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5 impacts of plastic pollution on people in poverty

The plastic problem affects people around the world who are living in poverty the most. Here’s why.

Written by Tearfund | 20 Apr 2023

The plastic in tihis river in Kinshasha in the Democratic Republic of Congo has completely choked the waterway.

The plastic crisis in Kinshasa, the capital of the Democratic Republic of Congo: where waterways are completely blocked by plastic pollution. Image:  Flot Mundala / Tearfund.

Our world’s rubbish problem is not just an environmental issue: it’s a human one too. Tearfund works with local partners, churches and grassroots organisations in more than 50 countries, and it is clear that plastic pollution is impacting those in low-income communities the most, pushing more people further into poverty.

Why is plastic pollution such a big problem?

More than 2 billion people in low- or middle-income countries don’t have access to solid waste management. This means they have little other option but to dump or burn their rubbish on open dumpsites, in the road, in waterways or even in their own backyards.

Today, globally, we throw away about 300 million tonnes of plastic waste every year. That's enough to cover almost 50,000 football pitches a day! And the volume of rubbish is only getting bigger: our use of plastic is set to almost triple by 2060 and half of all plastic is now designed to be used only once before being thrown away.

This means the harmful impacts of all this plastic pollution are becoming more widespread and severe. But what impact does all this rubbish have, and why is it people in poverty who are most affected?

1. Plastic pollution damages health

Plastic pollution poses huge risks to people’s health and wellbeing: the toxic fumes that are released when rubbish is burnt can lead to serious respiratory problems.

As Rubina* in Pakistan explains: ‘People would burn waste in the open since there were no other means of disposal. This would cause my children to cough and get sick, especially when soft drink bottles were burnt along with other plastics, causing thick, dense smoke.’

Another issue is that plastic pollution clogs rivers and waterways, leading to flooding which causes an increased risk of harmful disease outbreaks. Plastic rubbish lying in water is a breeding ground for mosquitoes, flies and vermin that can transmit diseases like malaria to people in the area. Research has shown that the incidence of diarrhoeal disease is twice as high for people living among mismanaged waste.

Outbreaks of dangerous diseases and respiratory problems like these pose a serious threat to people’s lives, as well as impacting their ability to work, earn a living and provide for their families, pushing communities deeper into poverty. Previous research by Tearfund has shown that one person dies every 30 seconds from diseases caused by mismanaged waste.

2. Plastic pollution causes flooding disasters

As well as causing disease, when plastic pollution blocks waterways it can also exacerbate flooding which can lead to huge disasters and loss of life. Many communities across the world experience regular, flash flooding on a devastating scale – even after just a small amount of rainfall – as the plastic dumped in rivers and drains means excess water has nowhere to go.

In December last year, plastic waste led to deadly flooding in Kinshasa, the capital of the Democratic Republic of Congo, which killed more than 120 people. Those in low-income areas surrounding the river were the most affected. Our partners in Recife, Brazil, deal with their river bursting its banks on a regular basis for the same reason – so much so that the local church has had to recruit a volunteer lifeboat team to rescue stranded people when the floods come.

These horrendous events cause loss of life, and sweep away homes and businesses, and it’s often low-income communities who have little option but to live on the riverbanks or in densely populated urban areas who suffer the most.

3. Plastic pollution threatens livelihoods

Flooding clearly threatens people’s ability to earn a living, but there are other ways plastic pollution can harm their livelihoods too. Plastic pollution poses a significant hazard to farm animals: ingestion, choking and entanglement are a serious risk. Studies have found that in some low- and middle-income countries, up to a third of cattle and half of the goat population have consumed significant amounts of plastic which they have mistaken for food. Fish are similarly affected: for those who rely on their livestock and fishing for their income, this is particularly devastating.

Plastic pollution also hampers crop growth by obstructing the flow of water and air in the soil. And in many places where the local economy relies on tourism, unsightly plastic pollution is threatening businesses and curtailing growth. All of this makes it harder for families to lift themselves out of poverty and to plan for the future.


4. Plastic is making the climate crisis worse

Plastic is contributing to the climate emergency in two main ways. Firstly, the oil and gas used in its production releases carbon into the atmosphere, adding to global warming– the plastic industry is the fastest growing source of industrial greenhouse gas emissions in the world. And when plastic waste is burnt on street corners, in backyards and at open dumpsites, this releases dangerous pollutants back into the atmosphere too.

We know that the climate crisis is impacting those living in poverty the worst – as failed rainy seasons and devastating weather events are destroying incomes and threatening lives in lower-income countries. The more plastic we produce, consume, dump and burn, the worse the climate crisis will become, and the more people in poverty will suffer the consequences.

5. Plastic is a trap

Plastic pollution isn’t just a threat, it’s also a trap. People living in poverty often find themselves stuck in a vicious cycle, where plastic packaging seems essential to daily life. For example, it preserves and protects food, reducing food waste, and enables access to medicine and clean drinking water.

But there are many problematic single-use plastics being distributed in low- and middle-income countries. Plastic sachets are one of the most prominent examples. These are used for single portions of goods like coffee, washing powder and even water. While they can make products more accessible to families who cannot afford standard sizes of these products, they are a huge contributor to the waste crisis.

A staggering 855 billion plastic sachets are sold every year, enough to cover the entire surface of the earth! They cannot be recycled, so often end up blocking drains or being burnt, exacerbating the harmful impacts of plastic waste, and causing more issues than they solve.

This plastic trap is unfair: no one should find themselves in this position. We need to see a just transition away from such reliance on plastic, that ensures people in poverty have access to the goods and services they need in a way that doesn’t further damage their health and livelihoods.

What is the solution?

Every individual has been created by God and should have the opportunity to live a full life, free from all this rubbish. The plastics crisis is a huge problem and it can be hard to know where to start when responding to it, but there are small steps we can take…

World leaders have begun talks on the first-ever global plastics treaty. Through the Rubbish Campaign we are calling on the UK Government and those negotiating the treaty to ensure it fully addresses the impacts of plastic pollution on those living in poverty. Add your voice and sign the petition today!

You can also take the Rubbish Challenge and take steps to reduce your own use of plastic, or run a children’s activity or church talk using our Rubbish Campaign resources.

To read more about how plastic pollution impacts the lives of people living in poverty and what the global plastics treaty could do about this, read Tearfund’s Plastic pollution and poverty report.


Written by

Written by  Tearfund

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