The human impact of single-use plastics on developing countries

Written by: Maxine Perella | Published:
Image credit: Adobe stock

The impact of plastics on marine life has been well documented mainly due to what’s become known as the Blue Planet effect.

The effects of plastic pollution on human health however, is only now coming into sharper focus. In May, a report released by international relief and development agency Tearfund sounded a clear warning bell on these dangers. Significantly, its findings were backed by Sir David Attenborough.

According to the report ‘No time to waste: Tackling the plastic pollution crisis before it’s too late’, one person dies every 30 seconds in developing countries from diseases caused by plastic waste and pollution.

Each year between 400,000 and one million people are dying in these countries from diarrhoea, malaria and cancers caused by living near dumped plastic.

While it comes as no surprise that the huge increase in single use plastics (SUPs) production and distribution isn’t being matched by effective collection and waste management systems on the ground, especially in poorer regions, the consequences of inaction could be even more shocking.

Global plastic production

The report predicts that global plastic production will double over the next ten to 15 years, with growth fastest in the countries least able to deal with it.

Tackling the problem requires a multi-pronged approach, and the study makes plenty of calls to action. Consumer goods companies, those who produce the packaging, are top of the list as they bear most responsibility, according to Tearfund.

Recommendations for multinationals include halving the number of units of SUPs they use and sell in each country by 2025.

“The generation of SUPs is increasing massively and companies have got the capability to do something about it. They have a moral responsibility to act – if they can take action, we believe it will have a big impact,” says Tearfund’s senior campaigner for plastic and waste, Joanne Green.

The good news is that Tearfund is already in dialogue with the companies it is targeting. “All of them have got back to us and have admitted that they’ve got a responsibility to address this problem. We’re just at the beginning of this conversation with them, but we want to see concrete commitment.

There’s been a lot of focus on recycling … we want them to move beyond that, looking at different business models and reimagining their approach to delivering their product in this context.”

That means looking at solutions geared towards reuse and refill, rather than swapping one disposable material for another. But there are challenges here as Tracy Sutton, founder of Root, points out.

“The main tangible concept of refill is built around the idea of a durable pack plus a non-recycled pouch – that’s not great. We really need to be considering new product delivery systems.”

One solution may be to deliver products in bulk to a durable pack, eliminating the need for low value sachets and flexible packaging – items which tend to be very problematic for developing countries to deal with. In places like Kenya, safe water kiosks have been installed, which could help negate the need for SUP water bottles.

Part of the problem, says Sutton, is that many consumer goods companies don’t know enough about refill or reuse yet in relation to their product portfolios.

“Brands like the concept, but can’t go to a packaging converter who has a selection of well-considered concepts to develop, they don’t exist. Reusable packs use more material, therefore cost more. This is an important consideration when we think about access to developing countries.”

On a wider level, Sutton says the packaging industry is still trying to figure out what the circular economy means – and that pressing agendas like the UN Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) are getting somewhat overlooked. This is a problem when it comes to the issues that Tearfund are highlighting.

Polluter pays

“The SDGs are a core component of our ‘design for life’ strategic approach. I can’t advise a global client on what they should do with their packaging without advising on how their packaging waste impacts people’s lives,” Sutton says.

“There is a disconnect from brands and the packaging industry that it is their responsibility to know where their packaging ends up. The idea that the packaging they produce has an impact on people’s health and causes death may simply be too overwhelming a thing to comprehend.”

Governments in developed countries also need to step up. The report notes there is no mechanism for countries like the UK to be held accountable for the impacts of exporting plastic waste to places that are less able to manage it.

Tearfund would like to see the UK and others support developing countries with international aid and assistance so they can build capacity to reduce the amount of SUPs, perhaps through national policies and frameworks or locally appropriate Extended Producer Responsibility (EPR) schemes.

WasteAid’s head of programmes and engagement Zoë Lenkiewicz worked with Tearfund on the report. She says remote and poor communities can be inconsistent in their approach to dealing with SUPs. “In many cases, there are strategies, laws and legislative structures to collect and dispose of waste.

"However these are implemented in a patchy way, with many places with no waste collection, dumpsites that are full … and despite local opposition and plans to open new sites, little action.”

Lenkiewicz adds that within the waste sector top down approaches tend to be favoured over community-driven initiatives, many of which can be highly effective.

“By engaging those who are most affected – community groups, schools, churches – we can build a groundswell of local action and knowledge that can advocate for better waste management within their communities and beyond, lobby their government for change and take practical steps to address the issue in the short to medium term.”

People’s perceptions can be a barrier to grassroots action, however. “Waste collection and handling is often seen as a low status job and those individuals that get involved and start cleaning their environment are sometimes ridiculed,” says Lenkiewicz.

“One of WasteAid’s unspoken aims is to increase respect for the vital work that collectors and cleaners do.”

Community spirit

Tearfund is also keen to highlight the importance of working with informal waste pickers – the report calls for developing country governments to establish more inclusive waste management frameworks that can promote beneficial partnerships with waste pickers.

Green feels the message that waste can actually create value by providing opportunities to the poorest in society has yet to fully hit home. “I don’t think that’s commonly understood,” she says.

Going forward, the waste industry itself may have potentially valuable role to play, according to Elena Parisi, sales and marketing director at Recycling Technologies. She says her company has visited some of the worse-hit regions coping with SUPs, and believes that a decentralised, distributed approach to managing this waste is essential.

“The cost of building capital-intensive waste collection and treatment centres such as those used in European countries is not suitable,” she says. “The best and quickest way forward is a model of a large number of small, but scalable and more modular waste treatment centres using the best global technology, locally managed and owned, with access to funding.”

Parisi says the West can offer not only plastic sorting and reprocessing technologies at the right scale and cost, but also skills and coaching to improve operational standards, particularly around staff safety and emissions management.

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