Solutions to Plastic Pollution: A Conceptual Framework to Tackle a Wicked Problem

Chapter by Martin Wagner: “There is a broad willingness to act on global plastic pollution as well as a plethora of available technological, governance, and societal solutions. However, this solution space has not been organized in a larger conceptual framework yet. In this essay, I propose such a framework, place the available solutions in it, and use it to explore the value-laden issues that motivate the diverse problem formulations and the preferences for certain solutions by certain actors. To set the scene, I argue that plastic pollution shares the key features of wicked problems, namely, scientific, political, and societal complexity and uncertainty as well as a diversity in the views of actors. To explore the latter, plastic pollution can be framed as a waste, resource, economic, societal, or systemic problem.

Doing so results in different and sometimes conflicting sets of preferred solutions, including improving waste management; recycling and reuse; implementing levies, taxes, and bans as well as ethical consumerism; raising awareness; and a transition to a circular economy. Deciding which of these solutions is desirable is, again, not a purely rational choice. Accordingly, the social deliberations on these solution sets can be organized across four scales of change. At the geographic and time scales, we need to clarify where and when we want to solve the plastic problem. On the scale of responsibility, we need to clarify who is accountable, has the means to make change, and carries the costs. At the magnitude scale, we need to discuss which level of change we desire on a spectrum of status quo to revolution. All these issues are inherently linked to value judgments and worldviews that must, therefore, be part of an open and inclusive debate to facilitate solving the wicked problem of plastic pollution…(More)”.