This post is by Brendan Cooper, consultant, and Susan Evans, UK policy lead, at Resource Futures, an environmental consultancy and B Corp.
We often hear the climate and nature crises are linked, but it can be harder to pinpoint the connections between climate change and plastic. Resource Futures’ latest study for the international relief and development agency Tearfund offers one gut-wrenching example, as talks take place on a UN treaty on plastic pollution. We discovered that at least 218 million people globally are at risk of flooding aggravated by plastic waste.
This is not a new phenomenon. As far back as 1988, it was reported that plastic bags were clogging up the drainage systems of Bangladesh, preventing flood water from dissipating. The plastic pollution acted as a threat multiplier, contributing to many deaths as well as significant damage to property and livestock, affecting the livelihoods of thousands.
Climate change is making extreme weather events, including floods, more likely and this risk is compounded, in some places, by an over reliance on single use plastic and poor waste management. Lower income countries are disproportionately affected. Just as a city with lower building standards suffers greater devastation in an earthquake, a city with inadequate waste management and drainage fares worse when floods arrive.
Using conservative estimates, our analysis suggests three per cent of the world’s population is at risk of plastic-aggravated flooding. This is equivalent to the populations of the UK, France and Germany combined. But the people most affected are urban residents in low and middle income countries in Asia, Africa and South America. The impacts are also unequally distributed: 41 million infants, elderly people and people with disabilities are affected, and they are the ones particularly vulnerable to severe health impacts, including gastrointestinal diseases such as cholera.
Waste management can’t cope
Unfortunately, the number of people it threatens is set to rise, owing to the intensifying effects of climate change, rapid urbanisation in affected areas and, of course, the seemingly unstoppable tide of single use plastics. Improvements in solid waste management are not happening fast enough in many low to middle income countries, where a welcome rise in living standards and spending power is accompanied by a less welcome increase in plastic wrapped goods. The result is more mismanaged plastic waste ending up in the drains.
We aimed with this research to highlight just one of the many damaging impacts that plastic is having on our health and economies. The Intergovernmental Negotiating Committee is meeting in Paris this week (29 May-2 June, 2023) to discuss the forthcoming UN treaty on plastic pollution. This is an exciting opportunity to apply systemic solutions to the plastic crisis, and the UK government must advocate strongly for these. But what should they look like?
Single use needs to be eliminated wherever possible
First and foremost, we need to look at the source of the problem. We need to reduce and reuse before we fall back on recycling, and this is all the more important in countries or cities that lack effective recycling infrastructure. Single use plastics have to be eliminated wherever feasible.
Second, when taking steps to reduce single use plastics, we must avoid simply switching to other disposable options with their own problems. Removing plastics from wet wipes, for example, doesn’t always mean that they will then break down more quickly to prevent the dreaded ‘fatbergs’ from forming in Britain’s sewers. Equally, many bags made from ‘bio-based’ or ‘compostable’ plastics could be just as deadly as any other plastic in Dhaka’s drains during monsoon season.
Many lower income countries still have traditional systems for packaging reuse in place, such as the tiffin containers popular for takeaway food deliveries in India. These should be celebrated, and new ideas for packaging-free retail can be shared across countries and regions. The evidence base is growing fast, with major supermarkets and brands getting on board and some countries, such as France, setting ambitious targets for packaging reuse.
Third, many lower income countries urgently need support to develop better recycling systems. Wealthier nations need to stop sending them their excess waste, and instead send funds and technical support to help them solve the problems of plastic pollution.
We aren’t going to prevent devastating floods unless we urgently take action on nature and climate. But, by taking the right steps to stop plastic pollution, we can in the meantime reduce the destruction it is bringing to millions of vulnerable urban residents’ lives.