Reasons to be hopeful after Commonwealth funding announcement on plastics

Maria das Gracas

Last year, Maria das Gracas’ house flooded eight times. As I stood with her in her home in a favela in Recife, Brazil, she told me how her community is now sorting and collecting the plastic and waste that clogs the river running through the neighbourhood, improving people’s lives and preventing it getting into the ocean too.

Since Sir David Attenborough and Blue Planet II hit our screens towards the end of last year, many of us have become sensitised to the devastating impact of plastics on our environment. At Tearfund we have become increasingly aware – through our work on the circular economy and our interactions with local communities – that such waste is not just an environmental problem, it is fast becoming a public health crisis for the poorest people.  

Most of the plastic in the ocean comes from low and middle income countries where two billion people do not have their waste collected. Currently, only 0.3 per cent of global aid money goes to tackle this issue; if it were increased to three per cent, all two billion people could have access to integrated solid waste management (ISWM), immeasurably improving their lives and cutting marine litter by more than 50 per cent.

In the run up to the Commonwealth Heads of Government meeting (CHOGM) in April, more than five thousand Tearfund supporters wrote to Secretary of State for International Development Penny Mordaunt urging her to seize the opportunity and invest in ISWM. Happily, last week at CHOGM in London the UK government recognised the importance of ramping up action on solid waste management and committed £61.4 million  to pilot projects, research and support for a new Commonwealth Clean Oceans Alliance, jointly chaired with Vanuatu.

Specifically this is broken down into:  £25 million to help researchers approach the scourge of marine plastic waste from a scientific, technical, economic and social perspective (Business Energy InS lead), £20 million for research on sustainable manufacturing, environmental pollution and plastics (DFID lead), £6 million for national litter action plans (Defra lead), £5 million for Commonwealth Clean Oceans Alliance members to tackle waste management, £3 million for waste management pilots (DFID lead) and £2.4 million for a public-private delivery platform (Defra lead). The window of time officials had to develop these projects was very short and so currently little is known about what specifically these various projects will entail.

Partly also for this reason, the initial amount of money spent directly helping the poorest will be small, but I have three reasons to be hopeful. First, this positive change came about through a cultural awakening powered by the media and the general public. Second, this is the first environmental issue for a long time that has captured the attention of a secretary of state for international development (largely due to the influence of her powerful colleague, Michael Gove, at Defra), making it an opportunity for DFID to understand and support transformational models of sustainable development such as a circular economy. And, third, the approach includes BEIS and Defra working together to tackle the upstream production and manufacturing of plastics in developing countries: a rare example of cross-government coherence.

The challenge now is to sustain momentum whilst research and pilots happen so that, once we know what works, we can keep the pressure up to go further and faster and many more people like Maria das Gracas can benefit from sustainable solid waste management.

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