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Why a systems perspective is needed for global plastics governance: the strategy of sustainability

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By Daniel F. Akrofi

· 8 min read

The rate of fossil fuel-derived plastic (FFP) production and waste is on the ascendency. This is driven by the increased diversification of oil and gas companies. The economic cost of this linear approach exhibited by the global plastic economy has been estimated to be more than US$2.2 trillion per year with more than 8.3 billion metric tons of plastic produced since the first plastic item was created. The environmental consequences are also dire, affecting freshwater systems, oceans and seas, contributing to climate change, and contributing to biodiversity loss. For example, the ocean is filled with approximately 5.25 trillion pieces of plastic while microplastic contamination has been estimated to be 4-32 times more on land than in the ocean. 

Conventional response to global plastics governance

The conventional response to the multifarious problem of global plastic pollution has come from the national, regional, and international levels, albeit focusing on only some aspects of plastic pollution and predominantly on what happens during the end-of-life stage using enforcement or ICE (information, communication, and education) strategies, taxes, and EPR schemes among others. These are aimed at encouraging source separation, and/or recycling, or to prevent plastic production in the first place with outright bans. Few take into consideration design for environment (DfE) processes not to talk about the entire lifecycle of plastics. This is so because sectors (such as the packaging sector) that use plastics in most countries import the polymer resin used to produce the plastic product and hence do not have to deal with pollution emanating from other stages (usually upstream and midstream) of the plastic lifecycle. 

Following this thought, the more waste management infrastructure is improved, the less plastic waste will be seen in the environment, which translates to a reduction in plastic pollution. One is therefore tempted to suggest that eliminating plastics that have reached the end of their life from getting into the environment indiscriminately will solve the problem; but more often than not, it tends not to be so as that represents only one piece of the puzzle. This approach results in more and more plastic being produced which often overwhelms the waste management system till it gets to the point where what seemed to be the perfect solution doesn’t hold. This is so because the end-of-life stage does not control the production and use of plastics and plastic-related products, nor does it drive demand and supply exchanges among industry and consumers (the population).

In other words, actions designed to solve the problem tend to make it rather worse due to unforeseen side effects emanating from a myopic viewpoint. It is therefore prudent to observe that every stage within the life cycle of plastics should be seen as a system on its own that generates pollution through different feedback loops instead of just a mere stage within the entire lifecycle. This then opens up a whole new perspective as legislation can then be designed to address peculiar issues from each system, leaving no stone unturned. 

A systems perspective towards sustainability

It is against this backdrop that a systems perspective is recommended as it opens a wide variety of possibilities to solving a problem instead of a fixed approach. As a result, it helps in making informed decisions based on gradually understanding the interconnectedness of the system and how one strategy adopted affects other elements, thereby leading to the sustainability of any system. According to Jay Forrester, a system can be defined as a grouping of parts that operate together for a common purpose together for a common purpose. System thinking finds its roots in the concept of systems dynamics which sets out as a different form of analysis to fundamentally test new concepts within social systems to improve one’s understanding.

The need for systems thinking therefore transcends academic disciplines and comprises different decision-making procedures, work and process flows, attitudes and perceptions, as well as product quality. In Principles of Systems, Forrester defines system thinking as a set of synergistic analytic skills used to improve the capability of identifying and understanding systems, predicting their behaviors, and devising modifications to them in order to produce desired effects.

Conclusions drawn from a systemic thinking approach are therefore often unique from the conventional types of analysis as elements that influence complex issues (such as feedback from each stage of the plastic lifecycle, ineffective coordination among actors across the global plastic value chain, or fragmentation within existing multilateral environmental agreements that regulates aspects of the plastic pollution problem) are better understood which may contribute to the effectiveness of global plastic governance. Barry Richmond, a scholar in the field believed to have coined the term ‘systems thinking’ captures its essence beautifully in his writings saying: 

As interdependency increases, we must learn to learn in a new way. It's not good enough simply to get smarter and smarter about our particular "piece of the rock". We must have a common language and framework for sharing our specialized knowledge, expertise, and experience with "local experts" from other parts of the web. We need a systems Esperanto. Only then will we be equipped to act responsibly. In short, interdependency demands systems thinking. Without it, the evolutionary trajectory that we've been following since we emerged from the primordial soup will become increasingly less viable.

Peter Senge in his seminal work The Fifth Discipline, the Art and Practice of the Learning Organization advocates that systems thinking should be able to test policies as well as incorporate multiple perspectives, and dependably foretell the impact stemming from systems change thereby enhancing responsiveness to pressing global problems. Policymakers and decision-makers, therefore, need to be abreast with systems thinking (thus understanding the stocks and flows, feedback loops, gaps, delays, and leverage points) and the potential of seeing problems from a systems perspective in developing and implementing solutions to dynamic and complex global issues such as plastic pollution. 

Barry Richmond points out that the component of systems builds on each other and that each stage has the potential to provide a solution or serve as a precursor for the next stage. It is therefore prudent to say that every stage across the life cycle of plastics should be seen as a system on its own that generates pollution through different feedback loops instead of just a mere stage within the entire lifecycle. For example, research has shown that the system perspective enhances circularity by effectively detecting root causes (both internal and external) that prompted the rollout of countermeasures to solve it. 

A systems perspective on legislation 

This opens up a whole new perspective as legislation can then be designed to address peculiar issues from the plastic system and how that relates to other systems such as the plastic effect on the Earth system leaving no stone unturned. Having a panoramic view from the systems thinking perspective would permit suitable solutions to be proffered, be they short, medium, or long-term which would be evident in designing legal frameworks that address the right concerns, at the right time and place using the right actors.

Many of the world’s significant problems such as plastic pollution are complex and dynamic in nature, and involve numerous stakeholders. Having to tackle these problems, particularly from an international standpoint is notoriously hard as actors have different interests which most often than not leads to traditional solutions which are ineffective in dealing with these problems. Hence, the benefit of approaching these problems from a systems perspective elevates our thinking as stakeholders (both States and non-State actors) to construct answers to these notorious problems plagued with complexities and several interactions (social; economic – industrial and technological; political – governments and institutions; and environmental).

Considerations towards a systems perspective 

One would ask, what then are some steps to consider in engendering a more flexible and systems perspective-based approach to global plastic governance? Here are some thoughts:

  • Recognising interconnections among relevant actors in order to incorporate multiple perspectives across the global plastic value chain for an inclusive global plastic governance architecture. 
  • Identifying and understanding feedback among institutions (international organisations, governmental and non-governmental) and sectors involved in global plastic governance.
  • Understanding the complex system structure and dynamic behaviour of relevant (different) actors operating within the global plastic governance architecture. 
  • Differentiating types of stock, flows, and variables that occur at all levels across the global value chain. 
  • Understanding the diverse operational contexts of each system across the global plastic value chain at all levels (local, national, regional, and international) to better the development of the global plastic governance architecture.
  • Identifying and understanding the non-linear relationships and boundaries that exist among actors across the global value chain.
  • Reducing the complexity of the plastic pollution problem by modelling the global plastic (system) lifecycle and its interaction with other systems (such as the earth system) conceptually.
  • Understanding the aforementioned systems at different scales and how it informs the global plastic governance architecture and
  • Designing and testing policies based on the understanding gleaned from the interactions between the inter- and intrarelationships and dependencies of the interacting systems.

Future Thought Leaders is a democratic space presenting the thoughts and opinions of rising Sustainability & Energy writers, their opinions do not necessarily represent those of illuminem.

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About the author

Daniel F. Akrofi is a Commonwealth scholar and an International Sustainability & Legal consultant. He is a Doctoral researcher in International Law & Governance at the University of Lincoln, UK, and holds an MSc. in Water, Sanitation, and International Development from Cranfield University, UK with a BSc. Environmental Science & Natural Resources Management. His expertise revolves around international law, global sustainability & strategy, global environmental (plastic) governance, circular economy, natural resource management, waste management, and WASH.

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