Where does your plastic waste go?
In last week’s blog, we discussed the harm that plastic pollution causes to our oceans and marine wildlife. Animals are trapped by plastic debris or eat it and become sick. Microscopic plastic particles are absorbed by fish that humans eat. You can read the whole story here. In the blog, we briefly mentioned how the main source of marine plastic is improperly managed waste. This happens in a variety of ways, including landfills that fail to keep the waste they store within their limits. Some of the worst managed landfills overflow directly into waterways and oceans. In fact, thirty-eight of the world’s fifty largest uncontrolled dump sites are in coastal areas. The situation in some places is even worse. Many small cities, towns, and villages worldwide do not have any waste management services, and there is no place to collect and dispose of household waste meeting even the minimum standards, forcing people to dump their trash into communal areas or burn it in their yards. This challenge affects people living in developed and less developed countries, from Alaska to The Gambia.
The negative impacts of improper or insufficient waste management are immense, and the growing scale of the problem is pushing this issue towards an environmental and humanitarian crisis. Statistics show that individuals living in households that burn trash in their yards face up to a six-fold increase in the risk of respiratory infection. But it is not just the people living in these underserved communities that bear the negative effects of poor waste management. It is estimated that of all the world’s waste, 40 percent ends up in uncontrolled dump sites. Many of these dumpsites are so poorly regulated that the waste in them overflows directly into the ocean. This phenomenon is the main source of the problem of plastic pollution in our oceans.
The growing scale of the problem of mismanaged waste means that by 2020 we will see a tenfold increase in the amount of plastic in the oceans and by 2050 marine plastic will outweigh the fish in the sea. Mismanaged waste also contributes to global warming. By 2025, dump sites and landfills will account for a staggering eight to ten percent of global greenhouse gas emissions.
With all of the problems already being caused by mismanaged waste, especially plastic waste, and the rate at which the problem is growing, it is clear that deliberate and immediate action needs to be taken. We need to pressure governments and local officials to do better when it comes to the management of plastic waste. More developed countries need to realize that this is a problem impacting all of us and do more to help countries without the capacity or infrastructure to deal with their waste. We need to push for an international framework on plastic pollution that includes protocols on the production and life cycle of plastics to ensure that it doesn’t make its way into the environment, and we ultimately produce less waste.
There is also more we can do on an individual level. There are many resources on how to properly handle waste when the local authorities do not provide any sufficient system for waste disposal. This toolkit, created by Waste Aid International, will give anyone living in a place lacking waste collection services the knowledge and know-how to set up community-led waste management systems and even recycling businesses. Not only will this help keep your community clean, but it could also help you earn an income.
For anyone lucky enough to reside in a place where your local authorities are doing a good job and recycling systems are in place, you should not feel like there is nothing left to do. We need to reduce the amount of plastic we consume. We invite you to test your level of consumption using our Plastic Pollution Calculator and to figure out how to reduce your consumption of plastic using our Plastic Pollution Primer and Action Toolkit. We cannot waste this opportunity to help help end plastic pollution!