World Environment Day 2023: Urging Progress on Tackling Environmental Injustices in Plastic Pollution
World Environment Day on June 5, 2023 marks 50 years of a global spotlight on urgent environmental issues. The establishment of World Environment Day was one of the resolutions from the first major international conference on environmental issues from June 5-16, 1972 in Stockholm, Sweden. It was established so that “the United Nations system and the Governments of the world undertake world-wide activities reaffirming their concern for the preservation and enhancement of the human environment, with a view to deepening environmental awareness and to pursuing the determination expressed at the Conference” (UN, 1973, p. 32). The theme of the first World Environment Day on June 5, 1973 was “Only One Earth.” As the world faces a dire environmental crisis, that inaugural theme is as apt today as ever.
World Environment Day 2023 has the theme of solutions to plastic pollution, #BeatPlasticPollution. Pollution was a major concern of the 1972 Stockholm Conference, and the Stockholm Declaration and Action Plan spotlighted the need to address marine pollution and its hazards to human and marine life (UN, 1973). Tragically, plastic pollution has worsened over time, harming humans, marine life, and the entire ecosystem.
Each year, a different country is selected to host World Environment Day. Côte d’Ivoire was selected for their commitment and actions including banning the use of plastic bags in 2014 and shifting to reusable packaging. Additionally, Abidjan, the largest city, has been tackling plastic pollution in inventive ways. Like many other large cities around the world, Abidjan produces a substantial amount of plastic waste each day (in this case, 288 tonnes) with only 5% getting recycled (UNICEF, 2019). Plastic waste contaminates the air, soil, and water that humans, other animals, and other living things rely on. The worst effects on humans are experienced by vulnerable communities and individuals such as poor communities, which face worse sanitation and hygiene challenges due to waste pollution. Poor waste management causes 60% of diarrhea, malaria, and pneumonia cases, which are leading causes of death of children in Côte d’Ivoire (UNICEF, 2019).
As an innovative and effective way to address the waste management crisis, the plastic waste polluting Abidjan community is now being used in a new Abidjan factory to manufacture the first plastic bricks in Africa. The factory produces easy-to-assemble bricks made from 100% recycled plastic that help build new classrooms, which simultaneously addresses the severe shortage of classrooms and the educational crisis facing poor children in Abidjan. The first school opened in 2020 with the anticipation of building 500 classrooms for about 25,000 students (UNICEF, 2020). The bricks are waterproof, well-insulated, withstand heavy wind, and are 40% cheaper and last longer than conventional bricks (UNICEF, 2019). The factory is also supporting the livelihood of the local community with a women’s group collecting the plastic in the community and selling it to the factory (Hartocollis, 2019). The Abidjan factory is a result of numerous successful partnerships between the local community and global partners, principally Conceptos Plásticos from Colombia and UNICEF (UNICEF, 2019).
The establishment and utilization of the Abidjan plastic brick factory highlights three major themes in the fight to tackle plastic pollution around the world: (1) plastic waste is a serious crisis in communities, (2) vulnerable groups are facing the worst consequences of this crisis, and (3) innovation and collaboration are effective strategies to address both the plastic pollution crisis and the environmental injustices that stem from it. These themes are elaborated in this statement.
The Plastic Pollution Crisis
Humans and all living things face vulnerabilities and harms from plastic pollution in our common and interconnected world (DeWit & Bigaud, 2019; Taylor & Pacini-Ketchabaw, 2015). “The scourge of plastic pollution is a visible threat that impacts every community around the world," said Jean-Luc Assi, Côte d’Ivoire’s Minister for the Environment and Sustainable Development and host for this year’s World Environment Day (UNEP, 2023). The Government of the Netherlands is a partner in World Environment Day 2023, and Vivianne Heijnen, Netherlands’ Minister for the Environment, noted that: “Plastic pollution and its detrimental impacts on health, the economy and the environment cannot be ignored. Urgent action is required. At the same time, we need true, effective and robust solutions” (UNEP, 2023).
Every year, over 400 million tonnes of plastic waste are produced (UNEP, 2023). Much of this plastic waste becomes plastic pollution (plastic objects and particles in the environment), harming wildlife, humans, and the global ecosystem. Most plastic cannot be recycled, and plastic does not decompose; an estimated 75% of plastic ever produced has become waste (DeWit & Bigaud, 2019). The “great Pacific garbage patch,” for example, is an area in the North Pacific Ocean where currents converge and form a floating island consisting of an estimated 1.8 trillion pieces of plastic, made up mostly of discarded industrial fishing gear from mostly China, Japan, South Korea, Taiwan, and the USA (Kreier, 2022). Plastics are ingested by or become traps for over 800 marine and coastal species (UNEP, 2022). The production of plastics also drains natural resources and afflicts serious harm to the environment and its habitants. “Petrochemical manufacturing, a precursor to creating plastic, makes up 14% of oil use and is predicted to account for 50% of oil and fracked gas demand growth by 2050 — the same year that it's estimated there will be more plastic pollution than fish, by weight, in our oceans'' (Larson, 2021).
Plastic breaks down into microplastic and nanoplastic particles that are widespread in soil and water influencing the food chain (UNEP, 2021). Each person is likely ingesting 5 grams of microplastics each week in their drinking water (tap and bottled) and other sources to a lesser degree (eating shellfish and consuming beer and salt, DeWit & Bigaud, 2019). Microplastic consumption has been shown to adversely affect the immune system and the metabolic system, increase neurotoxicity, cytotoxicity, and oxidative stress, and has been linked to skin cancer (Emenike et al., 2022). Serious health consequences linked to the production and disposal of plastics including respiratory disease from plastic burning (UNEP, 2021). Moreover, exposure to pollution, degradation to one’s community, and a wide range of environmental stressors greatly impact community member’s mental health including anxiety, depression, and overall negative wellbeing (Clayton et al., 2021). The impacts of plastic on climate change more generally is also underestimated and underappreciated including the following: (1) every piece of plastic begins with fossil fuel extraction and transport, increasing greenhouse gas emissions, (2) plastic refining and manufacture is among the most greenhouse-gas intensive industries, (3) waste management (landfilling, recycling and incineration) either contribute to create more emissions or increase other risks, and (4) unmanaged plastic such as in the ocean surface not only increases greenhouse emissions but also interferes with the ocean’s capacity to prevent other climate impacts (CIEL, 2019; UNEP, 2021).
Environmental Injustices in Plastic Pollution
Although plastic pollution negatively impacts every community around the world, not everyone is affected equally. Across the plastic lifecycle, from production to use to waste, plastic has disproportionate negative effects on the short and long term health and wellbeing of marginalized and vulnerable communities including children, communities of color, indigenous communities, individuals facing disabilities, older adults, poor communities, and women. The United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP, 2021) has recognized all stages of the plastic lifecycle as an environmental justice issue. Environmental justice issues reflect both procedural justice (participation in environmental issues) and distributive justice (distribution of environmental burdens). This conceptualization is well-aligned with recognized international human rights, which focus on both protection (from environmental harms) and participation (in environmental issues (Levy, Migacheva, et al., 2022a, Levy, Sternisko, et al. 2022b). The UNEP’s (2021) report titled “NEGLECTED: Environmental Justice Impacts of Marine Litter and Plastic Pollution'' captures inequalities in (1) exposure to the harms of plastic production and pollution, (2) participation in decision making and planning of the location of the plastic-producing plants and dumping, and (3) planning and execution of efforts to reduce the negative effects.
Fossil fuel extraction is the first step in producing plastics. Indigenous peoples worldwide have faced severe health and economic consequences of oil exploration, oil drilling, and destruction of their land (Fernández-Llamazares et al., 2020; UNEP, 2021). Oil drilling, for example, involves deforestation and road construction that destroys natural resources that indigenous communities rely on (Fernández-Llamazares et al., 2020). Indigenous land has been misappropriated to support oil extraction, and indigenous community members have been excluded from decision-making in countries such as Australia, Brazil, Colombia, Ecuador, Indonesia, Myanmar, Nigeria, Peru, and the USA (UNEP, 2021).
Additionally, the toxic fumes in producing plastic puts nearby indigenous communities at high risk for negative health outcomes. The location of plants linked to plastic production are often in close proximity to a wide range of vulnerable and poor communities, placing a disproportionate burden of health risks and costs on those community members, who have little political or legal power. One example is a 130 mile area in Louisiana in the USA along the Mississippi River between New Orleans and Baton Rouge, which has mostly communities of color and poor individuals. Over 200 industrial facilities have been built in this small strip of land, including plastic-producing plants. Higher cancer rates have been identified in this area, leading to the label “Cancer Alley.” A recent study tracking data across ten years shows a significant relation between toxic air pollution and cancer rates (Terrell & St Julien, 2022). Another example is Houston, Texas, home to 42 percent of the petrochemical manufacturing capacity in the USA and located in poor communities and communities of color, thereby heightening their risk for asthma, cancer, emphysema, heart disease, and respiratory problems (Larson, 2021; UNEP, 2021). With the higher proximity to industrial facilities, their wastewater disposals, and plastic dumps, vulnerable and poor communities are also at higher risk of groundwater contamination (Beban, 2020). Reduced access to healthy food common to these communities also compounds these health consequences (UNEP, 2021). Fires and explosions at these plastic producing plants are not rare with the Environmental Protection Agency estimating 150 accidents each year in the USA (Larson, 2021). As one example, a tank filled with millions of gallons of petrochemicals caught fire in March 2019, releasing 6 million pounds of pollutants within 24 hours and continued to burn for 5 days in Houston Texas (Larson, 2021). In addition to the above, extraction and transportation of fossil fuels require forests and fields to be cleared for well pads and pipelines, which contributes to the deterioration of living conditions of the population in the area (CIEL, 2019).
Excessive plastic production along with inadequate disposal disproportionately harms the health of those who are already disadvantaged and for the most part contribute the least to plastic pollution (Dodd, 2021; The OceanCleanUp, 2022). Although China is the biggest producer of plastics, it is not the biggest consumer of plastics, and people living along rivers and coastlines in China, Indonesia, the Philippines, Thailand, and Vietnam are the most impacted by plastic pollution (Greenpeace, 2018). Many wealthier countries still use poorer countries as dumping grounds for their plastic waste (Ritchie, 2022), contaminating local food chains and harming air quality where low-income, marginalized individuals sort through the toxic waste, often under conditions completely unregulated for serious hazards by their governments (UNEP, 2021). Not only do “waste pickers” face serious occupational health hazards, they are often stigmatized within their communities (e.g., India, Mexico) for their occupation (UNEP, 2021). There are nearly 2 million waste pickers in India with 15% under the age of 18 and with 98.7% working 10 or more hours per day while facing poor access to health services and illiteracy rates of 72.3% (UNEP, 2021). Too often incineration facilities are built near communities of color and low income populations, which are affected by pollution (CIEL, 2019). More plastics have been incinerated (about 12%) than recycled, and incineration is practiced more often in Global South countries, placing their communities at heightened health risks (UNEP, 2021). Without proper waste management systems, poorer countries may need to burn or bury trash or experience trash piling up along shores or blowing into waterways, contributing to the ocean bound litter that disrupts water flow and causes flooding (UNEP, 2021).
Ocean pollution also has disproportionate negative effects on communities that rely on the water for agriculture, fishing, and tourism. Ocean pollution is most highly concentrated along the coasts of low- and middle-income countries, severely reducing the availability of marine life as an economic and food source (Landgrian et al., 2020). Communities that depend on fishing as a food source face the worst consequences of microplastic consumption on their immune and metabolic system with links to skin cancer (Emenike et al., 2022).
Women have higher rates of exposure to plastics in their households and in their feminine care products and thus are at heightened plastic-related toxicity risk (UNEP, 2021). Moreover, women are at a higher risk of miscarriage and cancer due to plastic use (UNEP, 2021). Likewise, the health consequences of plastic pollution are not even across development. Phthalates that make plastics flexible are linked to endocrine disruption in fetuses and children, and chemicals in plastics (bisphenol A) are linked to developmental consequences and cancer in children (UNEP, 2021).
In addition to destructive physical health impacts of plastic pollution, the mental health impacts (anxiety, cognitive deficits, depression) of pollution and climate degradation are compounded for marginalized and vulnerable individuals who are already facing social inequities including children, communities of color, individuals facing disabilities, indigenous communities, and older adults (Clayton et al., 2021; Hickman et al., 2021). Intersecting or interlocking systems of oppression (Crenshaw, 1991; Overstreet et al., 2020; Rosenthal, 2016) means that individuals such as children living with disabilities, indigenous children, and young girls experience heightened environmental risks and harms through multiple identities (Alvarez & Evans, 2021; Bullard, 1990; Kaijser & Kronsell, 2014; Malin & Ryder, 2018; UNICEF, 2022).
Beyond direct and specific effects on individuals and communities living in close proximity to plastic-producing plants and dumping sites, the pollution from the plastic-producing industrial plants has wide-ranging cascading effects in other communities, and especially other worldwide vulnerable communities. As examples, the plastic-producing industrial plants emit toxins and the incinerators emit carbon dioxide into the atmosphere, which are affecting weather patterns (droughts, wildfires, flooding). The worst effects of those climate changes are often experienced in the most vulnerable communities who live in coastal communities prone to flooding and storms (IPCC, 2022; UNEP, 2021).
In short, each stage of the lifecycle of plastic has profound effects on humans, other animals, and the ecosystem, and the negative effects are compounded for vulnerable individuals and communities already facing social inequalities. As such, plastic pollution is a serious obstacle to the realization of the UN Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). The urgency of tackling the plastic pollution crisis and the environmental injustices that stem from it are further underscored by the rising production of plastic (half of which is designed for single-use plastic production; Statistia, 2023) and by forecasts of global dumping in the ocean tripling by 2040 (UNEP, 2021), and “by 2050, greenhouse gas emissions associated with plastic production, use and disposal would account for 15% of allowed emissions, under the goal of limiting global warming to 1.5°C (34.7°F)” (UNEP, 2022).
Progress and Recommendations for Addressing Plastic Pollution and Related Environmental Injustices
Progress on tackling plastic pollution is gaining momentum, and there are rays of hope. As one example, the historic resolution, titled “End Plastic Pollution: Towards an internationally legally binding instrument” was adopted at the UN Environment Assembly (UNEA-5.2) – a meeting which was attended by more than 3,400 in-person and 1,500 online participants from UN Member States” (UNEP, 2022). In addition, holding governments and businesses accountable for sustainable and healthy environmental practices has additional international backing as the UN Human Rights Council (resolution 48/13) in 2021 and UN General Assembly (resolution 76/300) in 2022 recognized “a clean, healthy and sustainable environment” specifically as a human right for everyone. There is increasing participation of a wide range of sectors of society to tackle pollution of all kinds. The New Plastics Economy Global Commitment focusing on eliminating unnecessary plastics, ensuring that necessary plastics are recycled, reused, or are composted, and circulating plastics in the community and out of the environment was established in 2018 and now has a wide ranging global membership including 24 national governments, 19 sub-national governments, and 11 city governments (UNEP, n.d.). The New Plastics Economy Global Commitment importantly involves a collaboration commitment to work with the private sector and NGOs (UNEP, n.d.). Last year, individuals from over 150 countries participated in World Environment Day with over 65 million individuals participating online (UNEP, 2023).
The UNEP’s (2021) over 60-page report titled “NEGLECTED: Environmental Justice Impacts of Marine Litter and Plastic Pollution” is also a crucial positive step in raising awareness of and tackling environmental injustices in the plastic lifecycle. Other significant steps toward the recognition of protection and participation rights of vulnerable communities were seen at the most recent and largest international summit on climate change, Conference of the Parties (COP) in 2022. For the first time at COP27, climate injustice was on the formal agenda of the conference leading to an agreement to establish a landmark “loss and damage” fund for poor, vulnerable countries and for the first time, the Climate Justice Pavilion (featuring the voices of marginalized and poor communities on the front lines of climate change around the world) and the Children and Youth Pavilion (featuring the voices of children and youth) were located in the Blue Zone (the zone dedicated to diplomats, policymakers, business, and professional advocates, Levy, Sternisko, et al. 2022b).
Building upon these promising steps and aligned with the UN SDG Agenda, we offer whole-of-society recommendations with a human rights based approach for making tangible progress on plastic pollution while remedying environmental injustices faced by marginalized and vulnerable individuals and communities (adolescents, children, indigenous peoples, migrants, older persons, persons living with HIV/AIDS, persons living with disabilities, persons of color, persons with marginalized gender and sexual identities, refugees, women, stateless people, and all people facing discrimination).
- Expand education about all aspects of the plastic pollution crisis (production, demand, removal) and its related environmental injustices to consumers, businesses, and governments to address the serious gap in worldwide climate education (UNESCO, 2021). It is crucial that children are not left out of climate education as children have a right to information about their environment, and early education helps children and youth be effective agents of change and leaders in fighting the climate crisis (Zukauskiene et al., 2021).
- Scale up local preventative efforts and interventions to address the short-term and long-term physical and mental health risks, exposures, and harms of plastic pollution with special attention to vulnerable communities and individuals.
- Accelerate and safeguard the inclusive, honest, and transparent participation and leadership of all individuals and especially vulnerable communities and individuals in addressing all aspects of tackling plastic pollution from education to plastic production to alternatives to recycling to reusing to plastic waste collection and removal.
- Step up policy efforts to protect vulnerable communities from plastic pollution risks, exposures, and harms while monitoring and holding businesses and governments accountable for plastic production and pollution with special attention to environmental injustices toward vulnerable communities and individuals. This includes within-country efforts and attention to the global supply chain such as addressing the dumping of one’s countries’ waste in other countries’ poor and vulnerable communities (Oanh Ha, 2023).
- Accelerate efforts to fill serious data gaps on environmental injustices in risks, harms, and consequences along the plastic lifecycle from production to use to disposal by collecting disaggregated data such as by age, disability identity, ethnicity, gender identity, indigenous identity, and race. To realize the UN SDGs, the hardest-to-reach communities must be sought including entire communities that are yet unaccounted such as non-U.S. fenceline communities (UNEP, 2021).
Acknowledgements: This statement was prepared by members of the UN NGO/SPSSI team and Expert Affiliates including Sheri R. Levy, Anni Sternisko, Luisa Ramírez, Meagan Ryan, and David Livert.
How to Cite this Statement: Levy, S.R., Sternisko, A., Ramírez, L., Ryan, M., & Livert, D. (2023). World Environment Day 2023: Urging Progress on Tackling Environmental Injustices in Plastic Pollution. Retrieved from http://www.spssi.org/WorldEnvironmentDay2023
Disclaimer: This statement is intended to represent the members of the Society for the Psychological Study of Social Issues (SPSSI), Division 9 of the American Psychological Association. It does not necessarily represent the American Psychological Association as a whole or any of its other subsidiary groups.
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