Persistent Plastic Pollution: A Global Environmental Injustice

By: Catherine Dremluk

November 4, 2022

Plastic pollution presents a complex, transboundary problem that impacts both the natural environment and human populations across the globe. At least 150 million metric tons of plastic are already floating throughout our oceans while plastic production continues to surge. Worse yet, the COVID-19 pandemic resulted in a staggering increase in pollutionwith the demand for single-use plastics in the forms of masks, gloves, hand sanitizer bottles, medical supplies, takeout food containers, packaging, and more. While plastic allows for the development of convenient and inexpensive products, the environmental harms created by plastics disproportionately impact people and communities across the globe who are already living in vulnerable situations, including women, children, the poor, migrants, internally displaced people, indigenous people, and persons with disabilities. Plastic pollution’s direct and indirect threats inhibit the full enjoyment of human rights, including the rights to life, water, sanitation, food, health, housing, culture, and development. Human rights and environmental justice considerations should be at the forefront of the discourse on plastic pollution, where effective international cooperation will be essential to address plastics in the natural environment as well as remedy the harm caused by plastic production and waste management. 

The problems with plastic originate from its inherent characteristics as an inexpensive, durable, and lightweight material. Since the 1950s, plastic has been used for thousands of applications and across many sectors, including packaging, automotive, and construction. Interests in the use of the versatile material have outweighed the environmental and public health threats that exist at every stage in the life cycle of plastics, from resource extraction to production, use, and waste. Ninety-nine percent of plastics are produced from fossil fuels, including oil and gas. Fossil fuel extraction and production contribute to excess greenhouse gas emissions while low-income communities and people of color are disproportionately exposed to toxic emissions and spills. Oil exploration and drilling have also severely impacted indigenous people, where such activities have resulted in land takes, natural resource destruction, exposure to toxins, and impacts on indigenous traditions. Despite the harms associated with petroleum-based plastics, companies continue overproducing virgin plastics because the process remains inexpensive without having to factor in the negative externalities of such activities. When plastics are discarded at the end of their lifecycle, they release toxic chemical additives and break down into increasingly small pieces that accumulate in the environment. Further, plastic waste is commonly exported from developed nations to developing regions for legal or illegal disposal, shifting the burden of responsibility for managing plastic waste to people and places least responsible for producing said waste. In effect, most plastic pollution problems fall disproportionately on the global south, particularly in south and southeast Asia, where people are shouldering the economic, social, and environmental costs of that pollution.

Despite bearing significant burdens of plastic pollution, vulnerable communities around the world have historically been excluded from meaningfully participating in environmental conversations on plastics. Thus, existing efforts to control plastic waste are generally inadequate to address the specific needs of communities that are already in vulnerable situations. Broader systemic issues like the inclusion or exclusion of certain interests in international negotiations can create and reinforce environmental injustice, where all participants are not afforded access to information or the opportunity to publicly participate in decision-making. Environmental justice issues also present a complex problem in global governance where issues exist across several categories, including environmental, human rights, public health, and more. 

Moreover, existing policy approaches to address plastic pollution do not necessarily guarantee environmental human rights or environmental justice, nor have such policies thoroughly addressed the extent of the plastics problem. For example, major international agreements related to waste disposal in marine and coastal areas, including MARPOL, UNCLOS, and the London Dumping Convention, lack legally binding bans against pollution or penalties for noncompliance by member states. Other agreements like the Basel Convention, which deals with hazardous and toxic waste, and the Stockholm Convention, which deals with persistent organic pollutants, may provide some framework for importing and exporting waste, but none were created in response to global plastic pollution reduction. Further, addressing the problems with plastic requires more than merely waste management without consideration for the social and environmental harms plastic causes. In early 2022, United Nations Member States signed a resolution to develop an international legally binding instrument on plastic pollution by 2024 to address the full lifecycle of plastics. Where previous international agreements have been ineffective in addressing the extent of plastic pollution’s social, environmental, and economic harm, a new treaty may offer a new avenue to address such persistent issues.

A comprehensive policy response to plastics should facilitate a systemic transformation of the plastic economy to address plastic pollution’s complex and widespread impacts on the natural environment and human populations. International cooperation to address plastic pollution should enhance distributive and procedural justice for vulnerable communities that are disproportionately harmed, whereby environmental burdens are equitably distributed and all stakeholders can meaningfully participate in decision-making processes. Additionally, major polluters in developed countries should discontinue waste exports to vulnerable regions by addressing plastic domestically through waste management and resource reduction. While many strategies are available to address plastic pollution across stakeholder groups, policies should prioritize justice for the most vulnerable populations around the globe that experience compounding impacts of plastic pollution and other environmental harms. 

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