There’s growing awareness that plastics are an environmental disaster for marine and terrestrial ecosystems alike. A new United Nations report published Tuesday shows they’re also a huge problem for human beings—and that they don’t affect us all equally.
The world is producing more plastic than ever before as oil and gas firms focus on expanding plastic production in an attempt to stay in business. If the upward trend continues, plastic will account for 20% of the world’s oil consumption by 2050.
According to the new analysis, the world produced more than 9 billion tons of new plastic from 1950 to 2015. Even more shockingly, more than 50% of all plastic in history was created in the last 18 years. At this rate of growth, the world is on track produce 38 tons of plastic by 2025, which is enough to cover every foot of coastline on Earth with a layer of 100 plastic bags. Yet plastic production and pollution remain out of sight and out of mind in high-income communities, with the worst impacts foisted on people already suffering.
The study, released by the United Nations Environment Program and the environmental justice nonprofit Azul, shows that problems with plastic start long before it’s thrown away. Every aspect of plastics’ life cycle—from the extraction of raw materials and production to distribution and disposal—are threatening human health. At every stage, the report also explains, economically and socially disadvantaged groups, ”including women, children, the poor, migrants and internally displaced people, indigenous peoples, and persons with disabilities,” are the most negatively affected.
“Plastic pollution is a social justice issue,”Marce Gutiérrez-Graudiņš, executive director of Azul and co-author of the study, said in a statement. “Current efforts, limited to managing and decreasing plastic pollution, are inadequate to address the whole scope of problems plastic creates, especially the disparate impacts on communities affected by the harmful effects of plastic at every point from production to waste.”
Ninety-nine percent of plastic is made from oil and gas. Even before drilling starts, this is often an environmental justice problem, the report notes. Many oil and gas projects are approved to operation on Indigenous land from North America to Ecuador to Sudan despite a lack of consente. And when extraction begins, mountains of research shows that poor communities, often of color, are most likely to be affected by the local air pollution, as well as by the climate crisis which it perpetuates.
The same story continues to plastic production plants, which are again largely situated in poor communities of color. On a press call, Gutiérrez-Graudiņš explained that she knows this firsthand, because she lives near a highly polluting refinery in Richmond, California. Eighty percent of the people who live near the facility are people of color. Similar stories play out elsewhere, including “Cancer Alley,” a stretch of communities along the Mississippi River between Baton Rouge and New Orleans that has disproportionately high cancer rates due in large part to the plastic factories located there.
Once plastic products are in use, there’s another problem: microplastic. Exposure to the teeny particles of pollution that plastic emits can threaten human health, particularly by interfering with our hormones. The report notes that this affects people with female anatomy disproportionately, due to a “higher aggregate exposure to plastics in the household and even in feminine care products.”
The gender and racial justice issues don’t stop once plastic is discarded, either. The authors note that wealthy countries often export discarded plastic to poorer ones like India, the Philippines, and Thailand. Once it arrives abroad, it often gets sorted by low-income waste pickers, who in many countries, tend to be women. The authors explain that these sorters face myriad threats, including exposure to toxins from the plastics themselves, unsanitary conditions, and work-related injuries.
Plastic’s problems continue through the end of its life cycle, when most of it gets landfilled or incinerated, both of which release toxic emissions. Some plastic never makes it to that end, though, so it ends up as litter in on land and oceans. Even then, it continues to threaten communities, like ones that rely on subsistence fishing communities or tourism. Those economic impacts tend to hit those with less wealthy harder.
The problems with plastic run deep, but that doesn’t mean they’re insurmountable. The report suggests strategies to address it, including banning single-use plastic materials, improving environmental monitoring, regulating plastic waste and its health impacts, and educating people.
Last week, U.S. lawmakers reintroduced a policy to address it known as the Break Free From Plastic Act, which could jumpstart these efforts federally. It calls for a pause on permitting new plastic production facilities and would require corporations to pay for recycling programs. It also includes environmental justice measures, including as holding public hearings in languages preferred by fenceline communities.
Since the plastic issue is a global problem, we also need globally coordinated action to fight it. At the press conference about the report, the authors said a key avenue would be creating an international treaty aimed at phasing out plastic pollution and production. On Wednesday, environmental ministers from Ecuador, Ghana, Germany, and Vietnam will hold a UNEP call to push the idea. As that kind of international policy is crafted, the report notes that communities who are most vulnerable to plastic’s many issues must have a seat at the table.
On a press call, David Azoulay, who directs the Center for International Environmental Law’s health program and did not work on the report, said he hopes the new study will inform the creation of the new treaty. He said the report has a “human rights framing that I believe could be useful in the lead up to the treaty with the negotiation of the treaty itself, and to provide also very important guidance on the substance and content of the treaty.
“Considering rights-based approaches,” he said, “is a very important step to developing a treaty that actually develops solutions.”