When campaigners talk about plastic in Britain, it is usually in a marine context. Inspired by the BBC series Blue Planet 2, people associate plastic waste with marine life. But most plastic pollution doesn’t go into the sea. It goes onto land, often in developing countries without formal waste infrastructure, or through dumping from overseas.
When a brand produces plastic and sells it in a country with limited facilities for processing that waste, it inevitably ends up burned or in landfill. Tearfund have been highlighting how this happens, singling out four global brands in their Rubbish campaign. In just six developing countries, Coca Cola, PepsiCo, Nestle and Unilever produce half a million tonnes of plastic. It’s enough to cover 83 football fields in plastic every single day.
Much of this plastic is burned, which produces 4.6 million tonnes of CO2 emissions – a figure which has been calculated for the first time. To put it in context, eliminating the practice would be equivalent to taking 2 million cars off British roads. “The plastic crisis is a climate crisis” says their new report, and since it took me far too long to recognise that fact myself, I’m pleased to see that they gave that statement a whole page to itself.
Of the four companies, Coca-Cola is the worst by some distance, producing more CO2 than the other three put together. While it talks a good game on sustainability, it has made no commitments to reduce its dependence on single-use plastics and takes no responsibility for emissions from burning. Like all four companies, it has made promises on climate change, but “these commitments sit uneasily alongside these four companies’ dependence on throwaway plastic.”
Burning plastic is a health risk too, and Tearfund’s report, The Burning Question, gives a voice to the people who have to live with it. Reporting from Dar es Salaam in Tanzania, we hear how people living close to plastic dumps suffer from respiratory problems, skin conditions and headaches. A mother describes how “the dump is on fire every two days. Sometimes, when it is on fire, the smoke is so dark and huge that you can’t see the person in front of you or the house next to you.” Another woman points out that dumped plastic gathers water and provides a perfect breeding ground for mosquitos, and the malaria that comes with them.
When challenged over their single use plastics in developing countries, companies say that they are only responding to consumer demand. Tearfund have put this to the test, running a survey to see if people would support reuseable containers. In India, 86% of people said plastic waste was a concern, and nine out of ten said they would be likely to buy in reuseable containers if it meant less plastic waste. Clearly the companies could do more.
To prove the point, they are doing more in other places. Unilever is partnering with a local firm in Chile to deliver goods in reuseable containers, and Coca Cola refills plastic bottles in Brazil. So why isn’t that happening in Tanzania and in other countries where waste plastic is a blight on the landscape, on people’s health, and on the climate?
The Rubbish Campaign is putting pressure on these companies from Britain, and you can sign the petition here.