- New research commissioned by Tearfund finds plastic pollution is increasing the risk of more severe and frequent flooding in world’s poorest communities
- Research highlights the global nature of plastic-aggravated flooding for the first time, with the health of millions of people at risk
- Plastic pollution blocking waterways and drains can lead to severe health impacts like cholera and other diarrhoeal diseases
- Tearfund is urging world leaders ahead of the UN plastic treaty negotiations in Paris from May 29 to June 2 2023 to ensure they listen to those impacted first hand by plastic pollution
Plastic pollution is putting more than 200 million of the world’s poorest people at risk of more severe and frequent flooding - a number equivalent to the combined populations of UK, France and Germany - a new report commissioned by Tearfund and produced by Resource Futures has found.
Discarded plastic is blocking drains and waterways at the same time as climate change makes rainfall events more intense and frequent. This creates a nightmare scenario for many poor, urban communities, who suffer health consequences such as cholera, and other diarrhoeal diseases.
With negotiations for the new UN treaty on plastic pollution taking place in Paris from May 29 to June 2 2023, international relief and development agency Tearfund commissioned this research to highlight the often unrecognised impact of plastic pollution on some of the world’s poorest people. Seen as the most important international environmental agreement since the Paris Climate deal, the global treaty could be the first legally-binding global agreement on plastic pollution, and could both reduce production of plastics and ensure waste is collected and recycled.
Rich Gower, senior economist and policy associate at Tearfund, who will be at the negotiations, said: “Around the world, from Brazil to the DRC, from Malawi to Bangladesh, we see plastic pollution making floods worse. As this report shows, at present it is the poorest communities who are bearing the brunt of the plastics crisis.
“Through the plastics treaty, world leaders have a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to end this crisis by driving down plastic production and making sure the rest is safely collected and recycled. Without decisive action, this problem is only going to get worse.’’
The report found that approximately 218 million people worldwide are at risk of plastic-aggravated flooding, of which 41 million are young children, older people and people with disabilities, who are at even greater risk of negative health-related impacts.
Plastic-aggravated flooding is caused by plastic pollution blocking drainage systems thus making flooding events more severe and frequent, as flood water rises more quickly and recedes more slowly with water unable to drain away as it would otherwise.
Tearfund partner and campaigner Tiwonge Mzumara-Gawa, from Malawi, who will be at the negotiations in Paris, said: “In Malawi we don't have an organised public waste collection system so people are forced to either dump or burn their waste, or pay waste private collectors to dispose of it, if they can afford that. I hope that the treaty can have a life changing impact on the lives of the poorest people directly impacted by plastic pollution.
“The epidemic of plastic waste was even more evident after Cyclone Freddy earlier this year where drains and waterways became blocked with bags, bottles and other waste as flood waters tried to recede. This at a time when my country was contending with a cholera outbreak with more than 50,000 cases.”
Carla Worth Del Pino, Senior Consultant from Resource Futures, added: “This report brings to light the truly global nature of plastic-aggravated flooding for the first time, with the health of millions of people at risk. Those living in urban slums are most vulnerable, where waste collection is rare, the drainage infrastructure is already poor, and plastic use is increasing.”
Tearfund will be at the negotiations in Paris calling on world leaders to use their position in these negotiations to push for a plastics treaty that fully addresses the impacts of waste on people living in poverty, by ensuring four things are included in the final agreement:
- Reduction: legally binding targets to reduce plastic production and scale up reuse solutions
- Recycling: universal access to waste collection and recycling
- Respect: support for waste pickers, including a just transition
- Response: mechanisms to ensure businesses and governments take action
Please add your voice to our campaign by logging onto www.tearfund.org/rubbish to sign our petition.
For further information or interview requests call Melissa Barnston on 07929 335 146 or email [email protected] or for out-of- hours media enquiries please call 07929 339813.
Notes to editors
To view the report log onto https://learn.tearfund.org/en/resources/research-report/plastic-pollution-and-flooding. The report was produced by Resource Futures and peer-reviewed by Guy Norman of Urban Research.
Resource Futures are experts in waste and resource management, circular economy and plastic-related policy development and analysis. Our global policy team works with international agencies, governments and NGOs to develop waste and resource management systems that protect the environment and positively contribute to livelihoods and local economies.
How are the figures worked out?
The approach identifies communities who are already at risk of flooding, and then narrows down this group to those where plastic pollution is likely to be acting as a serious risk multiplier. In this regard, the literature review and key informant interviews suggested that the most serious effects of plastic-aggravated flooding are found in slum communities with poor drainage, poor waste management, and poor water and sanitation services.
As a starting point, the research uses the study of Rentschler et al. which estimated the population at high risk of flood exposure in 188 countries globally. Within this group, the research considers only (i) low and middle income countries with (ii) high levels of mismanaged plastic waste per person, and within these countries, (iii) only urban areas and (iv) those living in slums in existing flood-risk areas. The final figure also excludes (v) coastal communities and (vi) Small Island Developing States on the view that coastal flooding is unlikely to be aggravated by plastic (as opposed to fluvial and pluvial flooding). For the full methodology please refer to page 22 of the report.
Background on the treaty
On 2 March 2022, at the resumed fifth session of the United Nations Environment Assembly (UNEA 5.2) in Nairobi, a resolution was passed by UN member states giving the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) the mandate to convene an Intergovernmental Negotiating Committee (INC) to develop an international legally binding instrument (treaty) on plastic pollution with the aim of completing this work by the end of 2024 when the treaty will be ready for ratification. The first session of the INC, known as INC-1, took place from 28 November to 2 December 2022 in Uruguay, where more than 1,400 in-person and virtual delegates from 147 countries took part in the meeting, which set the foundations for the global agreement. Four further INC sessions are planned for 2023 and 2024, with the second session taking place in May and June 2023 in Paris. These sessions will see governments work out the content and logistics of the plastic treaty, in order to develop and adopt a legally binding instrument on plastic pollution.
Tearfund is a Christian charity that partners with churches in more than 50 of the world’s poorest countries. We tackle poverty through sustainable development, responding to disasters and challenging injustice. We believe an end to extreme poverty is possible. Tearfund is also a member of the Disasters Emergency Committee. For more information about the work of Tearfund, please visit www.tearfund.org