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Lifetime cost of plastic 10 times higher for low-income countries than rich ones

WWF calls on all governments to agree on a treaty with harmonized, binding global rules that can remove inequities reinforced and exacerbated through our current take, make, and waste plastics system.

NAIROBI, Kenya – 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 report estimates that the total lifetime costs of a kilogram of plastic is around US$150 in low- and middle-income countries, which is eight times the US$19/kilogram incurred by high-income countries.

These unequal costs have substantial implications for low- and middle-income countries like Kenya, where negotiators will converge from 13-19 November for the third negotiations of the global treaty to end plastic pollution. Six years ago, Kenya took a bold step against plastic pollution by banning single-use plastic bags. Today, the country continues to struggle with illegal imports of single-use plastic bags, highlighting the problem’s transboundary nature and the crippling inequities inherent in the current plastics value chain that put countries like Kenya at a disadvantage no matter what bold action they take.

Nataša Kalauz, CEO of WWF Adria warns: "The report points to the need for an urgent and immediate change in the existing plastic management system. Business as usual can be a death sentence, not only for many animals, but also for many vulnerable and marginalized communities in our world. The result of such business is an increased health risk from inhaling harmful, toxic chemicals and an increased risk of floods and infectious diseases. This global agreement on plastic pollution is our chance to change this by including binding and fair global rules on production and consumption.”

WWF is calling on everyone to sign a global petition and vote for an effective and legally binding agreement to ban unnecessary high-risk plastic products - those products that cause the most harm or have the greatest chance of ending up in nature. The petition has already been signed by more than 60 thousand people, and our goal is to reach 100 thousand in order to show the world governments what we think about the unsustainable management of plastic waste.

The report finds that low- and middle-income countries bear a disproportionately large burden of the costs associated with plastic pollution as a direct result of three structural inequities that reinforce the current plastics system. 

The first inequity is that the system places low- and middle-income countries at a disadvantage in that they have minimal influence on which plastic products are produced and how they are designed and yet are often expected to manage these products once they reach their end-of-life. Product and system design considerations are typically made further upstream  in countries with extensive plastic production and by multinational companies headquartered in high-income countries. As of 2019, only 9% of plastic waste is being recycled. Currently, around 60% of global plastic production is for single-use products, which are designed to be (and so cheaply valued that they can be) thrown away after just one use. 

The second inequity is that the rate of plastic production, particularly for single-use plastic, is far outpacing the availability of technical and financial resources for waste management when it reaches its end-of-life in low- and middle-income countries. Without reducing plastic production and consumption, low- and middle-income countries will continue to bear the highest burden of plastic pollution’s direct environmental and socio-economic impacts. 

The third inequity is that the system lacks a fair way for holding countries and companies to account for their action, or inaction, on plastic pollution and its impact on our health, environment and economy (for example, through mandatory extended producer responsibility schemes in each of the countries they operate in). With no common obligations across all jurisdictions and companies for supporting a circular, just and non-toxic plastics economy, low- and middle-income countries end up paying the steeper price. 

Establishing and implementing a UN global plastic pollution treaty based on harmonized and binding global rules can help us create a fairer system that empowers low- and middle-income countries and prioritizes the most effective and efficient solutions. An example of such a rule would be regulating the most high-risk plastic products, polymers and chemicals - those that can cause the most harm or are most likely to cause pollution - so that we can lessen the strain on countries, especially those with fewer resources, in managing plastic waste. Similarly, the opportunity to create global product design rules can help to ensure that products are designed to be reused and/or recycled regardless of which country they are produced or used in.

In November, countries will join the third of five negotiating sessions on a global treaty to end plastic pollution. WWF calls on all governments to agree on a treaty that includes:
  • Banning, phasing out or phasing down high-risk and avoidable 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.

Compromising on a treaty mainly based on national action will just take us back to where we were – divided and unable to stem the onslaught of plastic pollution. We can no longer act as if plastic is a cheap throwaway commodity. It has huge costs for some of the most vulnerable communities who have no power to change the system. Inaction will result in a higher cost for all of us. Countries must dial up ambition and finalize a treaty with harmonized and binding global rules if we are to achieve an equitable plastic value chain and want a future free from plastic pollution.

The report “Who Pays for Plastic Pollution? Enabling Global Equity in the Plastic Value Chain” can be found here.
Plastic Treaty

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