My recently completed plastic-free challenge for Lent made me realise just how entrenched the consumption of single-use plastic is in our society, how convenient it makes our lives – and how hard it can be to live without it.
But I have also learnt just how hard it is for people in poorer countries to live with plastic. The ‘No time to Waste: Tackling the Plastic Pollution Crisis Before it’s Too Late’ report published today by Tearfund highlights the challenges faced by those in developing countries. In many of these countries, discarded plastic blocks drains, causes flooding and exacerbates the spread of disease. Burning it is often the only alternative but releases toxic fumes.
The report published in partnership with conservation charity Fauna and Flora International (FFI), the Institute of Development Studies and waste management charity WasteAid notes that one in four people globally have no access to waste disposal for plastic or other rubbish. They are therefore forced to either live amongst it, dump it in waterways or set it alight.
New information revealed in the study shows that as many as one million people die from diseases caused by waste each year. That’s one person every 30 seconds. That is why Sir David Attenborough, who has written the foreword for the report, has argued so eloquently that “averting the plastic pollution crisis [is necessary] not only for the health of our planet, but for the wellbeing of people around the world.”
The effect of plastic on those living in poverty clearly goes beyond health, to influence livelihoods and their living environment. Farmers and fishermen can be particularly hard hit: Historical research on abattoirs in Kenya (before their plastic bag ban in 2017) shows that cows with plastics in their digestive system were a daily occurrence. In one case, a slaughtered cow had 2.5kg of plastic waste in its digestive system – about the same weight as a laptop. When plastic is swallowed by animals, it does not decompose in their digestive tracts and eventually leads to death by starvation. Or take the case of fishermen in the Arabian sea, who last year reported catching more plastic than fish when they cast out their nets.”
Plastic is also contributing to the existential threat that is climate change. Global plastic production emits 400million tonnes of greenhouse gases each year – that’s more than the UK’s entire carbon footprint. Meanwhile, in some poor countries, open-air burning of rubbish is their single greatest source of greenhouse gases.
These problems can be solved. But if we are to move away from being a ‘throw-away society’, governments, corporations and local people must all come together and do their bit to reduce our global environmental impact. Many companies are already taking action to reduce their dependence on single-use plastics in the UK, and the Government is also pressing ahead with new approaches to the problem.
The government has recently announced the first comprehensive update of the Resources and Waste Strategy in more than a decade. The new strategy will cut our reliance on single-use plastics, end confusion over household recycling, tackle the problem of packaging by making polluters pay, and end the economic, environmental and moral scandal that is food waste.
As a government, we are committed to working with communities, businesses and non-governmental organisations to leave the environment in a better state for future generations. But as consumers, we must all do our part too, many people are adapting their lifestyles – as I have been trying to do but we can all do more
However, we need to recognise that the plastic crisis is felt especially keenly in developing countries and the same – or perhaps even more urgent action – is required there. The government is already scaling up aid to help these countries deal with the problem of plastic pollution, but companies need to take action too. This is the subject of Tearfund’s new Rubbish Campaign, calling on Coca-Cola, Unilever, Nestlé and PepsiCo to take responsibility for the waste mountains their products are creating in developing countries. The campaign also invites individuals and churches to lead by example by taking their own steps to reduce single-use plastic at home and in their local communities.
For those of us who live in the UK, plastic is often merely a matter of convenience. But for people living in the developing world, it can be a matter of life and death. That is why we must do all we can to tackle the plague of plastic pollution because it is undoubtedly the environmental scourge of our time.
Vicky Ford is the Conservative MP for Chelmsford