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Plastic pollution an ‘unfolding catastrophe’, Sir David Attenborough warns

14 May 2019

Many have to burn the waste, or live among it, says Tearfund report

Hazel Thompson/Tearfund

Islamabad, Pakistan

Islamabad, Pakistan

PLASTIC pollution and rubbish are killing one person in the developing world every 30 seconds, a report backed by Sir David Attenborough suggests.

Speaking at the launch of the report, No Time to Waste, on Tuesday, Sir David warned that the tide of plastic pollution was an “unfolding catastrophe that has been overlooked for far too long”. It was time to act, “not only for the health of our planet, but for the well being of people around the world”.

The report, produced by the Christian charity Tearfund, is the first to assess the impact on human health of plastic pollution and rubbish. It estimates that between 400,000 and one million people die every year from illnesses and diseases such as diarrhoea, cholera, malaria, and some cancers caused by living near uncollected waste and plastic pollution.

The higher figure equates to one fatality every 30 seconds — in this amount of time in the UK, the report says, enough plastic waste is produced to fill two double decker buses. Every 30 seconds, 30 busloads of plastic waste are burned or dumped in developing countries.

The report was written in partnership with the conservation charity Fauna & Flora International, the Institute of Development Studies, and the charity WasteAid.

Fauna & Flora InternationalSir David Attenborough

It calls on four multinational companies that dominate the market in fast-moving consumer goods — Coca-Cola, Nestlé, PepsiCo, and Unilever — to report on the number of single-use plastic items they distribute in developing countries to 2020, and then halve this figure by 2025. It also urges the companies to work with waste-pickers in developing countries to create safe jobs and encourage recycling.

Sir David, who is vice president of Fauna & Flora International, said on Tuesday that the need for international leadership was urgent. “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.”

One in four people in the world has had rubbish collected and disposed of safely, the report says. In the poorest countries in the world, 93 per cent of waste is either burned or discarded in waterways or on open land.

Mismanaged waste is a breeding ground for malaria and dengue carrying mosquitoes and rats and flies. Uncollected waste also doubles the incidence of diarrhoeal diseases, and, when burned, releases pollutants that increase heart disease, cancer, respiratory diseases.

The global advocacy and influencing director at Tearfund, Dr Ruth Valerio, said that multinationals were exploiting markets in developing countries. “They 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.

“We need more transparency from them and we need to see action on a huge scale to on this global problem. We need to turn the tap off further up the stream to reduce single use plastics and invest in new technologies.”

Moise Lucas Lopes da Silva/TearfundThe River Tejipió, at Recife, in Brazil, where a Tearfund partner, Instituto Solidare, has started a clean-up project

The problem is caused by both the “throwaway culture” in western countries, and because about half of the world’s plastic is used just once before it is discarded, the report says. These countries, including the UK, ship thousand of tonnes of plastic waste a year to developing nations for recycling and disposal.

Alongside the report, Tearfund has launched a campaign and a petition for action on plastic waste. The charity is working on recycling projects in the countries which are receiving most plastic waste: in Pakistan, it has set up hubs which recycle 90 per cent of the waste found; in Brazil, it is working with community groups to reuse waste products.


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