Wherever you go these days, you see plastic. It is everywhere. You don’t need to look further when you are in your house. I am sure you can find plastics: chairs, beds, pails, and even kitchen utensils like spoons, forks, and glasses.
Some goods you buy in the public market, particularly meat and fish, are wrapped in plastic bags. Some sachets of your favorite soy sauce, condiments, oil, and vinegar are sealed with plastic.
Approximately 430 million tons of plastic are produced annually, according to the United Nations. “Around two-thirds of it is just thrown away, harming both the environment and the food chain,” it said.
What is even more alarming is that a new report from the World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF) estimates low-income countries, despite consuming less plastic, incur a total lifetime plastic cost that is 10 times higher than wealthier countries.
The total lifetime costs of a kilogram of plastic is around US$150 in low- and middle-income countries, which is eight times the US$19/kilogram incurred by high-income countries, the report said.
“When comparing just low-income countries and their wealthier counterparts, the cost differential rises to 10 times with low-income countries hit with costs of US$200 a kilogram,” WWF deplored.
“Our take, make, waste plastics system is designed in a way that unfairly impacts our planet’s most vulnerable and disadvantaged countries,” said Alice Ruhweza, WWF International’s Senior Director of Policy, Influence and Engagement.
“Instead of resolving the world’s plastic pollution crisis in the most efficient way, the system shifts the bulk of the costs to those least equipped to manage them, with no accountability placed on those who produce and use the products in the first place,” she continued.
According to her, the report signals the urgency of an immediate overhaul of the current plastic system. “Business-as-usual could be a death sentence, not only for a growing number of animals but also for many of our world’s vulnerable and marginalized communities as a result of increased health risks including ingestion of harmful, toxic chemicals and increased risk of flooding and disease,” Ruhweza pointed out.
“The global plastic pollution treaty is our chance to change this by including binding and equitable global rules on production and consumption,” she added.
The WWF report finds that low- and middle-income countries bear a disproportionately large burden of the costs associated with plastic pollution as a direct result of three structural inequities that reinforce the current plastics system.
The first inequity is that the system places low- and middle-income countries at a disadvantage in that they have minimal influence on which plastic products are produced and how they are designed and yet are often expected to manage these products once they reach their end-of-life.
Product and system design considerations are typically made further upstream in countries with extensive plastic production and by multinational companies headquartered in high-income countries. As of 2019, only 9% of plastic waste is being recycled.
Currently, around 60% of global plastic production is for single-use products, which are designed to be (and so cheaply valued that they can be) thrown away after just one use.
In the Philippines, the so-called “sachet economy” has contributed to the proliferation of plastics. Products sold in single-use sachets include instant coffee, shampoo, soy sauce, cooking oil, food seasoning, and toothpaste.
“Because they are easy to sell – ribbons of single-use products hang from neighbourhood stores even in the most remote communities – large multinational manufacturing companies continue to market them,” said WWF in an earlier report.
The second inequity is that the rate of plastic production, particularly for single-use plastic, is far outpacing the availability of technical and financial resources for waste management when it reaches its end-of-life in low- and middle-income countries.
“Without reducing plastic production and consumption, low- and middle-income countries will continue to bear the highest burden of plastic pollution’s direct environmental and socio-economic impacts,” the WWF report said.
The third inequity is that the system lacks a fair way for holding countries and companies to account for their action, or inaction, on plastic pollution and its impact on our health, environment, and economy (for example, through mandatory extended producer responsibility schemes in each of the countries they operate in).
“With no common obligations across all jurisdictions and companies for supporting a circular, just and non-toxic plastics economy, low- and middle-income countries end up paying the steeper price,” said the WWF report.
The United Nations warned, “The devastating impact of plastic pollution on ecosystems, climate, the economy, and human health, costs the planet between $300 and $600 billion per year.”
If no action is taken soon, plastics production is expected to double in the next 20 years, the UN said.