The invention of plastic was once hailed as “man’s masterpiece”. However, it has evolved into one of the huge challenges to the global environment from a necessity facilitating socio-economic growth within the 110 years since its birth. Statistics from United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) indicate that plastic production soared from 2 million tons in 1950 to 348 million tons today. In 2004, a paper1 issued in the magazine Science first put forward the concept of microscopic plastic, i.e. a kind of plastic particle with diameters less than 5 millimeters. In August 2019, a WHO report Microplastics in drinking-water noted that microplastics are ubiquitous in the environment and have been detected in marine water, wastewater, fresh water, food, air and drinking-water, both bottled and tap water, with different concentrations. From the perspective of global governance experience, the government makes a huge difference in addressing plastic waste pollution. By extension, how SAIs in all countries set their roles and responsibilities to make supervision more effective?I. Introduction and Background
As necessities for modern life, plastic products from straws and rope to automobile and industrial equipment exist everywhere thanks to their low price and high quality. Generally speaking, plastic shares its significant convenience for our environmental and socio-economic sectors. At the same time, we have to face challenges to the environment posed by such items, as it is overused and littered. At present, 120 million tons of disposable plastic products alone are produced annually, of which only 10 percent is recycled, about 12 percent is burned, and over 70 percent is discarded into the soil, river, ocean, etc. For example, plenty of agricultural films are left in the 0-30-cm-depth plow layer of farms, greatly threatening agricultural production and food safety. Moreover, plastic waste is the most obvious polluter in the ocean, which shows a fast-growing curve. According to a 2015 report in the magazine Science, up to 8 million tons of plastic waste is pumped into the ocean in 2010, leaving marine organisms in a dangerous dilemma. In addition to large pollutants such as plastic bottles, plastic bags, plastic pipes, and food packaging, what is worse is that they produce lots of plastic particles threatening the physical health of animals or humans, as these particles enter their bodies through adhering to seafood, sea salt, and other ways. An organization associated with the Convention on the Conservation of Migratory Species of Wild Animals released the report Risk assessment of plastic pollution to migratory species in the Mekong and Ganga River Basins on March 1st, 2022. The report focuses on the impacts of plastic pollution on freshwater and terrestrial species, maps plastic hotspots, and assesses the risk of plastic pollution on migratory species in the Ganga and Mekong River basins.
On February 28, 2022, Mr. Espen Barth Eide, President of the fifth session of the UN Environment Assembly (UNEA-5), delivered a speech at the Opening Plenary of the UNEA-5 in Nairobi, Kenya. He said, the world is intimidated by three global eco-crises: climate change, biodiversity loss, and pollution. As we recover from the global pandemic, the responsibility bestowed upon us for response to the environmental issue is even greater. If there are no immediate measures, plastic pollution will enlarge its hazard and threaten human subsistence. But if we move it into a circular economy, plastic will be a product that can be used over and over again. The Draft Resolution of End Plastic Pollution the Assembly indicated the establishment of an intergovernmental negotiating committee with the aim of finalizing a global legally binding agreement by 2024 that is expected to address the full lifecycle of plastic products, including its production, design, recovery, and disposal.II. Approach to addressing plastic waste
A lot of data show that the high output and low recycling of plastic products implies an increasing number of plastic wastes making its way into the natural world and becoming a menace to the safety of the environment. 80 percent of ocean garbage is generally regarded to come from the land. We’d like to embrace a revitalizing plastic industry with its products feature clean and recyclable and thereby minimize plastic waste, making humans take benefits and avoid harm from plastic. For this purpose, what should we do?
Strengthening the lifecycle control of plastic products: A prevailing governance experience believes that addressing plastic waste needs coordination and interaction between the government, the market, and the public. The government introduces direction policies, the market meets environmental demands, and the public implements eco-friendly initiatives. The UNEA 2022 resolution addresses the full lifecycle of plastics and the design of reusable and recyclable products and materials and focuses on the adoption of diversified manners for addressing plastic waste pollution. The EU’s 2020 Circular Economy Action Plan 2.0 further enriches moves against recycled plastics, microplastics, bio-based plastics, and single-use plastic products. These moves provide constructive solutions for addressing plastic waste in support of taking reusable and recyclable products as a gauge to evaluate the performance of corporates in terms of fulfilling environmental protection responsibilities, so as to encourage enterprises to lower the use of plastic or take alternative options. The Chinese government added ocean garbage into the routine monitoring of the marine environment since 2007 and carried out the monitoring of ocean microplastics in waters under Chinese jurisdiction as well as ocean and polar waters since 2016.
Investing more funding to bolster the recycling utilization of plastic: Environmental governance requires a great number of funds from the government and society. Recycling or burning at present is the best way to reduce plastic product pollution. However, China does not make the utmost of such ways to its waste plastic. Therefore, it is imperative to enlarge subsidies to encourage the recycling of plastics, constitute an effective recycling system, and prevent plastic products from flowing into oceans, rivers, and soil to the greatest extent. This indicates that the government should increase direct funding or indirect guidance in a series of aspects such as the recycling of plastic, reduction in waste and offering alternatives, construction of disposal facilities, and reduction of the influence on the environment. For instance, providing farmers with fiscal subsidies for the recovery of agricultural plastic film from them, expanding the funding to build waste incineration plants for power generation, enhancing abilities to monitor plastic waste pollution in oceans and rivers, or developing projects for plastic waste collection in major waters.
Intensifying the supervision of the law on plastic pollutant emission: Some nations and international organization such as China and the EU have imposed or been designing a Plastics Ban for reducing the use of single-use plastic bags to stop more microplastics from entering the environment. They also push the development and application of innovative green packaging materials to advance the sustainable development of resources. For instance, in October 2018, European Union Parliament overwhelmingly approved a ban on single-use plastics which stipulates that the use of single-use plastics should be prohibited from 2021 to help curb the ocean plastic pollution crisis. Since 2020, China has prohibited the import of waste plastic and banned the production and sale of disposable plastic-foam dinnerware.
Promoting cooperation among countries in trans-basin and trans-regional governance: Waste’s transferring to another country does not mean its elimination. Take the example of ocean plastic waste with characteristics of trans-regional and cross-border flowing, to achieve cooperative governance among nations, some regional international organizations with a special focus on the issue of ocean plastic waste formulate a deluge of policy guidance and course of action. For example, in 2019, China presented its willingness at the 22nd ASEAN-China Summit to promote the implementation of the Marine Plastic Reduction Initiative under the framework of ASEAN-China Partnership for Eco-Friendly Urban Development, clearly expressing China’s firm confidence in deepening international collaboration on the reduction of ocean plastic pollution. In 2019, more than 180 parties hailed the unanimous endorsement of the agreement on banning the import of plastic wastes according to their situations in the 14th Meeting of the Conference of the Parties to the Basel Convention (COP14) in Geneva, Switzerland, witnessing a global consensus on strengthening plastic waste control. China’s ban on waste import also makes waste-exporting countries accelerate to re-examine and strengthen plastic governance from the perspective of the circular economy.III. Audit’s roles in addressing plastic waste
UN Resolution A/RES/66/209, entitled Promoting the efficiency, accountability, effectiveness, and transparency of public administration by strengthening supreme audit institutions, and UN Resolution A/RES/69/228, entitled Promoting and fostering the efficiency, accountability, effectiveness, and transparency of public administration by strengthening supreme audit institutions, states that work of all SAIs is an integral part of 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development. In September 2022, INTOSAI WGEA officially launched Auditing Plastic Waste: Research and Audit Benchmarks for Supreme Audit Institutions as the audit guidance for all SAIs. It marks auditing plastic waste has emerged as a pioneering audit topic catering to future development trends of audit work, and is also a norm for all SAIs.
Enhancing audit-based supervision on the implementation of policies concerning addressing plastic waste: Resource-Environmental Auditing takes real-time audits of the implementation of a country’s major policies and measures as a crucial means to exert its functions. To respond to challenges posed by plastic waste pollution effectively, all nations enact a diversity of policies such as the policy of controlling the full lifecycle of plastic products. These policies play an important role in pointing out the future direction of addressing plastic waste. Take China as an example, addressing plastic waste relates to the Ministry of Ecology and Environment, Ministry of Agriculture and Rural Affairs, and other appropriate functional departments in charge of oceans and rivers. However, these authorities will issue different policies to achieve their particular management purpose. In this case, the audit should pay attention to the synergistic implementation effect of various policies, including the implementation of state-level policies by different local governments, as well as the coordinating among various policies introduced by local governments, focusing on the non-implementation of existing policies, deviation in implementation, or self-issued policies in violation of the laws and regulations.
Focusing on auditing funding granted by governments to address plastic waste: Government grants play an irreplaceable role in addressing plastic waste effectively. All SAIs should focus on their main responsibilities and works to supervise the use of funding. Although the fiscal system of countries varies, the use of funding still sees some common ground such as construction subsidies or tax relief for plastic waste recycling systems, as well as funding rewards for plastic waste reduction conducted by communities and businesses. The audit should give priority to funding management and performance evaluation, including reasonable budget arrangement, fair allocation of funds, completion of project objectives, input and output analysis, and effect assessment of tax relief or punishment policies.
Boosting governments or enterprises to better implement their legal duties or obligations: Enterprises shall shoulder major social responsibility for the environment. Plastics Bans have been laws in some countries and enterprises and governments are mandated to implement and supervise respectively. For example, large international consumer goods enterprises should take responsibility for the full lifecycle control of plastic products. As an institution with the power of independent supervision and inspection, audit institutions should prioritize inspecting enterprises’ compliance with regulations and policies related to addressing plastic waste, including enterprises’ implementation of their appropriate responsibilities for plastic production, use, and disposal, governments’ approval for the establishment of plastic production enterprise and supervision of those enterprises, completion of the target set by the government for plastic reduction, governments’ implementation of international cooperation agreements or projects on addressing plastic waste.IV. Challenges and prospects of audit in addressing plastic waste
According to the INTOSAI’s Implementation Guidelines for Performance Auditing, it is agreed that environmental auditing is, in principle, not different from the audit approach as practiced by SAIs and that it could encompass all types of audits. Audit attention may be devoted to, for example, the disclosure of environmental assets and liabilities, compliance with legislation and conventions – both national and international –as well as to measures instituted by the audited entity to promote economy, efficiency, and effectiveness. In terms of worldwide audit experience and typical practices, the audit work of addressing plastic waste sees the following three aspects of challenges and prospects.
First, it is difficult to grasp the role and responsibility of government auditing. As a segment of addressing pollution, addressing plastic waste requires much more expertise. How government audit accurately sets its role and responsibility deserves careful study. We must find the best way to conduct audit work, with some starting points as follows: audit emphasis on policy or funds; accurate evaluation on the effect of addressing plastic waste; and performance evaluation on the government funds.
Second, better skills and knowledge for auditors are required. Field auditors will encounter some emerging challenges because they need to leverage wide-range knowledge to audit on addressing plastic waste, including circular economy, statistical measurement, recycling, and harmless disposal. Generally, a person with expertise in the sectors of the economy, technology, finance, the environment, and statistics may be a better auditor working on addressing plastic waste, able to find salient problems hiding in the process of addressing plastic waste and propose more flexible suggestions for audit reports.
Third, audit meets many difficulties in acquiring true data. The success of addressing plastic waste rests on the authenticity and accuracy of data, including statistical data from the whole process of plastic products design, production, use, and abandonment, use and recovery data of agricultural plastic films, monitoring data of microplastics in the oceans and rivers, etc. Such data is the key basis for the audit work. However, audit institutions cannot directly engage in the acquisition of such data. In case of incomplete data, it will seriously affect judgment. Therefore, a huge challenge is how to obtain data and ensure its authenticity and accuracy.
With the view to sustainable development, several effective approaches to address plastic waste focus on the application of a circular economy philosophy, effective control of the whole industrial chains, environmental risk assessment on the full lifecycle, improvement of recycling technologies, and cooperation on addressing multinational pollutants. An array of government funds and private investments are pooled to make the results positive. EU has provided Horizon 2020 with a budget of more than € 250 million in R&D directly relating to the EU’s Plastics Strategy, about half of which is in support of enterprises’ developing alternative materials. As regulations and policy, government funds, and requirements of the effect assessment increase in all nations, more opportunities will emerge in audit’s promotion to address plastic waste.
1Lost at Sea: Where is all the plastic?