Vicky Ford MP "Plastic pollution is a poverty issue, and Britain can make a difference"

Published as part of our joint collection of essays with Save the Children UK. And to support the #PlasticPledge for lent we are delighted to share Vicky Ford MP's essay on plastic pollution. DFID is currently Aid Matching Tearfunds appeal to turn plastic and other waste into green products, to improve the environment health and livelihoods in Parkistan. Deadline for the Aid Match is Friday 17 May.

Many of the essays in this collection are based on the authors’ personal experiences of seeing the difference that UK aid makes first-hand, and they span issues from the protection of civilians in conflict to investment in girls’ education and the need for a new development bank. It is an endorsement by parliamentarians from across the party of the case for a ‘Global Britain’ to be a compassionate Britain.

Plastic pollution is a poverty issue, and Britain can make a difference

By Vicky Ford, MP for Chemlsford

Last year, Maria das Gracas’ house flooded eight times, repeatedly devastating the lives of her family and the wider community. In response to this perpetual problem her community is now taking action, working with partners of the international development NGO Tearfund to sort and collect the plastic and waste that clogs the river running through the neighbourhood, improving people’s lives and preventing it from getting into the ocean too.

Marine plastics have rightly emerged as a major environmental concern over the last year since Sir David Attenborough and Blue Planet II hit our screens. However, marine litter is a symptom of a broader waste crisis: rapidly escalating waste generation in poor countries with little or no solid waste management. A recent international expert meeting concluded that more than half of the plastic entering the oceans comes from these countries. MPs who took part in the “Give Up Plastic for Lent” challenge earlier this year were overwhelmed with support from constituents who want to see the UK play its part in helping to find solutions.

Plastic pollution is not just a crisis for marine life. According to the UN, more than 2 billion people currently have no waste collection service. And even when solid waste is collected in developing countries, the reality is still often open dumping. This waste ends up being burned or dumped including in waterways and drainage channels. The health impacts are severe: blocked drains are a major cause of flooding, dumped (single-use) plastics are notorious for providing mosquito breeding grounds, and diarrhoeal diseases in children are twice as common in communities without waste collection. Furthermore, fumes from burning cause an estimated 270,000 premature deaths every year and contribute to climate change.The resulting pollution also affects livelihoods, particularly in tourism and agriculture.

At present, extending waste management services to all is a low political priority for the international community. Consequently, municipal authorities lack the money and institutional capacity required, with existing collection schemes plagued by poor governance. Collection costs alone frequently surpass available financial resources at municipal level, and where partial collection schemes exist, they tend to prioritise wealthier areas and civic spaces, excluding those in poverty.

Communities in many countries have developed innovative grassroots approaches, but the ‘public good’ nature of waste management makes it challenging to scale up these solutions without additional finance or public sector support. Waste-pickers in particular, number around 20 million people. These problems have been compounded by rapid growth in waste streams, including (often non-recyclable) single-use plastics. Multinationals are pioneering the use of micro-sachets in developing countries such as India, where more than half the shampoo sold is now packaged in non-recyclable micro-sachets. Similarly, PET plastic bottles (made from polyethylene terephthalate) have replaced once ubiquitous bottle deposit schemes in many developing countries.

With burgeoning waste streams and very patchy waste collection, large amounts of waste are inevitably subjected to informal burning or dumping, including into the oceans. A comprehensive solution will require action on behalf of companies, donors and developing country governments. Developed countries’ aid budgets can play a crucial role.

By working together donors and developing country governments could extend waste services to all 2 billion people who currently lack them. By increasing global aid to waste management from its current 0.3% to 3% and using proven low-cost community-based approaches, all 2 billion people could be reached. This would more than halve the amount of waste going into the oceans and save lives: a win-win for people and planet.

As for the UK’s role, historically, approximately only 0.1% of the UK’s aid budget has been allocated to waste management projects. However, ahead of the Commonwealth Heads of Government meeting in April last year, the Prime Minister announced extra funding worth £61m which was divided between DFID, DEFRA and the Department for Business Energy and Industrial Strategy.

The amount of money spent directly helping people in poverty will be small initially, although this represents a good example of crossgovernment coherence that could tackle upstream issues related to multinational companies taking responsibility for addressing the sheer amount of plastic being produced, and downstream issues related to clearing up the resulting mess.

For this money to make a real difference the government must continue to learn from what has worked already, including prioritising assisting local governments in developing countries to improve governance; helping establish coordinating bodies that represent all the different actors involved in waste management from waste-pickers to multinationals and scaling up proven, low-cost community-based recycling projects. It is also vital that all government departments spending ODA demonstrate through clear measures how their work will improve the lives of people in poverty, like Maria.