Northeastern professor tells international group that public policy on plastics is ‘absolutely critical’

Multiple people sit around a large, blue-covered table at the United Nations Environment Assembly to discuss plastic pollution solutions.
Courtesy photo

Plastics are everywhere. From the bottles in vending machines to the cutlery that comes with takeout, it can be hard to avoid these single-use items. Many are working to cut back on this use, including academics.

Maria Ivanova, director of the School of Public Policy and Urban Affairs, served as the academic voice in New York City during Climate Week in September. She participated in the first roundtable of the End Plastic Pollution International Collaborative, a new $15 million public-private partnership helping countries reevaluate their plastic use and encouraging them to create and adopt informed policies for addressing this use.

Head shot of Maria Ivanova.
Maria Ivanova, Director of the School of Public Policy and Urban Affairs. Photo by Alyssa Stone/Northeastern University

Doing so aligns with Ivanova’s work improving global governance, especially when it comes to plastics. She’s spent her career working on global environmental governance, including having served as a member of the Rwanda delegation to the United Nations Environment Assembly with the hope of creating an international treaty to end plastic pollution. Over the summer, she attended a weeklong summit in Paris addressing the plastics crisis.

“I have big ambitions about what could be done,” she said. “We have seen what Governor Maura Healey did here banning single-use plastic bottles for federal agencies. That was a clear policy signal. In Rwanda, the government has banned various single-use plastics. So we’ve experienced what it means. … The public policy of plastics is absolutely critical.”

Her previous work is how Ivanova got involved in the roundtable. A colleague at Northeastern told her there was a call for proposals for EPPIC, knowing Ivanova’s background. From there, she reached out to her connections at the roundtable who encouraged her to apply.

“(They said) we can’t just do it with policymakers,” Ivanova said. “We need a dialogue between science and policy. They asked me to moderate that dialogue.” 

The roundtable featured presentations on different issues caused by plastics. Participants heard from communities in “cancer alley” in Louisiana and such businesses as Amazon that are rethinking their products and designs to reduce plastic waste.

“I was there as the academic voice saying how important it is to engage science,” Ivanova said. “It is critical for us to be able to identify the problem, engineer solutions and imagine new ways of creating new products, or not using plastic and then being able to design public policy for plastics. … I was there linking natural science, engineering, social science, public policy and the humanities and showing that value and how academia needs to be part of not only the discussions, but the solutions.”

Ivanova hopes Northeastern can play a role in this work as well. She said the university is poised to lead this charge, given it has students and faculty specializing in fields that can contribute to finding solutions for plastic use.

“There are so many faculty at Northeastern whose work in the material sciences, in engineering, in health policy, is absolutely cutting edge,” she said. “It needs to be seen at the national and international level. I think it can inspire a lot more people across Boston, but also across the United States and globally. Ultimately, I would love to see a group of faculty, students and staff who are committed to this agenda and can mobilize a consortium in Boston.”

Erin Kayata is a Northeastern Global News reporter. Email her at Follow her on X/Twitter @erin_kayata.