Every year, an estimated 381 million tons of plastic waste are produced worldwide. Many countries are struggling with this growing mountain of rubbish, especially in the global south, and therefore have little choice but to dispose of it or incinerate it. Environment Journal examines the effects on air pollution.
The plastic problem
Plastic is a product that has revolutionized our lives in many ways. It has enabled supermarkets to offer a wide range of fresh produce and it has saved lives by manufacturing various medical devices.
In the past few decades, however, our plastic production has skyrocketed, with the world producing an estimated 2 million tons of plastic per year in 1950. Since then, annual production has increased almost 200 times, reaching 381 million tons in 2020, which is almost the weight of the entire human population
Because of this rapid growth, our waste management systems couldn’t keep up. We are all more than used to seeing plastic in our rivers, oceans and natural areas, but in many cases the pollution goes much deeper than we can see. In many countries in the Global South there is a lack of efficient waste disposal systems at local or even national level. Since there is no way to safely dispose of this waste, the individual has no choice but to incinerate it.
Professor Francis Pope, Chair of Atmospheric Sciences at the University of Birmingham said, “If you don’t have a top-down system for dealing with waste, incineration is seemingly the sensible thing to do.
“Waste takes up space and can be unsafe or unsanitary – by burning it you can get rid of it, you can prevent the spread of disease, you can get rid of bad smells, you can stop rat infestation, and you can do all of it for free.”
While burning waste may seem sensible and inexpensive, there are many dangerous side effects. When you burn organic matter, it creates carbon dioxide emissions and various air pollutants, but when you burn plastic the result is worse.
In 2019, Professor Stephen Smith, Head of Environmental and Water Resource Engineering at Imperial College London, was involved in one of the largest-ever studies on the airborne effects of waste incineration in the Global South. He told the environmental journal: “We measured emissions from various types of waste and found that plastics are a large producer of soot, a fine particulate matter that is released during the incineration process.
“This means that even if plastic makes up only a small part of the total waste, it is still responsible for around 90% of soot emissions.
“We also found that over 90% of Mexico’s waste was incinerated in rural areas. It was a little better in bigger cities, but most of the garbage collected is then incinerated in larger municipal sites. ‘
Soot is of particular concern when it comes to air pollution, and inhalation has been linked to respiratory, cardiovascular, cancer, and birth defects. Due to the lack of local garbage collection services in the Global South, many people have to burn their garbage at home, in their gardens or on the roadside – the dangerous air pollution is therefore in the immediate vicinity of human habitation.
Professor Smith said, “We found that respiratory diseases were much more common in the countryside. We’re talking about 1 in 20 people who have had respiratory problems, it was upsetting. We expected that people in rural areas would be much healthier away from traffic and infrastructure, but we were wrong. ‘
Black carbon is also a very dangerous greenhouse gas and has about 4,000 times more impact on climate change than carbon dioxide. As Professor Smith explained, “waste incineration leads to these local respiratory diseases, but also to transboundary global effects of climate change.”
The problem with this pollution is that the burden of suffering does not fall evenly. If it is primarily countries in the Global South that are struggling with their waste and therefore have no choice but to incinerate it, then they are carrying a greater burden than we do in the UK, where our waste is shipped to other countries. buried in the ground or disposed of in incinerators.
Inequality continues even within each country. Joanne Green, senior policy associate at Tearfund, the international Christian aid and development organization, told Environment Journal: “There are around 11 million garbage collectors around the world and they are at the forefront of the fight against plastic pollution.
“You work in extremely dangerous conditions and are exposed to open burns every day. According to a study in Mexico, the average life expectancy of a garbage collector is only 39 years.
“They are resilient, productive, and effective at what they do, and yet there is no accountability.”
In their Burning Issues Report, released in 2020, Tearfund urged consumer goods companies to work with waste collectors to create safe jobs. They also urged high-income governments to provide the tools and technical assistance local governments need to work with and provide assistance with these groups.
Joanne Green added, “We believe there is potential for a real win-win here, we can create clean and decent jobs and we can also reduce plastic pollution, there are mutual benefits for people and the planet.”
What can be done
There is mounting pressure on governments and multinational corporations to move from a one-way economy to a more circular economy. In a circular economy, manufacturers design products to be reusable. The purpose is to redefine growth by removing waste from the system.
But there is still a long way to go before this somewhat utopian vision can be realized and millions of people are exposed to dangerous air pollution every day. It is therefore important that we take action in the short term to help other countries deal with their waste in a safer way.
Professor Smith said, “The burning is not addressed at all in the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals and that needs to change.
“Incineration is a really cross-cutting issue, it creates air pollution, it causes climate change and it has to do with our waste crisis. It needs to be higher on the political agenda, with top-down organizations helping individuals find alternative ways to deal with this waste.
“The UK is hosting COP26 this year and I think this is a really unique opportunity to raise awareness on this issue.
“We need action on the ground, we need waste collection systems and we need to support the Global South to do it right. This is not just a local problem, it affects everyone and a solution would not only solve the burning problem but also help address water pollution, the climate crisis and our ongoing health crisis. ‘
This article first appeared in Air Quality News Magazine.