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WWF works to sustain the natural world for the benefit of people and wildlife, collaborating with partners from local to global levels in nearly 100 countries.
A WWF-commissioned report developed by Dalberg¹ warns that the true cost of plastic on the environment, health and economies can be as much as 10 times higher for low-income countries, even though they consume almost three times less plastic per-capita, than high-income ones. The report estimates that the total lifetime costs of a kilogram (2.2.lbs) of plastic is around $150 in low- and middle-income countries, which is eight times the $19/kilogram (2.2 lbs) incurred by high-income countries². When comparing just low-income countries and their wealthier counterparts, the cost differential rises to 10 times with low-income countries hit with costs of $200 a kilogram.
These unequal costs have substantial implications for low- and middle-income countries like Kenya, where negotiators will converge from November 13-19 for the third negotiations of the global treaty to end plastic pollution. Six years ago, Kenya took a bold step against plastic pollution by banning single-use plastic bags. Today, the country continues to struggle with illegal imports of single-use plastic bags, highlighting the problem’s transboundary nature and the crippling inequities inherent in the current plastics value chain that put countries like Kenya at a disadvantage no matter what bold action they take.
“Our take, make, waste plastics system is designed in a way that unfairly impacts our planet’s most vulnerable and disadvantaged countries. Instead of resolving the world’s plastic pollution crisis in the most efficient way, the system shifts the bulk of the costs to those least equipped to manage them, with no accountability placed on those who produce and use the products in the first place,” said Alice Ruhweza, WWF International’s Senior Director of Policy, Influence and Engagement.
“The report signals the urgency of an immediate overhaul of the current plastic system. Business-as-usual could be a death sentence, not only for a growing number of animals but also for many of our world's vulnerable and marginalized communities as a result of increased health risks including ingestion of harmful, toxic chemicals and increased risk of flooding and disease. The global plastic pollution treaty is our chance to change this by including binding and equitable global rules on production and consumption."
The report finds that low- and middle-income countries bear a disproportionately large burden of the costs associated with plastic pollution as a direct result of three structural inequities that reinforce the current plastic system.
The first inequity is that the system places low- and middle-income countries at a disadvantage in that they have minimal influence on which plastic products are produced and how they are designed and yet are often expected to manage these products once they reach their end-of-life. Product and system design considerations are typically made further upstream in countries with extensive plastic production and by multinational companies headquartered in high-income countries. As of 2019, only 9% of plastic waste is being recycled. Currently, around 60% of global plastic production is for single-use products, which are designed to be (and so cheaply valued that they can be) thrown away after just one use.
The second inequity is that the rate of plastic production, particularly for single-use plastic, is far outpacing the availability of technical and financial resources for waste management when it reaches its end-of-life in low- and middle-income countries. Without reducing plastic production and consumption, low- and middle-income countries will continue to bear the highest burden of plastic pollution’s direct environmental and socio-economic impacts.
The third inequity is that the system lacks a fair way for holding countries and companies to account for their action, or inaction, on plastic pollution and its impact on our health, environment and economy (for example, through mandatory extended producer responsibility schemes in each of the countries they operate in). With no common obligations across all jurisdictions and companies for supporting a circular, just and non-toxic plastics economy, low- and middle-income countries end up paying the steeper price.
Establishing and implementing a UN global plastic pollution treaty based on harmonized and binding global rules can help us create a fairer system that empowers low- and middle-income countries and prioritizes the most effective and efficient solutions. An example of such a rule would be regulating the most high-risk plastic products, polymers and chemicals - those that can cause the most harm or are most likely to cause pollution - so that we can lessen the strain on countries, especially those with fewer resources, in managing plastic waste. Similarly, the opportunity to create global product design rules can help to ensure that products are designed to be reused and/or recycled regardless of which country they are produced or used in.
In November, countries will join the third of five negotiating sessions on a global treaty to end plastic pollution3. WWF calls on all governments to agree on a treaty that includes:
"Ahead of the next round of negotiations, this report underscores the need for countries to choose a path forward that is guided by science and calls for global rules and requirements to curb plastic production and consumption. It is not economically, socially or environmentally sustainable to prioritize the production of single-use plastic products," said Erin Simon, Vice President & Head of Plastic Waste and Business, WWF-US. "By elevating the voices of those most impacted by plastic pollution, we will get closer to a treaty that ensures a more equitable future. Securing a truly sustainable, healthy future for humans and our planet is too important to leave up to voluntary action. Without a just transition to an equitable plastics value chain, communities in the US and around the world will continue to pay the price of inaction."
1. How is the “true cost” of plastic calculated: The ‘true cost’ of plastic is based on a model devised by experts at WWF and Dalberg that considers the minimum lifetime cost of both upstream production and downstream waste management, and compares these costs between high, middle and low-income countries as of data from 2019. While many of the costs cannot be quantified, reflecting the gaps in available data and understanding of the full impact of plastic pollution, it does include quantifiable costs such as the cost of producing virgin plastic, greenhouse gas emission costs, costs on ecosystem services of marine ecosystems and direct waste management costs.
Though presented as ‘monetary costs’ of one kilo of plastic, it’s important to note that countries do not actually pay these costs, the costs are used as an indication of the disproportionate burdens plastic poses on countries with different national incomes.
The multiplier of eight and 10 are predominantly linked to the mismanagement of plastic waste and costs to the marine environments. Wealthier countries for example often displace and reduce their waste management costs by exporting their plastic waste to lower-income countries to process. The total lifetime cost for one kilogram block of plastic waste in a high-income country for example, is US$19, compared to eight times that for middle and lower-income countries at an average of US$150, and 10 times that for lower-income countries, at US$200. When we compare costs across lifetime marine ecosystem services, and how plastic leakage impacts these, it yields a cost of US$149 for low and middle-income countries compared to US$17 for high-income countries. Even still, the true impact borne by low and middle-income countries from plastic pollution is likely to be far greater.
The third session of the UN’s Intergovernmental Negotiating Committee to develop a globally binding treaty on plastic pollution (INC-3) will run from 13-19 November in Nairobi, Kenya.
From the report - selected case studies by region:
Brazil: Marine and terrestrial impacts of plastic pollution
• More than 10 million tonnes of plastic enter the Brazilian domestic market each year.
• In addition, Brazil imports 12,000 tonnes of plastic waste each year, a rate that grows by 7% annually. As waste imports increase, so does the amount of waste that is being mismanaged. If current trends continue, Brazil could become the 4th largest generator of mismanaged plastic waste.
• The growing rate of plastic pollution in Brazil results from system gaps, in particular limited infrastructure and capacity for waste collection and recycling. Only 22% of cities in Brazil collect waste for recycling
• Brazil’s precious coastal ecosystems, wildlife and communities bear the greatest brunt. And pollution is now threatening the Amazon Basin.
Kenya: Efforts to reduce pollution hampered by absence of global regulation
• Kenya banned single-use plastic bags in 2017 in a bold step to reduce plastic pollution, but a lack of similar rules in neighboring countries has resulted in plastic bags piling up in Kenya.
• Plastic bags continue to pollute Kenya through porous borders which give way to the smuggling of the bags in shipments of plastic materials exempt from the ban, like packaging products.
• Six years after the ban, plastic bags are piling up in Kenya’s Dadach Boshe dump. Locals have reported the deaths of goats from swollen stomachs and fatal health issues caused by the ingestion of plastic bags.
Fiji: Structural barriers in waste management
• Tourists, who arrive in the small island state of Fiji, generate seven times more plastic waste per person per day than Fiji’s residents.
• Despite developing environmental legislation and strategies for waste management, Fiji’s capacity constraints (small economic scale and workforce) has meant that only one of its eight disposal sites satisfy current environmental standards, resulting in a plastic leakage rate of 25%, or nearly 4,000 tonnes of plastic pollution each year, equivalent to filling 80 swimming pools with 500ml plastic bottles.
• In addition, Fiji’s remote location, limited scale and a lack of investment mean that Fiji has struggled to establish viable recycling markets and is seeing an increased reliance on burning its waste or filling up its landfills.
WWF is one of the world’s leading conservation organizations, working in nearly 100 countries for over half a century to help people and nature thrive. With the support of more than 5 million members worldwide, WWF is dedicated to delivering science-based solutions to preserve the diversity and abundance of life on Earth, halt the degradation of the environment and combat the climate crisis. Visit http://www.worldwildlife.org to learn more and keep up with the latest conservation news by following @WWFNews on Twitter and signing up for our newsletter and news alerts here.