Death by plastic: new report shows health impacts

One person is dying every 30 seconds in developing countries from diseases and illnesses caused by plastic pollution and uncollected rubbish dumped or burnt near homes, according to a new report.

“We need leadership from those who are responsible for introducing plastic to countries where it cannot be adequately managed, and we need international action to support the communities and governments most acutely affected by this crisis,” said Sir David Attenborough, a vice president at conservation charity Fauna & Flora International (FFI), which helped produce the research.

The report showed that each year between 400,000 and a million people (at the upper end one person every 30 seconds) are dying in developing countries from illnesses and diseases like diarrhoea, malaria and cancers caused by living near uncollected waste and plastic pollution.

Multinational companies must fundamentally change their business models by committing to reporting the number of single-use plastic items they distribute in developing countries by 2020, and halving this by 2025, the authors said.

Malaysia said this month that it intends to return used plastic dumped on its shores by countries including the UK. This is “an embarrassment to shoppers, retailers and manufacturers”, noted the Grocer. “Most of all, it’s humiliating for the government, which has failed to develop a consistent and credible system of recycling nationwide.”

Tearfund, which led the new research, in collaboration with FFI, the Institute of Development Studies and waste management charity WasteAid, also launched a new campaign, which calls for urgent action from four multinationals: Coca-Cola, Nestlé, PepsiCo and Unilever sell “billions of products in single-use plastic packaging in poorer countries where waste isn’t collected, in the full knowledge that people will have no choice but to burn it, discard it in waterways or live among it”, said Tearfund global advocacy and influencing director Ruth Valerio. “The CEOs running these multinationals can no longer ignore the human cost of single-use plastic – fundamental changes to business models are urgently required.”

All four companies are signed up to the Ellen MacArthur Foundation’s global plastics commitment. A progress report in April showed that 150 businesses have now committed to a future in which “no plastics become waste”. However, the pace must increase, said EMF’s new plastics economy lead Sander Defruyt.

“The targets and action plans set out in this report are a significant step forward compared with the pace of change of past decades. However, they are still far from truly matching the scale of the problem, particularly when it comes to the elimination of unnecessary items and innovation towards reuse models.”

This week, Waitrose announced a dedicated refillable zone, the UK's first supermarket frozen “pick and mix” and first borrow-a-box scheme as part of plans to save thousands of tonnes of unnecessary plastic and packaging.

The new Tearfund report also showed that global plastic production emits 400 million tonnes of greenhouses gases each year – more than the UK’s total carbon footprint. The UK throws away two double-decker busloads of plastic waste “every second”.

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