A new report by the UN Environment Programme (UNEP) and Azul has highlighted the impact of plastic pollution on vulnerable populations around the world, depriving them of their basic human rights, health, and well-being. “Plastic pollution is a social justice issue,” says Marce Gutiérrez-Graudiņš, co-author and Founder and Executive Director of Azul. “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.”

Plastic pollution disproportionately affects marginalized communities and communities living in close proximity to the extraction, refinement and production of the constituent components of plastic and the production of plastics themselves. In the community of Reserve Louisiana, residents have been found to have a cancer risk rate that is fifty times the US national average. That is just for one community inside Louisiana’s so called ‘cancer alley’. This constitutes a social injustice according to a report by the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) and environmental justice non-governmental organisation, Azul. The report calls for the recognition of the effects on these communities and their inclusion in local decision making.

Half a world away, China used to accept recycled plastic waste from the world’s top exporters – USA, UK, Germany, and Japan to feed the country’s demand for materials. Those imports were practically halted in 2018, after which waste began to flood into Southeast Asia. It went to Thailand, Malaysia, and Vietnam, who all set up restrictions to limit the import of plastic waste. Exporters then began shipping plastic waste to other destinations, most noticeably Indonesia and more recently Kenya.

The Global Alliance for Incinerator alternatives (GAIA) investigated the impact of the plastics waste flowing into these communities. There it found waste piled ten feet high with the result that crops, animals and people being poisoned from the exposures. In addition to leeched chemicals, the open plastic burning at these landfills releases toxic gases which seriously affecting people living nearby. 

The impact of plastics on vulnerable populations goes well beyond inefficient and sometimes non-existing waste management systems. It starts with issues related to oil extraction, through toxic environments and greenhouse gas emissions, and it even impacts water distribution policies.

Women have been shown to have higher rates of exposure to plastics. This is due to the fact is both because they are more often employed as waste pickers in landfills and also because plastics chemicals are found in feminine hygiene products. People who make a living waste picking are usually disadvantaged and are disproportionately exposed to its toxins.

Another area of where plastic pollution creates a social injustice is in marine ecosystems. Improperly disposed of plastic ends up in marine ecosystems, where it threatens the livelihood of those who rely on fishing to survive. Plastic pollution also threatens the health of those who consume it through eating contaminated seafood. 

The world’s current efforts aimed at limiting, managing and decreasing plastic pollution, are not adequate to address the entire scope of problems plastic creates in regards to the disparate impacts on communities affected by plastic at every point from production to waste. Unfortunately the users of plastic are supporting a system that is negatively impacting people around the globe.