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Companies urged to clean up their act on plastic as study shows deadly impact

by Elena Berton | Thomson Reuters Foundation
Monday, 13 May 2019 23:01 GMT

ARCHIVE PHOTO: A woman collects garbages from a dump yard near a tannery at Hazaribagh along the polluted Buriganga river in Dhaka June 5, 2014. REUTERS/Andrew Biraj

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Between 400,000 and one million people a year die in developing countries from illnesses caused by uncollected rubbish dumped or burned near their homes

By Elena Berton

 - Up to a million people die every year in poor countries from illnesses caused by discarded waste and plastic pollution, researchers said on Tuesday, urging governments and consumer goods companies to clean up their act.

Mismanaged waste creates a breeding ground for disease-carrying insects that spread malaria, dengue and typhoid fever, while rats spread rabies and plague, according to the study, released by the international development agency Tearfund.

Between 400,000 and one million people a year die in developing countries from illnesses caused by uncollected rubbish dumped or burned near their homes, it found.

British natural historian and broadcaster David Attenborough, whose work has helped shine a global spotlight on the impact of plastic pollution on animals, said he backed the conclusions.

"This report is one of the first to highlight the impacts of plastic pollution not just on wildlife, but also on the world's poorest people," he said in a statement.

"It is high time we turn our attention fully to one of the most pressing problems of today - averting the plastic pollution crisis - not only for the health of our planet, but for the wellbeing of people around the world."

According to the World Bank, about 93% of waste in low-income countries is burned or discarded in roads, open land or waterways, where it blocks drains, causes flooding and exacerbates the spread of waterborne diseases.

In Jos, north-central Nigeria, people burn rubbish at night because of the lack of proper waste management, writer and activist Ulan Garba Matta told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.

"The fumes enter the homes through the louvered windows and we can see the effects on people's health," Matta said. "When they cough, black soot comes out of their lungs."

Consumer goods companies, which have exported their single-use packaging model to countries where there is little or no capacity for waste management, should take responsibility for the plastic waste they generate, the report concluded.

In the Break Free From Plastic Coalition's global waste audit published in 2018, Coca-Cola KO.N, PepsiCo PEP.O and Nestle NESN.S were found to be the most prolific plastic polluters.

When it came to single-use sachets, one of the most prevalent forms of packaging for products like coffee or laundry detergent in poor countries, PepsiCo and Unilever UNc.AS ULVR.L topped the list.

"Companies have focused on recycling and pilot projects, but that's not good enough. We need to reduce our dependence on single-use packaging and we want to see companies act to reduce it," said Joanne Green, senior policy advisor at Tearfund.

"We are asking them to collect the items they sell. Coca-Cola is already doing it globally, but we want to see them do it on a country-by-country basis," she added.

The report's authors urged companies to disclose the number of single-use plastic products they use and sell in each country by 2020.

They should also cut this amount by half, country by country, by 2025, and instead use sustainable packaging like refillable or reusable containers, the study said.

Other recommendations include specific actions by developed-country governments, which should ensure the export of their domestic waste is minimised and directed to countries where appropriate waste facilities are in place.

Consumers can also play a role in holding companies and their governments to account, Green said.

"Customers can reduce the amount of single-use packaging and let companies know they are concerned about single-use packaging in poorer countries," she added.

The study was published in cooperation with conservation charity Fauna & Flora International, The Institute of Development Studies and waste management charity WasteAid.

(Reporting by Elena Berton, Editing by Claire Cozens. Please credit the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, that covers that covers humanitarian news, women's and LGBT+ rights, human trafficking, property rights, and climate change. Visit http://news.trust.org)

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