Plastic pollution crisis: has anything really changed since Blue Planet II?

It’s been well over a year since Blue Planet II was screened in the UK and since then our screens, twitter feeds and newspapers have been awash with images and stories of plastic pollution. But for all the announcements and media coverage, has the situation actually improved?  Today, WWF have released new projections that plastic pollution will double by 2030; this means an extra 300 million tonnes of plastic in the oceans – a horrifying statistic.

So for all the vast amounts of brilliant publicity around the terrible impact of plastic pollution, in reality very little has changed.  Large corporations continue to pump out billions of single use plastics (SUPs). Most governments around the world continue to incentivise them whilst failing to provide proper waste management. Billions of people, often with little other choice, continue to buy these plastics, part of a system which is leading to widespread pollution of air, water and oceans that affects all of us. So much for the age of reason!


At Tearfund, we are particularly concerned about the impact that the increasing generation of single use plastics will have on people in poverty in poorer countries where is no  Already, most of the plastic in the oceans comes from low and middle income countries where bin collections are few and far between and even if the rubbish is collected, it is usually dumped elsewhere, including in waterways.  This rubbish causes floods, attracts vermin which spreads diseases and it is also often burnt releasing deadly toxins into the air.


That’s the bad news.  The good news is that the UK government and EU are now taking concrete  steps towards banning certain types of SUP and in the UK requiring companies to pay the full costs of dealing with the waste their products create.  Some governments in the Global South are also implementing bans on certain items and there are many initiatives and pilots to galvanise more action. However, much, much more needs to be done at a global scale to tackle the problem in low and middle-income countries where the crisis is more acute. That’s why Tearfund along with Flora and Fauna International, WasteAid and the Institute of Development Studies have issued a call to global action,  putting the onus on multinational companies and high-income governments to lead the charge.


As we explain in our paper, plastic pollution is one particularly pernicious and destructive consequence of the take-make-dispose model of economic development birthed and exported by high-income countries, often driven by the desire for short-term financial gain. The costs of waste disposal are predominantly borne by national or local governments, while the profits from plastic use are reaped by the companies involved. And while communities and governments in some of the world’s poorest countries are rightly taking steps to limit and clean up plastic pollution, overseas aid budgets spend miniscule amounts on the issue of mismanaged plastic waste  – despite its health impact on people in poverty and its contribution to ocean plastic pollution that threatens biodiversity. Business models based on single use plastics in the UK and Europe are looking increasingly difficult to justify, how much more so in countries where there is little or no waste management.


Instead, we want to see:

  • responsible companies publicly reporting on their plastic use and innovating and transforming their business models to provide goods that move beyond disposable models, whilst financing systems to collect and recycle any plastic packaging they continue to use in partnership with local waste pickers.
  • high-income governments significantly aid for waste management, reflecting the urgency and responsibility we have for creating this economic model. Increased official development aid can enable governments to develop and adopt a range of regulatory and fiscal interventions to reduce overall production and use of plastic materials. It can also support a range of interventions to improve waste management especially well designed local community and decentralised approaches that can become self-sustaining after initial investments.


Urgently adopting these sensible, logical and responsible measures will go a long way to tackling this plastic pollution crisis. We know what we need to do. It’s time to make real change.


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