Plastic waste is hitting the most vulnerable people the hardest

Anna Triponel

May 10, 2021
Our key takeaway: Eliminating plastic waste—whether through reducing, reusing or recycling—is an important goal for companies, governments and consumers alike, but needs to be tackled through the lens of environmental justice and with the rights of vulnerable people at the centre.

UN Environment Programme (UNEP) conducted a joint study alongside other partners on the impacts that plastic use and plastic pollution have on people:

  • Impacts to vulnerable populations (including people living in poverty, women, children and indigenous peoples) occur at all stages of the plastics life cycle. Petroleum-based plastics require the extraction of oil and gas, which often disproportionately impacts vulnerable communities through displacement, impacts to livelihoods and toxic spills and emissions. At the production phase, refineries are often located in marginalised communities where people are exposed to toxic chemicals from production, indirect source emissions from warehouses and heavy traffic from trucks, and risks of spills that pollute groundwater. In the use phase, plastic products sold in lower income communities are often of “very low quality and many times may also be toxic as it may contain high levels of lead and other endocrine disruptors.” At the disposal stage, even “properly” discarded plastic waste often ends up in landfills or in the ocean. Communities living near landfills are exposed to air, water and soil pollution—especially if plastic waste is incinerated. And, when plastics end up in the ocean, they pollute marine ecosystems that people depend on for food and livelihoods, as well as accelerating climate change by creating “more dead zones, increased ocean acidification, and less absorption of CO2.”
  • The COVID-19 pandemic is exacerbating these impacts. According to the report, “the pandemic may reverse any progress on reducing consumption of single-use plastic” due to a “staggering increase in the use of disposable plastic products such as masks and face shields, gloves, hand sanitizer bottles, protective medical suits, test kits, food take out containers, delivery packaging” and others. What’s more, global lockdowns have impacted the ability of waste pickers to earn a living. For example, in the Philippines, “waste pickers are no longer able to sell recyclables as most junkyards and other businesses that purchase them have been closed for months,” eliminating a crucial source of income for already at-risk people.
  • Businesses need to consider the environmental justice implications of their plastic use and reduction commitments. The report points out that the private sector plays “a critical role in ensuring environmental justice. As producers and consumers of plastics, enterprises will be at the forefront of a transition away from plastics.” Businesses must put people at the centre of their efforts to reduce their environmental impacts “in order to ensure a smooth and equitable approach to improving waste management.” Importantly, “environmental justice issues related to plastic pollution should also be seen through the lens of business responsibility to respect human rights.”

For more, see UN Environment Programme, Neglected: Environmental Justice Impacts of Marine Litter and Plastic Pollution (May 2021)

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