By Zaynab Sadan and Alice Ruhweza
The plastic pollution crisis has reached critical levels, permeating every corner of our ecosystems, affecting livelihoods dependent on them and threatening human health. This relentless assault on our environment contributes to the planetary crises of biodiversity loss and climate change.
To minimise plastic pollution and transition to a non-toxic circular economy, we must prioritise a significant reduction in production, eliminate high-risk plastics and shift to reuse systems. By doing so, we can substantially decrease the amount of plastic ending up in landfills, being incinerated, or polluting our natural habitats.
The global plastic value chain has operated unsustainably with little to no producer accountability, with record production, consumption, and pollution levels. Without clear, harmonised global regulations, this crisis continues to escalate, and high-risk plastics continue to inundate the world despite their known environmental and socio-economic impacts.
Plastic production, consumption and pollution impacts are accompanied by insurmountable costs to our health, environment and economies. However, these costs are not felt equally. It is those in low- and middle-income countries who bear the brunt of this crisis. A new report commissioned by WWF reveals that, despite consuming almost 3x less plastic than in high-income countries, the cost of plastic across its lifecycle is 8x higher in low and middle-income countries. Further, 93% of deaths linked to global plastic production occur in low and middle-income countries with limited environmental regulation and access to healthcare. These unequal costs of plastics can be attributed to three critical structural inequities:
- Lack of influence on international plastic product design leaves countries ill-prepared for the resulting pollution.
- The transnational burden of exponential levels of plastic waste generation disproportionately affects low- and middle-income countries with limited resources for proper waste management.
- The absence of a harmonised global mechanism to share accountability for plastic pollution costs exacerbates the burden on affected countries.
Kenya’s experience exemplifies the transboundary challenge of plastic pollution. In 2017, Kenya courageously enacted a ban on single-use plastic carrier bags, achieving initial success. However, it quickly became apparent that illicit plastic trade persisted with neighbouring countries, underscoring the need for harmonised regulations. Today, plastic bags and packages continue to accumulate in the Dadach Boshe dump, with strong winds sending them flying into ecosystems and farms. Locals have reported the loss of goats from ingesting plastic bags, which has led to swollen stomachs and fatal health issues. Manufacturers relocated to neighbouring countries continue to move their products across borders, compromising effective enforcement covertly. Despite small gains in moving to reusable alternatives, more than national bans are needed to tackle this global crisis. Kenya’s struggle underscores the urgent need for global coordination in regulating plastic production, use, and trade.
Mozambique, a coastal nation heavily reliant on imported plastic products, grapples with a dire plastic pollution crisis, particularly in the marine environment. Nearly 10% of generated plastic waste ends up in the marine environment due to limited waste disposal options. This crisis profoundly impacts Mozambique’s fisheries, vital for the livelihoods of 66% of its population. The sector incurred estimated damages of MZN 347 million in 2017 (US$ 5.5 million) due to repair costs of fishing gear, fouling incidents, and loss of earnings. Small-scale fishers, providing 90% of local fish, face increasing levels of marine plastic pollution, threatening the livelihoods of 20% of the population due to ingestion, entanglement and habitat degradation of fish stock. Additionally, the marine tourism sector, contributing MZN 5 billion in 2022 and employing over 350,000 people, suffers as plastic pollution deters tourists from enjoying Mozambique’s scenic coastal ecosystems for recreational activities.
Despite a commendable 60% surge in national and subnational policies to tackle plastic pollution in some way between 2017 and 2022, the total volume of plastic in our oceans has sadly risen by over 50%. This disheartening reality underscores the complex, transboundary nature of plastic pollution. Merely curbing plastic pollution within one nation’s borders does not stem the tide in others. Plastic items that wash ashore on beaches globally often originate from distant lands, rendering national action plans insufficient in isolation.
The Seychelles provides a poignant illustration of this dilemma. In 2017, it took proactive measures by implementing bans on single-use plastic bags and straws to combat plastic pollution. Despite these efforts to curtail national plastic consumption, the nation grapples with an escalating influx of plastic generated by other countries, marring its once pristine beaches and marine ecosystems. A 2023 study spearheaded by the University of Oxford reveals that a significant portion of plastic debris on Seychelles’ shores hails from far-off sources, further explaining that most terrestrial debris beaching at these remote western Indian Ocean islands drifts from Indonesia, India, and Sri Lanka. This underscores the unfair burden borne by the Seychellois in managing pollution they are not accountable for.
Urgent and effective measures are imperative to counteract the devastating implications of this escalating challenge. However, we must not lose sight of the environmental and socio-economic justice issues in our pursuit to end plastic pollution. It is paramount that this transition to a plastic pollution-free future safeguards the health and livelihoods of those most vulnerable, who rely on the plastics value chain for their sustenance. One of the key groups that may be affected in the transition is the informal waste pickers who collect, sort, aggregate and sell recyclable plastics, upholding the recycling economy in many countries, yet are often unrecognised and uncompensated for the service they provide.
The upcoming 3rd session of the Intergovernmental Negotiating Committee in Nairobi presents a pivotal moment to move one step closer to catalysing systemic change and promoting equity across the global plastic value chain. Ambitious and legally binding measures must be prioritised in the draft treaty, ensuring harmonised global regulations address this crisis. Furthermore, the future treaty must include a robust financial and technical support mechanism for effective implementation.
Achieving equity in the plastic value chain demands a commitment to common legally binding obligations while allowing flexibility in implementation at the national level. Let us not compromise on the urgency of this issue. It is time for all nations to elevate their ambition and finalise a plastics treaty that reflects the gravity of the situation at hand. Together, we can forge a just transition towards a sustainable and equitable future for all.
Zaynab Sadan is the Regional Plastics Policy Advisor to Africa at WWF South Africa. Zaynab, a chemical engineer by profession, explores policy and business interventions to catalyse the transition towards a circular economy for material value chains, focusing on plastics.
Alice Ruhweza is a Global Thought Leader and International Development Expert with over 25 years of extensive experience at the intersection of Climate Change, Development, and the Environment across multiple continents. She is the Senior Director for Global Policy Influence and Engagement at the World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF International).