No Time to Waste: Tackling the plastic pollution crisis before it’s too late

In this report from Fauna&Flora International, the Institute of Developmental Studies, Wasteaid, and Tearfund, authors describe the environmental destruction, sickness, mortality, and damage to livelihoods that the plastic pollution crisis is causing. It outlines the problem – namely the huge recent increase in the production and distribution of single-use plastics, and its expansion across the globe to countries lacking the capacity to collect, manage and recycle waste. And it spells out the solutions. Current trajectories point to increased illness and unnecessary deaths, further harm to livelihoods, and greater destruction of our environment.

But it doesn’t have to be this way. In this report we outline the roles and responsibilities of four groups we believe to be key to tackling the plastic pollution crisis:

  • – multinational consumer goods companies who drive the production of single-use plastic
    – packaging, and currently do little to collect and sustainably manage the waste they have created;
  • – developed country governments who have enabled and incentivised a ‘throwaway’ culture and whose response to the crisis in developing countries has so far been weak;
  • – developing country governments whose citizens are the most severely impacted by the crisis;
  • – citizens who can show there is an overwhelming demand for change.

The executive summary “How Plastics Poison the Circular Economy,” produced by IPEN, encompasses three reports and provides context and overviews of the ways in which the chemicals studied poison recycling streams and stymie the promise of a healthy and environmentally sustainable circular economy.

The reports include:

A Call to Action: Free Children from BPA’s Toxic Legacy

PFAS in Clothing: Study in Indonesia, China, and Russia Shows Barriers for Non-toxic Circular Economy

Brominated Flame Retardants in Plastic Products from China, Indonesia, and Russia

Available in English, Baha Indonesian, and Chinese languages.

Though they only account for 16 percent of the world’s population, high-income countries generate about 34 percent of the world’s waste. A large portion of the generated wastes are plastics, which often contain toxic chemicals.

Historically, high-income countries have exported a significant amount of plastic waste under the guise of recycling. This toxic plastic waste trade harms human health and the environment locally and globally. But current reporting systems frequently underestimate the volumes of plastic wastes that are traded globally, leading to a frequent underestimation of the plastic waste trade by researchers who generally rely on this reporting system.

A recent analysis, “Plastic Waste Trade: The Hidden Numbers,” produced by the International Pollutants Elimination Network (IPEN), found that the overall plastic trade is more than 40% higher than previous estimates, and even this number fails to reflect the trade of plastics and wastes in textiles, rubber, plastic contamination of paper bales, and other sources. The real amount of plastics and plastic wastes, and of toxic chemicals contained in plastics and wastes that move globally via trade is likely to be even higher.

As plastic production increases, plastic wastes will also skyrocket. Estimates show we will produce 26 billion metric tons of plastic waste by 2050. We cannot manage this level of waste generation sustainably, and without global policies to reduce plastic production, there will continue to be an unequal exchange of plastic wastes from high-income countries to non-high-income countries.

There is virtually nowhere on Earth today that remains untouched by plastic and ecosystems are evolving to adapt to this new context. While plastics have revolutionized our modern world, new and often unforeseen effects of plastic and its production are continually being discovered. Plastics are entangled in multiple ecological and social crises, from the plasticization of the oceans to the embeddedness of plastics in political hierarchies.

The complexities surrounding the global plastic crisis require an interdisciplinary approach and the materialities of plastic demand new temporalities of thought and action. Plastic Legacies brings together scholars from the fields of marine biology, psychology, anthropology, environmental studies, Indigenous studies, and media studies to investigate and address the urgent socio-ecological challenges brought about by plastics. Contributors consider the unpredictable nature of plastics and weigh actionable solutions and mitigation processes against the ever-changing situation. Moving beyond policy changes, this volume offers a critique of neoliberal approaches to tackling the plastics crisis and explores how politics and communicative action are key to implementing social, cultural, and economic change.

Editors: Trisia Farrelly, Sy Taffel, Ian Shaw

Contributors: Sasha Adkins, Sven Bergmann, Stephanie Borrelle, Tridibesh Dey, Eva Giraud, Christina Gerhardt, John Holland, Deidre McKay, Laura McLauchlan, Mike Michael, Imogen Napper, Tina Ngata, Sabine Pahl, Padmapani L. Perez, Jennifer Provencher, Elyse Stanes, Johanne Tarpgaard, Richard Thompson, and Lei Xiaoyu.

Manila — The Coca-Cola Company, PepsiCo, and Nestlé come in as the world’s top plastic polluters for five years running, according to Break Free From Plastic’s latest global brand audit report. The 2022 Brand Audit analyzes five years’ worth of citizen science trash-collection data, exposing how corporate voluntary commitments are not effectively reducing these companies’ devastating environmental impacts. In response, activists around the world are calling for a Global Plastics Treaty that can provide legally-binding mechanisms and enforcement policies to effectively reduce the amount of plastic both produced and used by corporations.  

Since 2018, global cleanups have been carried out by more than 200,000 volunteers in 87 countries and territories to identify the companies polluting the most places with the most plastic waste. Over all five years, more Coca-Cola Company branded items were collected than the next two top polluters combined. This year’s brand audits found more than 31,000 Coca-Cola branded products, doubling the proportion of Coca-Cola products found in 2018. These findings are revealed as the top polluter is serving as a sponsor of the UN climate change conference COP27 in Egypt. Given that 99% of plastic is made from fossil fuels, Coca-Cola’s role in COP27 baffles environmental activists.

Today, in response to corporate inaction, activists worldwide are commemorating a 5-year “Trashiversary” for these companies by mailing or delivering their own waste to them to demand urgent action. The actions are taking place today, targeting Coca-Cola in Argentina, Bangladesh, Brazil, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Kenya, Nigeria, South Africa, Tanzania, Togo, Uganda, the US, and Zambia; Unilever in Indonesia, the United Kingdom, and South Africa; and PepsiCo in India and Tanzania.

In 2018, the same year that Brand Audits efforts started, the Ellen MacArthur Foundation and the United Nations Environment Programme together launched the New Plastics Economy Global Commitment. This program centered on a set of voluntary commitments to address plastic pollution made by major fast-moving consumer goods companies, including most of the top plastic polluters. However, the Global Commitment 2022 Progress Report revealed that their 2025 targets will “almost certainly” not be met. For many of these companies, the use of plastic packaging has actually increased since joining the Global Commitment, exposing how voluntary actions are not leading to any kind of significant impact on plastic reduction.