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Vicky Ford is Conservative MP for Chelmsford.

Last year, Maria das Gracas’ house flooded eight times, repeatedly devastating the lives of her family along with the wider community. In response to this perpetual problem, her community in a poor neighbourhood of Recife, Northern Brazil, is now taking action, working with local NGOs supported by Tearfund, sorting and collecting the plastic and waste that clogs the river running through the area, improving people’s lives and preventing it getting into the ocean too.

Marine plastics have rightly emerged as a major environmental concern over the last year, since Sir David Attenborough and Blue Planet II hit our screens. However, marine litter is a symptom of a broader waste crisis: rapidly escalating waste generation in poor countries with little or no solid waste management. A recent international expert meeting concluded that more than half of the plastic entering the oceans comes from these countries.

Plastic pollution is not just a crisis for marine life. According to the UN, more than two billion people currently have no waste collection service. And even when solid waste is collected in developing countries, the reality is still often open dumping. This waste ends up being burned or dumped including in waterways and drainage channels. The health impacts are severe: blocked drains are a major cause of flooding, dumped (single-use) plastics are notorious for providing mosquito breeding grounds, and diarrhoeal diseases in children are twice as common in communities without waste collection. Furthermore, fumes from burning cause an estimated 270,000 premature deaths every year and contribute to climate change. The resulting pollution also affects livelihoods, particularly in tourism and agriculture.

At present, extending waste management services to all is a low political priority for the international community. Consequently, municipal authorities lack the money and institutional capacity required, with existing collection schemes plagued by poor governance. Collection costs alone frequently surpass available financial resources at municipal level, and where partial collection schemes exist, they tend to prioritise wealthier areas and civic spaces, excluding those in poverty. Communities in many countries have developed innovative grassroots approaches, but the ‘public good’ nature of waste management makes it challenging to scale up these solutions without additional finance or public sector support.

These problems have been compounded by rapid growth in waste streams, including (often non-recyclable) single-use plastics. Multi-nationals are pioneering the use of micro-sachets in developing countries such as India, where more than half the shampoo sold is now packaged in non-recyclable micro-sachets. Similarly, PET plastic bottles (made from polyethylene terephthalate) have replaced once ubiquitous bottle deposit schemes in many developing countries. With burgeoning waste streams and very patchy waste collection, large amounts of waste are inevitably subjected to informal burning or dumping, including into the oceans.

A comprehensive solution will require action on behalf of companies, donors and developing country governments. Developed countries’ aid budgets can play a crucial role. By working together donors and developing country governments could extend waste services to all 2 billion people who currently lack them. By increasing global aid to waste management from its current 0.3 per cent to three per cent and using proven low-cost community-based approaches, all two billion people could be reached. This would more than halve the amount of waste going into the oceans and save lives: a win-win for people and planet.

As for the UK’s role, historically, only about 0.1 per cent of the UK’s aid budget has been allocated to waste management projects. However, ahead of the Commonwealth Heads of Government meeting in April this year, the Prime Minister announced extra funding worth £61million, which was divided between DFID, DEFRA and the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy. The amount of money spent directly helping people in poverty will be small initially, although this represents a good example of cross-government coherence that could tackle both upstream issues related to multinational companies taking responsibility for addressing the amount of plastic being produced, and downstream issues related to clearing up the resulting mess.

For this money to make a real difference, the Government must learn from what has worked already and prioritise assisting local governments in developing countries improve governance; help establish coordinating bodies that represent all the different actors involved in waste management from waste-pickers to multinationals and scale up proven, low-cost community-based recycling projects. It is also vital that all government departments spending official development assistance demonstrate through clear measures how their work will improve the lives of people in poverty, like Maria.

This article is an extract from Healthier, Safer, More Prosperous: The Case for British Leadership in International Development, a new book of essays published jointly by Conservative Friends of International Development & Save the Children.

10 comments for: Vicky Ford: Plastic pollution is a poverty issue – and Britain can make a difference

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