Module IV: Policy responses: cross-border Similarities and Difficulties

Home » Education program » Module IV: Policy responses: cross-border Similarities and Difficulties


General introduction Module 4

Rivers connect different countries and each country is confronted with the issue of plastic litter. You will explore the differences and similarities in the policy settings in Germany, Belgium and the Netherlands on the issue of plastic litter.

In this module, you will specifically focus on the Meuse River guided by the questions:

  • How do policymakers react on the problem of plastic litter in rivers? 
  • Who is responsible to take action? 

This module consists of three aspects. Firstly, you are introduced to different types of actions policymakers can take, including a range of examples of policy responses to plastic litter from the local to the global level. Secondly, you explore the responsibilities different stakeholders for the issue of plastic litter through the concepts of multi-actor and multi-level aspect of the governance. Thirdly, you explore the challenges and opportunities to reduce plastic litter in rivers based on different perspectives on the issue of plastic litter. In short assignment on the Meuse River these difference aspects are highlighted by different actors in different countries connected to the Meuse River.

The module is supported by videos, figures, informative texts and several assignments. It is structured in the following subchapters:

  1. Introduction assignment
  2. Different types of policy responses 
  3. Different responsibilities for a clean Meuse
  4. Challenges and opportunities to reduce and prevent plastic litter
  5. Final assignment

Introduction assignment

As starting point, take a look at the flow chart (fig.1) that shows different aspects from the production of plastic to the problem of plastic litter in a river. In the previous modules the focus was on the flow and activities within this process. In this module, you will look at how policymakers can influence the different stages from plastic production to the issue of plastic litter in a river.

Make a list of 5 actions that you think policymakers could take to reduce the problem of plastic litter in a river. Include in your list at which stage of the flowchart the action aims to influence the situation (at the sources, at the entry point to the river or at the stage of clean-up). 


Figure 1: Flowchart of plastic

In this module, we will specifically focus on the challenges of the Meuse River.
In the following video different people from organisations that collaborate in the project LIVES introduce you to the plastic litter issue that is a cross-border challenge for the Meuse River: 

See the video: The plastic free challenge for the river Meuse

Watch this video to see examples of opportunities and challenges for policy responses towards plastic litter. In this module, we will come back in more detail to the actors in this video and their role in the current approach to reduce plastic litter in the Meuse River.


1. Different types of policy responses 

In the next assignment you will look at different examples of policy responses to the issue of plastic litter. First we introduce the basic concepts of policy responses. The instruments of governmental actors, such as the national parliament or municipalities, serve as our starting point. However, also non-governmental actors and businesses aim to reduce plastic litter and contribute with policy responses, as you will see later in this module. 

Policy instruments

In reaction to an environmental problem policymakers can use very different responses with the aim to reduce the environmental problem by influencing human behaviour (Bouwma, Gerritsen, Kamphorst, & Kistenkas, 2015). To obtain this aim there are roughly three types of policy instruments: juridical, economical and communicational. 

Juridical: legislative and regulatory instruments

Through laws and regulations the government can enforce that specific behaviour is not allowed or specific behaviour is required. For example, there is a speed limit on the highway and you are obliged as a child to go to school. Characteristic for this type of instrument is that the governmental authority sets binding rules which they can enforce by sanctions, such as imprisonment or fines. This instrument makes really clear which behaviour is allowed or prohibited, however enforcement can be required which can be very costly or complicated when there is insufficient support for the regulation.

Economic instruments 

Through financial encouragement governments and other actors can support specific behaviour by making preferred behaviour cheaper or by making unwanted behaviour more expensive. For example, there are subsidies for solar panels and taxes on cigarettes. Characteristic for this type of instrument is that there is no enforcement but instead the expectation is that through market functioning specific behaviour will be encouraged. However, behaviour of people is not only guided by economic considerations and it can be very hard to establish at which price people will change their behaviour.

Communicational instruments

Through the communication of information governments and other actors try to convince people to behave in a specific way. For example, the message in hotels to only place towels on the ground that needs replacement. Characteristic for this type of instrument is the self-regulating aspect, people are expected to voluntarily change their behaviour as a result of the provided information. This is challenging as habitats do not change easily and often non-interested parties do not search for the information or have a different logical framework that does not result in convincing to change behaviour as expected from the intended communication.

To apply your knowledge on policy responses, there are two assignments for you:
Click here to make the assignment on types of policy responses on the issue of plastic bags
Click here to make the first assignment on the Meuse River- the organisation Mooimakers


2. Different responsibilities for a clean Meuse

There is not one person or organisation responsible for plastic litter in rivers and oceans (Löhr et al., 2017). Instead many people are or could be involved in actions to reduce and prevent plastic litter. We explain these collaborative processes by introducing the concept of multi-level and multi-actor governance (Tatenhove, 2013).

Multi-actor and multi-level governance

Historically, policy making has predominantly been seen as an activity of the government. However, governmental actors are not the only ones responsible for providing collective goods, such as clean river water. For this reason we use the term governance: “the taking of collectively binding decisions for a community in a community, by governmental and other actors” (Van Assche, Beunen, & Duineveld, 2015, p.20). There are multiple-actors that play a role and have a responsibility to react on issues concerning collective goods. They can roughly be placed in three categories: the state (governmental organisations), the market (businesses and other commercial organisations) and the civil society (non-governmental organisations), see Figure 2.

Figure 2: the governance of plastic litter is based on multiple actors​

Furthermore, there are different scales on which you can look at decision-making. Starting at the whole human population of the world, to regions such as Europe, to nations and local communities in towns and cities. Governmental actors are also organised on different levels, such as the United Nations, the European Union, national parliaments, provinces, waterboards (the governmental organisation specifically responsible for local water systems) and municipalities. Additionally, some non-governmental organisations and businesses have world headquarters. However, some actors are only active on a specific level, for example a local organisation connected to a specific nature area or a business that is active in one country. Together all these actors form the governance of the issue of plastic litter. In some cases they will work together, for example in voluntary agreements. At other instances actors can have different interests, for example plastic producers that aim to increase their productions whereas environmental NGOs aim to reduce plastic production.

To apply your knowledge on the responsibility of different actors in the multiple-actor and multiple-level governance setting of plastic in rivers, click here to make the assignment on the Meuse River- the organisation Contrat de Rivière Meuse Aval & Rijkswaterstaat.


3. Challenges and opportunities to reduce and prevent plastic litter

As you have seen in the example of the Meuse River, many organisations take responsibility to reduce and prevent plastic litter. However, there is not one organisation responsible for the overall goal to reduce and prevent plastic litter. This is both a challenge and opportunity, nobody can be taken responsible alone for the plastic litter issue, but the opportunity is that many people and organisations can contribute in different ways. In this last section, the focus is on different solutions to the problem based on different perceptions of the issue. These approaches can be seen as complementary to each other, however they highlight different actions that policymakers (including governmental, market and civil society actors) should take. In the assignments you will first look at the challenges and opportunities for the Meuse River. Furthermore you are asked to select an action that has the highest priority for you to reduce or prevent plastic litter, highlighting the challenges and opportunities.


Get rid of plastic!

One perception towards the issue of plastic litter is that the main cause for the environmental problem is the use of plastic as material. The idea is that without the large production of plastic and use of plastic, the issue of plastic litter is also solved. This perception is expressed in for example ‘no waste shops’, where you bring your own containers and bags to do your shopping instead of buying products packaged in plastic. Other examples are the ban on free plastic bags in shops and the European ban on plastic straws. The perception that plastic as material should be reduced is most visible in the debate on reducing single-use plastic, such as plastic cups and shopping bags. As these examples show, there are many opportunities to reduce plastic in our consumption patterns. However, there are also many challenges to accomplish this. An important challenge is the many benefits plastic has: it is light, it is strong, there are many different types of plastic so it can be used for very different purposes and it has a low price. Furthermore, the use of plastic has become an integral part of our daily life.


Improve waste management!

Another perception towards the issue of plastic litter is the problem of insufficient waste management. Here the focus is on the entering of plastic in the environment and ways to prevent this. Insufficient waste collection and people not using the waste collection option (e.g. throwing litter on the ground) are seen as the cause of plastic litter ending up in the environment. In response the waste management and enforcement of waste regulations should be improved. Examples are the European Waste Directive that is implemented in national laws of the European countries and in the Netherlands the Covenant packaging material (packaging producers financially support the clean-up of litter). Moreover, the attention is towards recycling of plastic waste, transforming a waste material into a new production source. This idea is very visible in approaches as the circular economy and cradle-to-cradle design. There are many opportunities to improve waste management, ranging from the set-up of waste collection systems in countries that do not have functioning waste management towards designing products with the intention to re-use and recycle its components. Important challenges are the low quality and high costs of recycled plastic when you collect all types of plastic together. Another issue are the additives that are used in plastic products, that can add toxic elements in recycled products.


Clean up!

This perception focuses on the immediate threat of plastic litter, highlighting not only prevention is necessary, but also concrete actions to clean up the plastic litter from areas. For example, to prevent animals from eating plastic. There are many beach clean-ups all over the world. In the previous module you have seen the examples of clean-ups and litter traps in the Meuse River.

The clear opportunity of this action is that you can involve many people who see direct results of their action. It is a short-term solution that gives a very visible result. The challenge of this approach is directly to this, by cleaning up the litter the attention from more difficult prevention methods can disappear. This challenge is known in environmental science as the difference between end-of-pipe solutions and source solutions. With clean-up actions the solution is at the end of the problem whereas long-term solutions are focused on reducing the sources of plastic litter.

To apply your knowledge on the challenges and opportunities different actors have in the governance setting of plastic in rivers, click here to make the assignment on the Meuse River- the organisation Wasserverband Eifel-Rur & Clean Rivers


Final assignment: Opportunities and challenges to take action 

Have a look again at the 5 actions that you wrote down at the beginning of this module on actions that policymakers could take to reduce the problem of plastic litter in a river. Which of them (or perhaps a new action based on your new insights) would you now give priority? Think about the opportunities and challenges, who should be involved and how you could contribute. For further collaboration and discussion, you can place your idea for action on the LinkedIn site of LIVES.



Click here if you are interested in the references of this module.


The author of module 4:

Judith Floor

Judith Floor

Lecturer at the Open Universiteit

My research area is environmental governance and the role of science in policy-making. I analysed the governance responses to plastic litter in the environment and the different ways the problem and solutions to plastic litter are framed.

Judith Floor on LinkedIn and on Orcid