The damage being caused by plastic pollution to marine ecosystems and species – and to the livelihoods of people that depend on a healthy ocean – is shocking. Globally, up to 12.7 million tonnes of plastic ends up in the oceans every year. More than 180 marine species including mammals, birds, fish and invertebrates have been found to have ingested plastic. Many marine animals are dying as a direct result of this pollution. Communities that rely on fisheries and tourism are being affected.
Now, for the first time, the impact of plastic pollution on human health has been quantified. A report published today by Fauna & Flora International (FFI), Tearfund, WasteAid and the Institute of Development Studies finds that 400,000 to one million people in the developing world are dying every year as a result of mismanaged waste including plastic. At the upper end of this estimate, that’s one person every 30 seconds.
Across the world, a staggering three billion people have no access to proper waste management, of which two billion have no access to waste collection. Plastic waste is dumped and often openly burned, resulting in the release of toxic chemicals and increased air pollution. Plastic dumpsites also provide ideal breeding grounds for disease-carrying mosquitoes, rats and flies.
Plastic production and pollution are also fuelling climate change. The plastic production process already has a carbon footprint larger than the UK’s and, if the growth in production continues at the current rate, by 2050 the plastic industry could account for 20 per cent of the world’s total oil consumption. The burning of plastic as a waste disposal method is also a significant contributor to emissions.
This report is a wake-up call to industry about the interconnected threat that plastic pollution poses to marine, human and planetary health. While the findings are shocking, this is not an unsolvable problem.
The world needs to be using much less plastic, and the plastic we do produce should be valued, reused and recycled as much as possible. It’s incumbent on the producers of plastic products and packaging that bear the most responsibility for plastic pollution to do the most to stop its negative impacts on the environment.
To stem the tide of plastic polluting the environment, companies can commit to a full audit of product life cycles, including supply chains and end-of-life measures. This would help them identify where plastic is polluting the environment and bring it to a stop, beginning with curbing the number of single-use plastic items – the worst offender among forms of plastic packaging. Companies can also introduce schemes that mean for every one item of plastic sold, one is collected (such as the Deposit Return Scheme currently being considered by the UK government, which would be part-funded by the businesses who create the packaging being returned). More innovation to increase recycling rates is also required. Globally only 14 per cent of plastic packaging, including plastic bottles, is collected for recycling.
High-income country governments also need to take more responsibility for the waste they are creating. Currently, large volumes of plastic waste are exported to countries least able to manage it. Minimising the amount of plastic waste high-income countries are exporting to low-income countries would boost the recycling sector in these countries and also lessen the burden of this dangerous waste on those countries.
The plastic pollution crisis impacts the lives of billions of people around the world, as well harming precious marine ecosystems and the animals that rely on them. There are no easy solutions, but it is critical that citizens, companies and governments act together to solve this crisis. Citizens have a key role to play in pressuring companies and governments to take action on a scale large enough to make a real and lasting difference. It’s clearer than ever that urgent action is needed now to stop this crisis spiralling out of control.
Learn more about how FFI is tackling marine plastic pollution.
Read the full report.