A report has found that between 400,000 and a million people a year are killed globally by mismanaged plastic waste, just days after more than 180 countries agreed to limit the export of plastic to developing nations.
The study, which was published by the Tearfund and produced in partnership with conservation charity Fauna and Flora International (FFI), the Institute of Development Studies and waste management charity WasteAid found that plastic waste is adding a fresh set of problems to an already bad pollution situation in developing countries.
When plastic waste is burnt on open fires in an attempt to try and dispose of it, it releases harmful toxins causing air pollution and when some plastics deteriorate, they can release harmful chemicals into the water table and the environment, which can then break down into microplastics. The effect of microplastics on humans and animals is still poorly understood.
Dumped plastic waste can block waterways, which can cause flooding, which then further contributes to the spread of waterborne diseases.
Plastic pollution can also lead to a loss of fishing, as marine and freshwater animals ingest plastic, which in some cases kills them. It also results in a negative effect on agricultural production, as up to half the goats and a third of cattle in developing countries have consumed significant amounts of plastics, which can lead to potentially harmful bloating.
The natural historian and broadcaster Sir David Attenborough wrote the forward to the report and called for urgent action to combat the problem, particularly from the companies that are responsible for producing large amounts of plastic. These include wealthy multinationals like Coca-Cola, Nestle, PepsiCo, and Unilever.
“It’s high time we turned our attention fully to one of the most pressing problems of today – averting the plastic pollution crisis – not only for the health of our planet but for the wellbeing of people around the world. This report is one of the first to highlight the impacts of plastic pollution not just on wildlife but also on the world’s poorest people,” wrote Attenborough.
At least two billion people in the world do not have their rubbish collected and living near rubbish doubles the risk of contracting diarrhoea, a major cause of death in the developing world. While hundreds of thousands make their living from collecting rubbish, some of whom are known as “waste pickers” who actually live in rubbish dumps and scavenge what they can for recycling.
Up to 100 million tons of plastic pollution has already found its way into the world’s oceans and a further eight million tonnes are dumped into the sea each year according to the UN.
Agreement Signed to Stop Sending Plastic to Poor Countries
The warning about the dangers of plastics comes just days after 186 nations agreed in Geneva on May 10th to add plastic waste to the Basel Convention – the international treaty that controls the movement of hazardous waste.
In what is regarded as a major step in helping the world get some kind of control on plastic pollution, the treaty was amended so that would be plastic exporters must first gain permission from the governments of nations receiving unrecyclable, mixed or the most contaminated plastic waste.
The new amendment to the convention was proposed by Norway, which along with other countries, had pushed for a more wide-reaching global agreement on plastic waste at the meeting of the United Nations Environmental Program in Nairobi in March.
Rolph Payet, from the UN Environment Program, said in a statement that the new amendment was “historic”.
“It’s sending a very strong political signal to the rest of the world – to the private sector, to the consumer market – that we need to do something. Countries have decided to do something which will translate into real action on the ground,” he said.
The deal will mean that customs officers will now be on the lookout for plastics from electronic goods and other potentially hazardous plastic waste.
US Among the Only Countries not to Sign
The US has not ratified the Basel Convention and was reportedly opposed to the new amendment. However, even the few countries like the US, who are not signatories to the convention could be stopped from shipping waste to countries that are signatories.
A spokeswoman for the American Chemistry Council told National Geographic that the US may be able to negotiate separate agreements with other countries to allow them to export their contaminated plastic but that the new amendment to the Basel Convention would make this significantly harder by creating “new regulatory hurdles”.
US officials, who were present at the Geneva talks as observers, argued that voluntary measures to limit plastic pollution would be more effective than this binding amendment and that providing developing nations with better infrastructure to recycle plastic would be a better solution. However, their suggestions carried little weight because although the US has signed, it has not, like Haiti, ratified the Convention.
The shipping of plastic to developing countries hit the headlines last year after China suddenly stopped buying non-industrial plastic scrap from exporters such as the EU, US, and the UK. The immediate result was that plastic was dumped on other developing countries in Southeast Asia, such as Malaysia, Vietnam, and Thailand, which were even less able to cope with it.