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Marginalised communities bear the brunt of plastic pollution: UNEP

An Indian rag picker in a slum area in Mumbai, India, 22 April, 2012. (Keystone/AP Photo/Rafiq Maqbool)

Plastic primarily affects vulnerable populations, constituting an environmental injustice, according to a report released on Tuesday.

Water contamination, deforestation and displacement are a few of the adverse consequences of producing and disposing of plastic, and these are having a disproportionate impact on vulnerable populations, a report by the UN Environmental Program and the California-based environmental justice NGO, Azul, has found.

This makes it an environmental injustice, the authors argue. “Plastic pollution is a social justice issue. Current efforts to manage and decrease plastic are inadequate to address the full scope of problems it entails,” co-author and executive director of Azul, Marce Gutiérrez-Graudiņš, said.

Launching the report, she stressed that many of the affected communities have been dealing with these issues for years and sometimes decades.

The scope of the problem. The world produces between 300 to 400 million tonnes of plastic every year, and production is expected to double by 2040. The pandemic has all but exacerbated the problem, with plastic waste increasing by six to 10 fold in some cities, according to the authors.

The drop of fuel demand also drew oil prices down, prompting companies to ramp up virgin plastic production to make up for their losses, while slowing down the recycled plastic market. Fears of Covid-19 spreading has also led to a rise in the use of disposable plastic products, such as masks, gloves and food delivery packaging.

What’s more, the global plastic industry emits around 400 million tonnes of greenhouse gases every year – four per cent of global emissions, making it a major contributor to climate change.

Those affected. Plastic affects vulnerable communities throughout its whole life cycle: from the oil extraction and refinery processes needed to produce it, to its transport and distribution to all parts of the globe and its use and disposal as debris. The waste then either ends up in a landfill or in the environment, where it can take hundreds of years to decompose, or gets incinerated often without properly removing toxic chemicals that can rain back down over communities nearby.

“The impact of plastics on vulnerable populations goes well beyond inefficient and sometimes non-existing waste management systems,” said Juliano Calil, lead author of the report and senior research fellow at the Center for the Blue Economy. “It starts with issues related to oil extraction, through toxic environments and greenhouse gas emissions, and it even impacts water distribution policies.”

At early stages of the plastic life cycle, communities that live close by or work at the oil extraction and refinery sites are the first to feel the health impacts from toxic chemicals being released in the air and spills and leaks polluting the waters and soils. In the United States, it is mostly African-American, Latino and low-income groups that live around refineries and other toxic releasing facilities.

Indigenous communities, who heavily depend on their natural environment to survive, also find themselves threatened as the construction of facilities and roads drives deforestation and land grabbing in their territories.

On top of this, despite what is often argued by companies and governments, Gutiérrez-Graudiņš noted that plastic production hinders economic development and exacerbates poverty in these communities. Other companies are more inclined to leave to avoid the risks of being next to oil extraction and refinery facilities.

“I personally lived next to one of those refineries here in Richmond [California], and, people were talking about how (...) people should be happy that the refinery is there. But we didn't talk about the context that, before this refinery entered this town, there were other industries that provided other work, and they quietly, over the years, left because they felt that this refinery was a big risk for them,” Gutiérrez-Graudiņš explained.

On the other end of the cycle, plastic waste also weighs down heavily on certain populations. With the majority of plastic debris ending up in the sea, experts say if the trend continues, there will be more plastic than fish in the ocean by 2050. This threatens the livelihoods of those who rely on marine resources for work and also represents a health risk for those whose diet depends on seafood that is being contaminated by microplastics, the report states.

The report warns that plastic is also having an impact on agriculture. It cites the example of Thailand, where plastic imports are up by 1,000 per cent since China introduced an import ban on plastics in 2018. Farmers have reported seeing factory workers dumping melted plastic on farmland.

Waste pickers, who are mostly women, also face hazardous working conditions and greater health risks from chemical exposure:

“Waste pickers have come to play a pivotal part in our global recycling process, but it is a role that is often ignored by national governments. This has led to the blossoming of a relatively unregulated field, exposing individuals to great hazard from the accumulation of rubbish in their neighbourhoods.”

According to figures from the report, the world has around 15 to 20 million waste pickers, which informally collect recyclables and reusables to later sell to recyclers.  Apart from bearing the consequences, they are playing a role in curbing carbon emissions, with waste pickers in Ahmedabad, India preventing roughly 200,000 tons of CO2 emissions every year through recycling.

What can be done? The report underscores everyone’s role in tackling the plastic problem, including industries, governments, NGOs and consumers.

Highlighting the importance of education, UNEP executive director Inger Andersen said in the press release: “Environmental justice means educating those on the frontlines of plastic pollution about its risks, including them in decisions about its production, use, and disposal, and ensuring their access to a credible judicial system.”

David Azoulay, managing attorney of the Center for International Environmental Law in Geneva, who also spoke at the launch of the report, noted that a new global treaty on plastic management can also help address many of the challenges, if human rights are put at the core. Discussions are ongoing at the UN Environment Assembly and negotiations are expected to kick off next year.

Read also: A new global treaty to tackle plastic pollution?

“Including rights based thinking into the lead to the treaty would already be quite a very important step towards developing a treaty that actually provides solutions and not just kicks the ball further,” he said.