In the history of science, the invention of fully synthetic plastics has been more than 120 years, and in the history of industry, the large-scale production of plastics has also been more than 60 years. Today, the use of plastics is 20 times that of half a century ago. It is expected that the production and use of plastics will double in the next 20 years. While enjoying the convenience of plastic, people are also suffering from the negative impact of plastic pollution on the natural environment and human health. Since the discovery of plastic bags was first reported on American beaches in the 1960s, the problem of plastic pollution has been fermenting step by step. The world's understanding of plastic pollution has deepened over time. Various forces interact to seek a consensus on plastic pollution control. Ideas and models are becoming clearer and richer, and action efforts are constantly strengthened. Since the 1990s, many countries have introduced laws and regulations including plastic restriction, plastic prohibition, taxation and so on in combination with their own national conditions. Since 2014, the biennial United Nations Environment Conference has called for and advocated a global response to plastic pollution. At the G20 summit and other international multilateral occasions, there are also special topics related to the global joint response to plastic pollution.
At the beginning of this year, the national development and Reform Commission and the Ministry of ecological environment issued the opinions on Further Strengthening the treatment of plastic pollution (hereinafter referred to as the opinions). The "opinions" has a high standard and was deliberated and adopted at the 10th meeting of the Central Committee for comprehensively deepening reform in September last year. Recently, the nine national departments jointly issued the notice on Solidly Promoting plastic pollution control. The introduction of the opinions has also added a significant new chapter to the collective action of the world's plastic pollution control in recent years.
Applying the concept of circular economy to carry out the overall and comprehensive treatment of plastic pollution
Source reduction is only one link in the Policy Governance Logic. This round of policies and measures basically covers the whole process and links of plastic products production, circulation, use, recycling and disposal, fully reflects the systematicness and integrity of the whole life cycle management, and highlights the circular economy concept of "reduction, reuse and recycling".
From the perspective of circular economy concept and material resource management of macro economic and social system, there is still significant room for improvement in the existing "social metabolism" model, related resource efficiency and environmental effects. In a sense, the plastic pollution treatment under the concept of circular economy also includes the comprehensive treatment covering the whole plastic value chain, including material resource management, which can also be called plastic treatment.
For example, the opinions requires the promotion and application of alternative products, the cultivation and optimization of new business formats and new models, and the increase of the supply of plastic green products. For emerging fields with rapid rise in the consumption of disposable plastic products in recent years, such as e-commerce, express delivery and takeout, platform enterprises are required to formulate alternative implementation plans for reduction, and enterprises are encouraged to build a cross platform operation system of recyclable packaging. In addition, the Opinions also put recycling and disposal in the same important position as source reduction, emphasizing the standardization of plastic waste recycling and disposal, strengthening the recycling and transportation of plastic waste, and promoting the recycling and energy utilization of plastic waste.
From a global perspective, China can be said to be a "top student" in the recycling of waste plastics, not a troublemaker. In 2019, for example, about one-third of China's waste plastics were recycled, a high proportion were used as energy, and some went to landfills. By comparison, the recycling ratio of waste plastic materials in the United States has been below 10% for a long time, the EU recycling ratio was about 32.5% in 2018, and the Japanese recycling ratio was about 28% (the EU and Japan recycling ratio includes both local processing capacity and processing capacity transported to overseas countries). China is no weaker than developed countries such as Europe, the United States and Japan in terms of the total amount and proportion of waste plastic material recycling. The introduction of the opinions will further increase the proportion of plastic waste recycling and energy in China, so as to minimize the direct landfill of plastic waste.
At the same time, China's policy of banning the import of foreign garbage has also accelerated the process of re examining and strengthening plastic governance from the perspective of circular economy in the European Union and Japan to a certain extent. In recent years, the EU and Japan have formulated relevant strategies one after another. In the 2015 circular economy action plan, the European Union proposed that "under the guidance of the circular economy framework, prepare the plastic strategy to meet many challenges in the plastic value chain", which means that the treatment of plastics has gradually shifted from waste treatment to comprehensive treatment covering the whole plastic value chain. Accordingly, the European plastic recycling strategy was issued in 2018. In the 2020 EU circular economy action plan version 2.0, governance measures have been further enriched for recycled plastics, micro plastics, bio based plastics and disposable plastic products. In 2018, in its fourth basic plan for promoting the formation of a recycling society, Japan listed plastics as the first of the five resources that need to be recycled for the first time, and issued the plastic resource recycling strategy in 2019.
Strengthen scientific and technological support and promote plastic pollution control to a higher level
Science and technology play an important supporting role in plastic pollution control. The Opinions also proposed to carry out the research and evaluation of environmental risks in the whole life cycle of different types of plastic products, strengthen the research on the pollution mechanism, monitoring, prevention and control technology and policies of plastic wastes and micro plastics in rivers, lakes and seas, increase the key core technology research and achievement transformation of recyclable and degradable materials, improve the performance of alternative materials and products, and promote the treatment of plastic pollution through scientific and technological progress.
In the medium and long term, in order to form a more perfect plastic circular economy system, in addition to government and social governance, we should also break through key technologies and realize industrialization. In particular, we need to form fundamental innovative solutions for plastic cycle at the molecular level in major products and key nodes. If the large-scale industrialized production of plastics is the first revolution of such synthetic materials, focusing on functionality and economy, the goal of the second technological revolution of plastics should also aim at higher standards of health, safety and recycling, and completely eliminate the negative effects of plastics on humans.
The international community also attaches great importance to scientific and technological breakthroughs in the field of plastics. This year, an article on the breakthrough progress of plastic recycling technology appeared on the cover of nature, a top journal in the field of scientific research, and attracted extensive attention. The EU has provided a lot of financial support for scientific and technological research in advanced plastic sorting, chemical recycling and polymer design improvement and innovation schemes, potential health effects and monitoring tools of micro plastics, low-cost and truly environmentally effective bio based plastics, etc. For example, through the "Horizon 2020" plan, more than 250 million euros have been provided to finance R & D areas directly related to the European plastic recycling strategy, about half of which are used to help develop alternative raw materials. In addition, an additional 100 million euros was invested through other programs to fund the research and development of more intelligent and renewable plastic materials, improve the efficiency of the recycling process, and track and remove hazardous substances and pollutants from recycled plastics. The European Commission will also carry out the plastic strategic research and innovation agenda to provide guidance for research and innovation funds after 2020.
China will play an irreplaceable role in global plastic governance
The world should take a more objective and fair view of China's efforts to control plastic pollution. With the development and progress of society, industry and science and technology, after many years of enjoying the dividends of plastic functionality and economy, mankind has now reached the stage of emphasizing higher standards of health, safety and recycling. We have only one earth. Every country and everyone should start from now and from me. However, it is neither realistic nor completely fair to require developing countries to put in place in one step, only pay attention to recycling and give up too much functionality and economy, especially for a large plastic production and consumption country such as China.
As the largest developing country in the world, China is actively fulfilling its responsibility as a big country and doing its best to achieve a balance between functionality, economy, health, safety and recycling. This should also be a major internal logic of this opinion. If this is done well, China will truly play a leading role commensurate with its own conditions and status.
On the other hand, China's plastic pollution control work cannot surpass its own development stage. Only those in line with national conditions and committed to balancing functionality, economy, health, safety and recycling can not float in the air too idealistically and really achieve results. This should also be the fundamental reason why the opinions implements "plastic prohibition" and "plastic restriction" step by step and in different fields.
China's efforts in plastic pollution control will have a far-reaching impact. At present, the EU has been actively promoting international cooperation in plastic governance, hoping to play a leading role at the international level, promote the conclusion of global plastic agreements, and promote the methods adopted by the EU in the field of plastic circular economy. Japan also expects to promote its technology, innovation and environmental infrastructure on plastic governance to the world. As the world's largest country in plastic production and consumption, China will not only solve its own problems, but also play an irreplaceable role in the cooperation of global plastic governance. The release and implementation of the opinions will be an important key node in retrospect. (the author is the president of the Institute of circular economy of Tsinghua University, Professor of the Department of chemical industry, and member of the international resources expert committee of UNEP)