Burning issues – when health fears don’t drive change

30 September 2020

David Lerpiniere, Head of Global Resources and Waste Policy at Resource Futures, says we must redouble efforts to create a global circular economy, not only for the health of our global citizens, but of our planet and our future.

Amid the global pandemic of Covid-19, health fears have fuelled fast far reaching action. And yet – when those health scares are far from home and affect other people in other countries, it doesn’t seemingly trigger the same level of response.

According to recent figures, there have been one million global deaths from Covid-19. At the same time, a report from Tearfund estimates up to one million deaths every year from diseases related to plastic and other mismanaged waste in developing countries.

The open burning of plastics at scale in developing countries trying to cope with, not only their own waste, but the illegally dumped plastic waste from other nations is a crisis of unrecognised proportions

While the impact on the earth’s creatures and marine ecosystems from marine pollution is widely known. And is quite rightly galvanising action from many nations and the focus of continually alarming reports such as the recent ‘Breaking the Plastic Wave’ report from the Pew Trust.

Meanwhile, the human and environmental cost of burning plastic waste has largely gone unnoticed.

The open burning of plastics at scale in developing countries trying to cope with, not only their own waste, but the illegally dumped plastic waste from other nations is a crisis of unrecognised proportions. It’s not only a direct human cost, caused by the harmful emissions, but also a global environmental cost.

Tearfund estimates that the open burning of Coca Cola and PepsiCo plastic waste in just six countries releases more carbon emissions than 1.5 million cars on the road every year.

This is at a time when countries’ commitments need to increase five-fold if we are to bridge the emissions gap between targets required to limit climate change to between 1.5 and 2 degrees Celsius by 2030 and the current projected pathways of our global carbon emissions. (Source: UN Environment, Emissions Gap 2019)

The multi-dimensional challenge

Improving waste and resource management in contexts where poverty is rife and municipal budgets are stretched, means that for many, their basic needs will be unmet.

It is not simply a case of building or applying technical solutions or behaviours – a multi-dimensional approach is needed, tailored to local situations on the ground. Fortunately, there is a growing body of good practice on this issue, captured by the ‘Leave no Trace’ report by Vital Ocean.

It is not simply a case of building or applying technical solutions or behaviours – a multi-dimensional approach is needed, tailored to local situations on the ground.

This report offers some solutions for tackling the root causes of waste mismanagement. It points out that solutions need to be culturally appropriate, inclusive, economically sustainable, technically rigorous and built on a foundation of transparent, reliable governance—which takes time to develop.

The report summarises the waste system lessons from pioneering organisations on the frontline and suggests six key areas of focus:

  • Enabling behaviour change at scale
  • Creating inclusive ‘waste picker’ systems
  • Building affordable waste collection models
  • Recycling plastics economically
  • Processing organics without a loss
  • Shaping policy and funding

At Resource Futures, we are working on a number of these strands, helping to improve waste management in low and middle income countries.

For example, we are working with the World Bank to help improve waste management services in Monrovia, Liberia’s capital and one of the poorest nations in the world. Our work has involved developing ways to sustainably finance services, a critical challenge in this type of context.

We are also focused on developing global good practice on a range of issues from how local and national governments can work together on solid waste management, to developing guidance on the measures that governments and policy-makers can take to address plastics pollution with the United Nations Basel Rotterdam and Stockholm Conventions Secretariat (BRS).

We have a role to play in the UK

These are all vitally important steps, but we must also acknowledge the part we play here in the UK. After all – many of the multi-national companies whose plastic waste ends up in these developing countries are run and operated from our shores, with products and packaging designed and commissioned here too.

We must:

– accelerate our focus on designing more circular packaging systems

– reduce with more rigour the complexity and variety of polymers and additives used to facilitate consumer convenience

– continue to explore bio alternatives that are viable and scalable without adding to the pressures on our already constrained planet

– involve customers and consumers in the redesign of those solutions to ensure they are fit for purpose and practicable

– eradicate illegal exporting of our waste to those countries without the necessary infrastructure or resources to deal with it

– support developing countries to develop the right solutions to ensure their waste is managed properly and safely, maximising recycling potential of materials and minimising harm to people and the planet

There is still so much work to be done both in the UK and abroad. But one thing is abundantly clear – the need and urgency of transitioning to a global circular economy that designs out waste at source and shifts to regenerative, renewable solutions will prevail far longer than the current covid-19 epidemic. We must redouble our efforts to make this possible, not only for the health of our global citizens, but of our planet and our future.

This article first appeared in Circular Online in August 2020

David Lerpiniere, Head of Global Resources and Waste Policy

David joined Resource Futures in 2017. He helps public and private sector organisations develop effective waste and resource management systems. With over twenty years’ experience as an advisor and researcher,… Read more

 

By David Lerpiniere
Head of Global Resources and Waste Policy

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