Global Plastics Treaty must address social and environmental injustices


A heap of garbage at the Dandora Dumpsite in Nairobi. 

Photo credit: File | Nation Media Group

Despite African countries leading in plastic bans, they remain vulnerable when it comes to the plastic pollution crisis. The petrochemical and plastics industry lobby sees Africa as an opportunity for their growth.

In the current era of globalisation, there has been increased production of plastic-based commodities. This continues to weaken Africa’s national regulations making them new hubs for unregulated plastic waste dumping.

Despite the fossil fuel lobbyist outnumbering national delegations, scientists and frontline communities in INC-4, negotiators finally made progress with decisive and growing support amongst parties on the need for the treaty to include plastic reduction targets, with over 50 countries in favor.

As the world prepares for the fifth and final session of the Intergovernmental Negotiating Committee at the end of this year, to develop an International Legally Binding Instrument on Plastic Pollution, focus should be on delivering communities from social and environmental injustices across the plastic lifecycle, from the extraction phase to the disposal phase.

In the struggle to manage the ever-increasing plastic waste, some African governments are forced to turn to dumping and resolve to open burning since they lack adequate resources and capacity to recycle. This makes it even worse because burning fossil fuel-based plastics produces even deadlier chemicals, magnifying the health threat and exacerbating climate change.

Estimates show we will produce 26 billion tons of plastic waste by 2050. We cannot manage this level of waste generation sustainably, and without global policies to reduce plastic production, there will continue to be an unequal exchange of plastic waste from high-income countries to non-high-income countries.

The dumping of plastic in vulnerable countries has resulted in widespread contamination and subsequent health effects despite improvements in technologies and waste management practices.

People are exposed to harmful chemicals from plastics during their production, transport, use and disposal. Since plastics are not labeled, that makes it hard for people to know what hazardous chemicals are used.

The social and environmental cost of plastics is unevenly distributed around the globe and among social groups. Vulnerable groups, such as children, poorer communities, workers in the informal sector, and small island developing States, are disproportionately impacted.

For instance, children are prone to adverse health effects caused by toxins and chemicals used in plastic. Studies show that children are reported to be the most affected by plastic ingestion. Studies have revealed that chemicals are used in children's toys and have the potential; to harm children's health.

Many of the adverse health effects of plastic are due to the endocrine-disrupting properties.

Children raised near a dumpsite are at great risk of respiratory diseases like asthma as they inhale contaminated air full of toxins. Some areas of plastic exposure to children are through toys, baby formula tins, and dental materials.

Despite Women playing a central role in the use and recycling of plastic, they are uniquely exposed to environmental threats whilst facing limited access to social protection and the resources to build resilience. Women, in particular, bear the brunt of plastic-related toxicity risk due to higher aggregate exposure to plastics in the household and even in feminine care products.

According to International Pollutants Elimination Network (IPEN) there is evidence of human health impacts from many chemicals in common plastics including alterations to both male and female reproductive development and infertility. Shocking research revealed microplastics in the human placenta, indicating the danger of transferring toxins from mother to their newborn children.

To understand the full scope of the social impacts related to plastic materials, there needs to be a step-by-step understanding of each stage of the life cycle of plastic, from production to waste disposal, and how each of these phases impacts vulnerable communities.
At the production stage, vulnerable communities located near petrochemical facilities face significant toxic exposures.

These communities have fewer choices other than plastic products, thus making them socially disadvantaged. During the production phase emissions are released that can impair the nervous system and cause reproductive and developmental problems, cancer, leukaemia, and genetic impacts like low birth weight.

Communities located close to production sites and workers employed in the production facilities are impacted by the daily threat of toxic exposure, potential accidents/incidents, or death.

During final disposal these communities are also harmed by plastics since dumpsites, landfills are often placed in their communities or nearby. For instance, let us explore Dandora dumpsite, Kenya’s main dumpsite located within the city.

The Dandora dumpsite is an informal workplace for about 10,000 women, children and a few men who scavenge through the piles of rubbish daily. A walk near the dumpsite will be welcomed by choking smoke.

The situation in Dandora Portrays the state of dumpsites in most African countries. Despite studies showing that air pollution is linked to childhood cancers and cognitive impairment in both children and adults, communities, schools co-exist with the dumpsite making it a deadly survival.

According to the World Health Organisation, up to 14 percent of all children aged 5 to 18 years have asthma and every year, over half a million children younger than five die from respiratory disease linked to air pollution. Yet the children from vulnerable communities near Africa’s dumpsites bear the biggest brunt of social and environmental injustices caused by plastic producers and worse by those who use chemicals and additives to make their unnecessary plastics.

Research conducted by International Pollutants Elimination Network and Arnika has shown that even brand-new toys made from recycled plastics, hair accessories and kitchen utensils in African markets are affected by unregulated toxic recycling of waste plastic that carry brominated flame retardants into new products.

The impact of plastics on vulnerable populations goes well beyond inefficient and non-existing waste management systems. It digs deeper into health implications and socio-economic disparities. According to a UNEP report titled 'Implications of the Dandora Municipal Dumping Site in Nairobi, Kenya' - skin disorders, cancers, respiratory abnormalities and blood disorders are just some of the public health effects that can be brought about by environmental pollution emanating from the dump site.

Every year, Kenya struggles with 5,100 metric tonnes of e-waste. The waste comes in the form of cheap cables, used toys, LED-decorated novelty clothes, cheap vaping devices, and countless other small consumer items often not recognized by consumers as e-waste.

These huge amounts of e-waste find their way under the disguise of repair and re-use even though E-waste can be highly toxic and damaging to people's health and although Africa is not necessarily responsible it ends up on the continent. Waste pickers who work in these dumpsites are in danger of health risks.

Growing evidence indicates that as global plastic production escalates, Africa is disproportionately impacted by exposure to plastic’s toxic chemicals and waste which at the end contaminate our food chain and communities. These dumping and unregulated chemicals and additives in plastic translate to health risks and they poison food chains.

In a recent study by Cejad Kenya with its international partners on free-range chicken eggs in African countries, it was proved that Persistent Organic Pollutants (POPs) contamination was present and high on the food chain in the vicinity of plastic waste disposal sites and facilities. The egg samples were collected in locations where plastic waste is dumped and burned to make energy or processed for recycling across East and West African countries.

The eggs were analyzed for the contamination of dioxins, which are the very toxic byproducts of POPs incineration or reprocessing and recycling technologies. Products need to be designed for reuse, durability and eventually safe recycling.

Waste pickers working in the dumpsite endure many challenges ranging from working without proper equipment to direct impacts from hazardous plastic waste and toxins from contaminated waste. Economically, waste pickers are exploited with small pay when they sell their recyclables.

The global plastics treaty represents an opportunity for them to ensure that their livelihoods improve and that their historical contribution to plastic pollution mitigation through their waste management services is recognised.

Meanwhile, traditional approaches to regulating environmental issues often overlook issues of environmental justice and access to remedies. Existing responses to address plastic pollution face this limitation, underscoring the need for a human rights-based approach.

It is therefore vital that the treaty prioritises upstream measures, starting with the measures that can deliver a phasedown of plastic production to sustainable levels compatible with human health, human rights and the environment.

It must guarantee the inclusion, integration and accessibility of waste pickers and frontline communities into national waste management policies and the Global plastics treaty.

Patricia Kombo is a communications officer, center for environment justice and development (Cejad)

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