Policy change required to reverse global inequity of plastic pollution, warns Ocean Nexus Center
12 Jan 2023 --- Marine plastic pollution (MPP) adversely impacts humans and the environment – including food security, livelihoods, physical and mental health and cultural practices and values – while disproportionately impacting the lives and livelihood of marginalized populations, reveals a new study by Ocean Nexus Marine Plastic Pollution Project.
“Less recognized is how MPP affects human populations and the unequal burden on different communities,” states the Towards an Equitable Approach to Marine Plastics Pollution report.
The key conclusions from the report are that MPP leads to the injury and death of aquatic organisms, MPP is a critical threat to human food security and economies globally and the production of plastics is a growing contributor to the climate change crisis, as shown through the lens of inequity.
The study refers to equity as the fair or just treatment among individuals or groups. However, the environmental management literature progressively recognizes equity as a multidimensional concept that includes distributional, procedural, recognitional and contextual dimensions.
While much is still unknown about the human health impacts of microplastics or smaller nanoplastics, even less is known about the effects of MPP on other human dimensions, such as well-being and the equity implications.
Nearly 14 million metric tons of plastics end up in the ocean each year, making up approximately 85% of marine debris, according to the study. However, the burden of these impacts is often inequitably experienced by marginalized communities most vulnerable to plastic pollution.
Plastic waste governance
Moreover, the study argues policies and management actions intended to mitigate plastic pollution have, in some cases, exacerbated existing inequities, such as the global plastic waste trade or the growing privatization of plastic waste governance.
The authors state that non-western values and knowledge systems are excluded from discourses and narratives that guide plastic waste governance. This neglect leads to inequitable and colonial governance outcomes.
“Extraction practices displace and exploit communities and damage their natural environment. Producing plastics causes harm to the people who live near plastic production facilities and the surrounding ecosystems,” reads the study.
“The use of plastic, while necessary and beneficial for some, is a matter of convenience and luxury for others. Post-use disposal and recycling are out-of-sight and out-of-mind for some, while others are forced to live, work and play between piled-up trash and floating plastic debris.”
However, an example of how equity plays a role in plastic waste is coastal communities being both the victims and perpetrators of the marine plastics issue is Ghana. While anglers in the country requested a plastic ban and have expressed concern about marine litter on their livelihoods, they are also noted to return plastic debris caught in their nets to the environment rather than seeking alternate disposal sites.
The study references a survey of the residents in Miyakojima, Japan. The respondents reported greater urgency to address their sense of home and belonging, perhaps due to increasing concerns related to the socioeconomic impacts on local lifestyle and places that hold cultural significance, with tourist locations seeing more efforts to clean and maintain the beaches. Less visited areas are being ignored or used as dumping grounds for decommissioned ships, a major issue breeding waste colonialism.
The study continues that big businesses from the petrochemical and fast-moving consumer goods sectors have become increasingly active in the governance and management of plastic waste. It states that plastics currently account for 80% of petrochemical markets and are projected to become the primary driver of fossil fuel industries over the coming decades.
“These institutional entanglements have resulted in environmental discourses and global environmental governance agendas that reflect the priorities of powerful industry actors rather than the transformations necessary to address environmental problems.”
Another critical player in how companies control the public perception of plastic waste is that the main focus of the material is on the end of its life. Plastics and their waste are mainly governed through end-of-life approaches. The report says this is a strategic move for big businesses to avoid responsibilities or derail regulatory actions across other life cycle stages.
The report is part one of Ocean Nexus’ published efforts to address the inequities of MPP. It concludes that if no changes are enacted, “we will continue to witness the exploitation of people and land burdened with the impacts of plastic production, plastic waste management and plastic leakage.”
By Sabine Waldeck
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