No time to waste: Stop plastic pollution

Plastic pollution kills an estimated one million people around the world each year and causes enormous damage to the environment, health and livelihoods of communities worldwide. There is no time to waste in tackling the menace of plastic pollution; yesterday was the best time to act, but today and now is the next best choice.

A new report, aptly titled ‘No time to waste’ underlines the deleterious impact of plastic pollution on the planet’s flora and fauna, while highlighting growing global concern on the issue. The report, produced by the UK-based Institute of Development Studies, in collaboration with non-governmental organizations, WasteAid, Tearfund and Fauna & Flora International, found that in developing countries, one person dies every 30 seconds  from diseases and illnesses caused by plastic pollution and uncollected rubbish dumped or burnt near homes.

Plastic is everywhere. An estimated 8.3 billion metric tonnes of plastic has been produced since the 1950s, but less than a tenth of this has been recycled. And, plastic production is on an upward curve; unless urgent action is taken, global plastic production is expected to double over the next ten to fifteen years. This growth is fastest in developing countries where over 2.5 billion people, nearly a third of global population, lack access to properly regulated solid waste collection worldwide, while a further one billion people do not have controlled waste disposal, which means their waste may be collected but it is then discarded somewhere unsafe.

Without rubbish collection or proper disposal, people have no option but to burn or dump their waste. In the poorest countries, about 93 percent of waste is burned or discarded in roads, open land, or waterways. Burning plastic releases pollutants that increase the risk of cardiovascular diseases and cancer, respiratory ailments, skin and eye diseases, nausea and headaches, and damage to the reproductive and nervous systems. Outdoor air pollution is responsible for 3.7 million deaths a year, and recent estimates suggest that open burning could be responsible for as much as a fifth of this death toll.

Plastics also pollute water and soil and end up disintegrating into tiny pieces called microplastics that then enter the human food chain through contaminated plants and animal species, including freshwater and marine species.  The health impacts of this microplastic pollution are as yet unknown. Moreover, piles of plastic pollution and waste heaped on land release a toxic liquid runoff called leachate, which can contaminate soil and groundwater, and pose significant ingestion, choking and entanglement hazards to wildlife.

Plastic pollution is also contributing to climate change. Global plastic production emits 400 million tonnes of greenhouse gases each year; in addition, according to the World Bank, solid waste contributed a further five percent of global emissions in 2016. The true figure may be much higher: emissions from backyard burning of waste are not included in most current emissions inventories, despite research revealing that in several developing countries they dwarf all other sources of carbon emissions combined.

The report brings to the fore, present and foreseeable dangers of plastic pollution, especially on poor, developing communities and countries and the need for  companies, governments and communities to take responsibility. Extending solid waste collection to all and eliminating open dumping and burning, will both improve the health and livelihoods of billions of the world’s poorest people and halve the quantity of plastics entering the oceans.

The study recommends solutions that multinational conglomerates, developed nations, developing countries and individuals can take, including support for micro-level initiatives, to tackle plastic pollution. Together we can make it happen, says the report.