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Plastic pollution a huge threat to marginalised groups, UN report finds

The UN Environmental Programme (UNEP) has released a report that addresses the human and environmental damage that plastic pollution causes.

The scathing report, titled “Neglected: Environmental justice impacts of plastic pollution”, criticises the effects of plastic pollution in many marginalised communities.

Juliano Calil, one of the report’s authors, said, “The impact of plastics on vulnerable populations goes well beyond inefficient and sometimes non-existing waste management systems.It starts with issues related to oil extraction, through toxic environments and greenhouse gas emissions, and it even impacts water distribution policies.”

Communities or people living near plastic production and waste sites are the most affected by plastic pollution. Plastic also makes up for 90% of the pollution you find in the oceans today. It is capable of endangering marine life and can also threaten human health.

Research concerns around plastics include but are not limited to that plastic is eaten by marine or ocean animals. Because plastic can stay in the ocean for hundreds of years, marine life either eats plastic or gets entangled on it. 

Because of the food chain, humans who eat fish are also at risk.

“Ninety-nine percent of plastics are produced from petrochemicals, which are sourced from fossil fuels. Given the volatility of some of the raw materials, the processes to source these stocks are highly dependent on complex logistics, and thus, plastics are frequently produced in geographic proximity to fossil fuel refinery facilities. This vertical integration benefits industry, but it comes at the expense of communities and people located in the vicinity of large-scale industrial complexes,” the report says.

Plastic is credited with being durable and lightweight, however, its popularity is dropping because of its price.

“As consumer consciousness about the hazards of plastic pollution grows, more systemic issues have come to light. Factors of convenience intermingle with concerns over how peers may perceive the use of substitute materials, hygiene, and affordability. In much of the developing world, the resources to pursue alternatives or to manage plastic wastes more effectively are simply not present and citizens are left waiting for structural and regulatory changes,” the UNEP report explains. 

“Plastic pollution impacts our marine environment and human communities. Particularly, vulnerable communities disproportionately bear the consequences of environmental degradation caused by plastics pollution, from production to waste. Discussions around this subject have seldom looked at these negative impacts specifically through an environmental justice lens.”

According to the World Wildlife Fund (WWF), in South Africa more than eight million metric tonnes of plastic end up in the ocean. 

The new report points out three external impacts from using plastic: “ecosystem degradation due to leakage, especially in the marine environment; fossil fuel emissions from plastic production and incineration of disposed materials; and health and environmental impacts (including biodiversity loss) from toxic substances”.

“Plastics, which are primarily composed of fossil hydrocarbon-derived monomers, are not biodegradable. When plastics are discarded, they do not break down and assimilate through biological processes. Instead, they release fillers, like plasticisers, as gas and contaminated liquid and break down into increasingly smaller pieces that retain many of their original properties. This persistence allows plastics to accumulate, not only in sheer number and volume, but also as toxins and microplastics in the environment.”

Greenpeace Africa’s pan-African plastic lead Angelo Louw said, “This report is a big wake-up call as far as the extent to which the plastic industry is willing to go make a quick buck is concerned, at the expense of everyone else — especially people of colour, who are the majority in these types of communities and countries. They have no consideration for the disadvantaged communities that they are driven even further into disarray.”

One way to eliminate plastic pollution is to keep as much plastic as possible out of the waste stream in the first place. This starts from a habit as small as using reusable bags when shopping.

Chris Gilili is a climate and economic justice reporting fellow, funded by the Open Society Foundation for South Africa.

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Chris Gilili
Chris Gilili is a climate and environmental journalist at the Mail & Guardian’s environmental unit, covering socioeconomic issues and general news. Previously, he was a fellow at amaBhungane, the centre for investigative journalism.

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