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Plastic System

Should out of sight mean out of mind?

Anna Altimira

October 27, 2020 · 4 min read

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The Status Quo

At the moment, the global plastic pollution problem is a one-way street. One of the main reasons is this: The money doesn't go where the waste goes. Plastic waste is generated all over the world, but most of it, by far, comes from the high-income countries. It does, however, not stay there. What at first glance comes across as an effective waste management system of the developed nations, at a closer look turns out to be more of an "out of sight, out of mind"-mentality. A lot of the most serious offenders, concerning waste production, are in the habit of shipping out their waste to developing nations, where it is met with a virtually non-existent waste management infrastructure. The task of waste management there is mostly left to informal waste workers, who pick through the garbage manually and repurpose their findings. But they don't have access to fair wages, health insurance or a safe and secure work environment. They get discarded by society. Accordingly, most of the waste gets inadequately disposed of and ultimately ends up in the landfills and in the ocean. So even though they don't create most of the plastic waste, low-income countries are the main source of global ocean plastic pollution.

Precycle addresses this problem by building a fair waste management infrastructure in order to handle plastic waste from the past, present, and future. You can join our movement by taking responsibility for your plastic consumption.

People picking up trash


Sadly, the global waste management system is terribly broken. At first glance the high-income countries seem to have effective waste management systems in place, for example through waste separation and recycling efforts. But in reality, very little plastic waste is recycled - the rest gets incinerated or disposed of in landfills. About 42% of all plastic waste worldwide consists of packaging, which is designed for single usage. Only 14% of packaging is recycled, another 14% is incinerated, and the remaining 72% ends up in the environment. Burned plastic releases carbon dioxide and toxic chemicals into the air, which pose a health hazard and have a major impact on climate change. During its slow decomposition, the littered plastic releases its toxic additives into the environment for generations.

In addition, the topic of global waste management not only negatively impacts our environment and health but also creates a social justice issue. High-income countries (e.g., Japan, Germany, and the USA) trade their plastic waste and the associated responsibilities, risks, and burdens to low-income countries (e.g., Turkey, Vietnam, and Malaysia). But the latter don't have any significant waste management systems in place. There is an increasing number of illegal dumping grounds - the tallest reaching the height of an 18-story tower. In many developing countries, the task of waste management is left to informal waste workers - oftentimes children and women - who pick through the waste manually and repurpose their findings. In Latin America, for example, waste workers provide up to 50% of all the recyclable materials to the local recycling companies. For all their efforts, they are not only disregarded by society but also pay with their health. Waste workers don't have access to fair wages, health insurance, or a safe work environment.

So in regards to the waste management problem, both developing and developed nations are utterly failing. On the one hand, the developed nations have to answer for their incineration practices, waste deportation, and an ineffective green dot system, which adds to the ecological burden. On the other hand, the developing nations - through their lack of infrastructure, illegal dumping, and informal operations - increase the social and environmental disparity.

This needs to change. To overcome our global plastic pollution problem, we not only need to reduce our waste production but also establish a functioning and effective system to manage the already existing waste. Waste workers around the world provide an essential public service. They need fair wages to improve their working and living conditions. We can no longer accept the one-way street of plastic waste, where it ultimately ends up polluting our natural environment. Rather than that, we need to create a circular way for plastic waste that contains its recycling and repurposing. And to this end, the money needs to go where the waste goes.