The world’s biggest waste dump (hint: it’s big, blue and you like going there)

I used to be a big fan of seafood: crabs, mussels, prawns you name it, I ate it. Then when this year Ghent University in Belgium found that seafood lovers could be eating up to 11,000 tiny pieces of plastic a year, I reluctantly decided to cut my consumption to the odd treat (what’s a couple of hundred bits of microplastics between friends). Consumers in better off nations like ours are rightly worried about the as yet unknown health impacts of ingesting plastic, but little or no attention has been paid to the impact on communities in the developing world.

The escalating crisis of marine litter (this ranges from microbeads to plastic bottles to boats) is the latest, dystopian symptom of a linear economy which takes, makes and throws away.  It turns out ‘away’ is often the oceans. Every year we produce 300 million pieces of plastic and 5 to 12.5 million pieces of it end up in the oceans.  

Governments seem to be taking note, the G20 have come up with a Marine Litter Action Plan which makes bold statements such as the need to address unsustainable consumption and production patterns. This requires a wholesale transformation of our economic system to a circular economy but given the reticence of the UK government in  taking the modest step of reintroducing a bottle deposit scheme to reduce waste, it seems we have a way to go.

The need for the G20 to clean up their own act goes without saying, but developing nations are producing increasing amount of plastic waste as they follow western economic pathways whilst having often non-existent waste management systems. Currently, three billion people don’t have their waste collected; and in lower-income 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.  Furthermore, by some estimates, as much as half the plastic flowing into the sea each year comes from developing countries (down rivers and from coastal towns).

Less than 0.3 percent of aid is spent on waste management in developing countries, whilst donor agencies like DfID continue to advise developing countries to emulate the West’s ‘grow now, clean up later economies’.  Marine plastics are thus one of many reasons for Tearfund to support WasteAid’s call for aid funding to waste management services to increase to at least 3 percent (for other reasons, see here).

For some poor communities, marine litter may be a disaster-in-waiting: we simply don’t know enough about the impacts yet.  There is currently no shared understanding of how marine litter is affecting the 820 million people who rely on fishing as their main source of income, although we hear anecdotal reports of fishermen and women in developing countries now fishing for plastic instead of fish.  Similarly, we don’t know enough about the impact on the health of those who rely on fish as their main source of protein.  

This lack of evidence is a frustration for sea-food lovers like me, but it could be a catastrophe for poor coastal communities.  



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