  In addition, the multinational consumer goods company, Unilever, has committed to increasing the recyclability of its plastic packaging and increase its use of recycled plastics.

These three examples above, all seemingly supportive of Goal 14, highlight the myriad of ways in which institutions, including multinational businesses, governments and trade bodies can interpret global, ‘universal’ objectives (which were not originally plastic-specific) to frame their responses to single use plastic as socially and environmentally responsible.  This includes the collection of marine litter, increasing plastic recycling or banning certain single use plastic items. A future area of investigation could be to critically evaluate the ways in which ‘universal’ aims, such as the UN SDGs, are adopted by influential institutions to support a narrative of maintaining ethical, sustainable and/or ethical operations within the context of plastics.

For more information, please see our 2020 research report: Institutions, Interventions and Single Use Plastics

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