Plastic production and consumption has snowballed since large-scale production began in the 1950s. In 2020, an estimated 24 million to 34 million tonnes of plastic waste will enter the world's lakes, rivers and oceans. That is roughly the weight of 21,000 rail locomotives.
These are ambitious commitments, but will they meaningfully reduce plastic pollution?
New research published in Science shows that even if governments around the world adhere to their global commitments to address plastic pollution, and all others join in these efforts, in 2030 we will still emit between 20 million and 53 million tonnes of plastic waste into the world’s aquatic ecosystems. Global commitments do not match the scale of the problem — we need to rethink our strategy.
The myth of plastic recycling
Plastics are commonly tossed into mixed-recycling bins to be conveniently collected and — we incorrectly assume — remade anew. The reality is that we’re “wishcycling.” In fact, less than 10% of plastics are recycled.
It’s no coincidence that Louisiana, a hotbed for the petrochemical sector, is the epicentre of what is known as “Cancer Alley”. Perhaps a more appropriate name would be “Cardiovascular-respiratory-illness-reproductive-disorder-cancer Alley”. BIPOC communities have been overburdened with pollution for decades, and air pollution from petrochemical plants is a leading cause of chronic respiratory illnesses contributing to greater risks of morbidity from diseases like Covid-19.
A refinery in Baton Rouge, La. (Jim Bowen/flickr), CC BY-SA
Globally, plastic waste treatment facilities (collection, sorting, processing, recycling, incineration facilities and landfill sites) are frequently located in communities of colour, exacerbating negative health outcomes.
An estimated 15 million waste pickers worldwide pluck the most valuable pieces of plastic from mountains of imported waste to make their living. Often the remaining plastic is burned, belching carbon-rich smoke into the atmosphere. Everyone unfortunate enough to be in its plume inhales carcinogenic furans and dioxins. Plastics that aren’t burned or processed are piled high or buried, contaminating previously arable soils and waterways.
What does genuine progress look like?
Progress requires us to address the structural inequality that encourages and normalises the waste of resources, ecological destruction and the perpetuation of colonial systems.
Progress requires decolonial policies, where justice and equity are prioritised. That means the equitable investment in effective collection, sorting, cleaning, reuse, repair and recycling infrastructure, where BIPOC don’t carry the burden of pollution.
Quantifying the scale and extent of plastic pollution helps us understand the kind of effort needed to make change, but just as vital is mapping the health, economic, cultural and human rights dimensions of this toxic industry.
By rallying for policies that tackle the underlying structures that perpetuate the plastic pollution crisis, we can reverse inequality, fulfil human rights obligations, improve the health of all communities and prevent and mitigate ecological damage. Policies like the Green New Deal are moving us in the right direction, but we need to do more.
If ever there was a time to redefine the business-as-usual plastics industry and transition to a healthy and more equitable global society, it is now.
The Conversation Africa The Conversation Africa is an independent source of news and views from the academic and research community. Its aim is to promote better understanding of current affairs and complex issues, and allow for a better quality of public discourse and conversation. Go to: https://theconversation.com/africa
About the author
Stephanie B. Borrelle, postdoctoral research fellow, ecology and evolutionary biology, University of Toronto
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