WWF REPORT: Who pays for plastic pollution?

Posted on November, 07 2023

The lifetime cost of plastic is 10 times higher for low-income countries than rich ones, according to a WWF report.
A WWF-commissioned report developed by Dalberg warns that the true cost of plastic on the environment, health and economies can be as much as 10 times higher for low-income countries, even though they consume almost three times less plastic per-capita, than high-income ones.

The high cost for low-income countries

The report estimates that the total lifetime costs of just 1kg of plastic is 8x higher in low- and middle-income countries than in high-income countries. The cost to low-income countries, specifically, is 10x that of high income countries. In the absence of global regulation and standards, communities across low- and middle-income countries are being exposed to the hidden and most harmful effects of plastic production and pollution, including air pollution, increased risk of flooding, the spread of infectious diseases, threats to livelihoods and unsafe working conditions.

While much of these costs are concentrated down-stream in the plastic value chain, low- and middle-income countries also face disproportionate levels of environmental and socio-economic impacts associated with plastic production, including air pollution, poor working conditions and threats from hazardous material spills. A shocking 93% of all deaths linked to global plastic production occur in low- and middle-income countries.

Alice Ruhweza, WWF International's Senior Director of Policy, Influence, and Engagement, highlights the dire need for an immediate overhaul of the current plastic system. 

“Our take, make, waste plastics system is designed in a way that unfairly impacts our planet’s most vulnerable and disadvantaged countries. Instead of resolving the world’s plastic pollution crisis in the most efficient way, the system shifts the bulk of the costs to those least equipped to manage them, with no accountability placed on those who produce and use the products in the first place”, said Alice Ruhweza.

Structural inequities in the global plastic value chain

The report identifies three key structural inequities that both fuel the current plastic system and drives inequality:

  1. Lack of influence opportunities: Low- and middle-income countries have minimal influence over the production and design of plastic products, despite being expected to manage them at the end of their lifecycle.
  2. Limited capacity: The rapid and exponential production of plastic, particularly single-use items, outpaces the resources available for waste management in low- and middle-income countries.
  3. Lack of accountability: The current system lacks any mechanisms for holding countries and companies to account for their actions or inaction regarding plastic pollution and its impacts on our health, the environment, and the economy.

The need for a fair and robust global treaty 

The report underscores the importance of establishing and implementing a global plastic pollution treaty with harmonized and binding global rules. 

As a priority, the treaty must immediately ban all avoidable single-use high-risk plastic products to significantly reduce the sheer amount of plastic that is being produced. Further, these rules could regulate high-risk plastic products, polymers, and chemicals, reducing the burden on countries with limited resources for managing plastic waste. 

Additionally, global product design rules could ensure that all plastic products are designed for reuse and recycling, regardless of their country of origin.

Avoiding the pitfalls of inaction

Eirik Lindebjerg, WWF International's Plastics Policy Lead, warns against compromising on a treaty reliant on national actions. Lindebjerg emphasizes that such an approach leads to an unfair system and fails to adequately address this pressing global crisis.

“Many of the options included in the treaty’s first draft have substantially weaker language and less specific obligations, making it tempting for governments to revert to old bad habits of relying on national or voluntary action rather than creating common regulations. But our report has shown that relying on individual government decisions results in an unfair system where burdens are not only unequally distributed, they are borne by those least equipped to remedy them,” said Eirik Lindebjerg.

Crucial third round of negotiations next week

From the 13th to 19th of November, UN member states will gather in Nairobi, Kenya for the third of five negotiation meetings for the new treaty. 

WWF calls on all governments to agree on a treaty that includes:

  • Bans and phase outs of high-risk and avoidable plastic products, polymers and chemicals of concern.
  • Reduction and regulation of high-risk plastic products, polymers and chemicals of concern.
  • Global requirements for product design and systems that can secure a safe and non-toxic circular economy, which prioritizes reuse and improvements in recycling.
  • Robust measures for supporting considered and effective implementation that includes sufficient financial support and alignment of public and private financial flows, particularly for low- and middle-income countries.

Read more about the global plastic pollution treaty
WWF Report: Who pays for plastic pollution?
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