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Five reasons why beating poverty means we need to tackle our rubbish problem

In association with: Renew Our World and Tearfund

There are around two billion people living in developing countries without access to proper waste collection. Globally, that’s one in four of us. Without the systems to manage and dispose of waste, these people are left with no option but to burn their rubbish or dump it. In the poorest countries, about 93 per cent of waste is burned or discarded in roads, open land or waterways.

Traditionally, plastic has made up only a small part of the total waste generated in these sorts of places but the expansion of the plastic-dominated supply chain and packaging model throughout the world is changing things fast. Some studies suggest that, by weight, plastic makes up between 10 to 20 percent of municipal solid waste in low- and middle-income countries. Given that plastic is relatively lightweight, this figure suggests that the actual volume of plastic amongst total waste is very high.

With global plastic production projected to double over the next ten to fifteen years - and growing fastest in the countries least resourced to deal with it - plastic waste is playing a significant part in an even bigger waste crisis: escalating volumes of waste compounded by inadequate or non-existent systems to manage it.

The impacts of this plastic pollution crisis are alarming. New research suggests that between 400,000 and 1 million people die each year in developing countries because of diseases related to mismanaged waste. At the upper end, that’s one person every 30 seconds.

Plastic pollution is hampering the efforts of people living in our world’s poorest places to overcome the challenges of poverty and lead lives of flourishing. Here are five reasons drawn from the No Time to Waste report that outline why beating poverty means we need to tackle this rubbish problem.

1. Plastic pollution increases the burden of death and disease

Plastic pollution is creating what has been described as a “public health emergency.” Some of the many ways plastic pollution harms people’s health and increases the burden of death and disease include:

  • Blocking waterways and drains causing floods that can quickly lead to severe outbreaks of disease such as cholera, as well as causing death by drowning;
  • Creating a breeding ground for disease‑carrying flies, mosquitoes and vermin. For example, rain that collects in discarded plastic food packaging is notorious for the breeding of dengue-carrying mosquitoes;
  • Accumulating in open waste dumps and increasing the spread of diarrhoeal disease through direct contact with the families who live, work and play nearby;
  • Polluting the air through open burning which releases black carbon, dioxins and other toxic fumes that increase the risk of heart disease and cancer, respiratory ailments, skin and eye diseases and or damage people’s reproductive and nervous systems.

2. Plastic pollution contaminates food and water supplies

Another alarming consequence of plastic pollution that we are yet to fully understand is the introduction of microplastics into the food chain. Millions of tonnes of mismanaged post-consumer plastic waste enter our oceans every year and an estimated one third of all plastic waste ends up in soils or freshwater. It then begins the long process of disintegrating into smaller and smaller pieces. As well as the environmental destruction and threat to ecosystems and biodiversity this causes, the resulting microplastics can be easily mistaken for food and ingested by animals. The “breaking down” process can also release harmful chemicals into the surrounding environment, contaminating the food and water supplies for the people and animals who live there.

3. Plastic pollution damages people’s livelihoods

The impact of plastic pollution on the natural environment also has economic implications for people who rely on agriculture, fisheries and tourism for their livelihood. These sectors provide essential sources of food and income for many people living in low- and middle-income countries.

Farmers are impacted by the loss of livestock, who mistake plastic litter for food and eat it. Once consumed, plastic doesn’t decompose. It can lead to bloating, a host of adverse health effects and eventually death by starvation. On top of the suffering this causes the animals, the economic consequences for farmers can be dire. For fisherfolk, there are declines in yield and increased costs associated with plastic pollution that result from its impact on marine ecosystems, damage to fishing equipment and the increased time people need to spend fishing. When people live at the subsistence level, even a minor decrease in yield can mean they can’t provide for their own or family’s needs.

Tourism can be a crucial source of income, jobs and foreign exchange in many low- and middle-income countries. As plastic waste accumulates in volumes that horrify tourists and environmentalists alike, it poses an existential threat to tourism businesses and the economies that depend on them.

4. Plastic pollution threatens people’s homes

Plastic pollution is notorious for blocking waterways and drains. As well as contributing to disease outbreaks and being a cause of death by drowning, this can also result in significant damage to people’s homes and other property. These sorts of floods are not rare events. In a recent survey by Wasteaid, 90% of development practitioners said that waste had caused flooding in their area over the previous two years.

5. Plastic pollution contributes to climate change

As well as the direct damage plastic pollution does to our natural environment and ecosystems, plastic pollution is contributing to climate change. Globally speaking, climate change is the biggest threat to global development progress we currently face - its impacts being most severe on the people who live in our world’s poorest communities. Without urgent action to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, climate change threatens to undo all that we have achieved over recent decades to help people lift themselves out of poverty.

Current estimates are that global plastic production emits 400 million tonnes of greenhouse gases each year - which is more than the UK’s total carbon footprint. Plastic waste also constitutes a growing proportion of the world’s total solid waste which already accounts for around five per cent of global emissions. This doesn’t include the additional greenhouse gases that plastic releases when exposed to sunlight or that come from open burning of waste, which are among the most significant in low- and middle-income countries.

How to take action

Plastic pollution has a direct impact on our ability to meet the global goal to end poverty. In the world’s poorest places, better systems to collect, manage and recycle waste will only ever go so far. We urgently need to tackle this crisis upstream and stop so much plastic – particularly single use plastic – being produced in the first place. Multinational corporations who are driving the production of single use plastics have a big role to play in this. This is why we are calling on the companies who are driving the production of single use plastics to take responsibility and play their part in the solution.