WasteAid Associate Victoria Hutchin describes how WasteAid’s work actively prevents plastic reaching the oceans.
In the wake of the BBC wildlife documentary series Blue Planet II, the global impact of plastic waste on our oceans has been brought sharply into focus in the UK. This has occurred alongside an increasing public awareness through bans of microbeads, charges for carrier bags, and the UK Government’s DEFRA launching its 25 -year environment plan stating ambitions to eliminate avoidable plastic waste. However, this is merely the tip of the iceberg, up to 70% of plastics in the marine environment comes from mismanaged waste in low-income countries.
Population growth and changes in consumerism are providing increasing challenges for low-income countries, and in many cities in Africa and Asia (many of which lie in coastal areas), municipal solid waste generation is expected to double in the next 15–20 years. In higher-income countries with established recovery and recycling infrastructure, this would still pose a challenge. However, where there is no waste management service in place, be that formal or informal, people have limited choice but to resort to open dumping or burning. Open dumping of plastics in particular harms wildlife, exacerbates flooding through blocking of drains and in turn facilitates the spread of disease. Worryingly, 38 of the 50 largest dumpsites are located in coastal areas.
The impact of waste plastics in the marine environment is so significant because plastics are hydrophobic and thus attract other oil-based pollutants. In addition, by 2050, an estimated 99% of seabirds will have ingested plastic at some point during their life.
With 2 billion people not having access to a waste collection service and a further 1 billion using informal dumpsites, it really highlights the magnitude of the problem. There are currently thought to be 15 million people in low-income countries globally who work as waste pickers, either collecting waste materials from households directly or through scavenging on dumpsites. A key part of the challenge is bringing structure and organisation to such operations to improve health, safety and wellbeing of those involved and in developing systems which allow the formal and informal waste management sectors to work alongside each other.
Achieving two basic goals, of extending waste collection services to all and eliminating open dumping and burning, would likely reduce the quantities of plastics entering the oceans, from both coastal communities and via rivers, by more than 50%. Meeting these goals would also directly improve public health in developing countries: reducing diarrhoeal diseases and many of the 270,000 premature deaths a year attributed to open burning of waste.
WasteAid UK’s work in lower-income countries directly prevents waste from entering oceans and creates local jobs. WasteAid UK has a cost-effective, replicable solution based on grass roots initiatives through the development of recycling enterprises. By sharing simple waste management know-how and appropriate technologies, communities can turn plastic waste into useful products. In turn, this keeps the plastic out of drainage channels and rivers, reducing flooding, protecting health and improving the local environment.
The ultimate aim is to develop a global network of such community-led initiatives which bring direct and tangible benefits to those delivering the services and the communities which they serve.To find out how to turn plastic waste into paving tiles, see the WasteAid Toolkit.