The world is facing a triple planetary crisis: climate change, pollution and biodiversity loss — a trifecta of injustice. While these crises have different dimensions that often overlap, one thing is common in them all — plastic.

We know that plastic pollutes from production to its disposal, and global production of plastics doubled from the year 2000 to 2019, reaching 460 million tonnes. If nothing is done, plastic production is projected to triple by the year 2050.

You may ask, “What does plastic production have to do with the triple planetary crisis? How does it concern me?” Join me in understanding the relationship between plastic and the triple planetary crisis, its impact on us, and ways we can pressure decision-makers to take action.

Plastics and the climate crisis

Climate change, the long-term shifts in weather patterns and temperatures, has been one of the most pressing global environmental crises of the century. The climate crisis contributes greatly to frequent extreme weather events across the world — such as the widespread floods across Africa in recent months. The UN says that the climate crisis disproportionately impacts Global South countries because we do not have the same resourcing as wealthier countries to respond to climate impacts. This, despite the fact that we contribute the least to the climate crisis. We have a lot more to lose in this crisis, and plastic is making the crisis worse.

Approximately 99% of plastic begins as a fossil fuel, and carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases are emitted at each stage throughout plastic’s life cycle. At the extraction stage, drilling of oil and gas releases harmful greenhouse gases into the atmosphere through the process of burning gases called flaring.

When plastic products are being manufactured a lot of energy is needed and fossil fuels are used in this process, emitting carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases. At the last stage of the cycle, disposed plastic waste ends up either being incinerated or in landfill, rivers, oceans and soil, breaking down into microplastics and emitting greenhouse gases back into the atmosphere.

The Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development estimates that plastic’s life cycle contributes to approximately 3.4% (2019) of total carbon emissions. According to the International Institute for Applied Systems Analysis (IIASA), the cumulation of greenhouse gas emissions from plastic could cover 10-13% percent of the remaining carbon budget by the year 2050.

Plastics and biodiversity loss

A student video went viral when she showed the world how plastic straws affect turtles in the sea, and this is just the tip of the iceberg. In many circumstances, biodiversity in both water and land ecosystems is affected by plastic pollution. The skyrocketing production of plastics is driving oil and gas demand. It is not surprising then, that so many new oil and gas projects are popping up across the continent. For example, in the Congo forest, a large patch of the lush forest is about to be auctioned to pave the way for oil exploration and drilling activities. These activities are expected to lead to loss of habitat for birds and other forest animals and also affect the Indigenous communities living in the forest.

The ocean ecosystems are also not safe from plastic’s destruction. Offshore oil exploration, drilling and transport have led to the loss of essential ecosystems to support vast ocean biodiversity — like when an oil tanker leaked oil in Mauritius ocean waters recently, leading to the death of fish and other ocean plants and animals. A few years ago, tons of plastic pellets washed ashore near Sri Lanka’s capital, devastating kilometres of pristine beaches and threatening marine life.

In several instances whales and other big marine animals have been washed ashore with their bellies full of plastics, the indigestible nature of plastics gives a feeling that they are full and in turn they die of starvation. Pictures of birds have circulated the internet showing trapped plastics on their beaks, wings and legs — making them immobile and unable to feed themselves and end up dying.

Plastic found in soil through littering and plastics infused fertilisers can limit plants’ ability to absorb nutrients, thus leading to stunted growth and eventual wilting. Plastic’s transboundary nature exacerbates dispersal of marine invasive species; characteristics like persistence, buoyancy, and chemical composition create a perfect environment for invasive species to move from one side of the ocean beyond their native grounds becoming alien species causing havoc in the ocean ecosystems. 

Plastics and pollution

Less than 10% of all plastic ever produced has been recycled, the other 90% has either been incinerated, is still in landfills, or is floating around in the environment — in the soil, air or water ways. Plastic has been found in the deepest and highest part of the African continent and no ecosystem has been left untouched. 

Plastic pollution has been named has been identified as “a serious environmental problem at a global scale” by resolution 5/14 of the United Nations Environment Program stamping the transboundary nature of the crisis.

According to the Tearfund report, during the rainy season it is estimated that 218 million of the world’s poorest people are at risk from more severe and frequent flooding caused by plastic waste. In places like Mombasa, Kenya, plastic pollution has reportedly created a good breeding ground for the virus-carrying mosquito larvae that cause illness. 

Plastics being burnt at landfills in most African countries, end up polluting the air and as a result, leading to respiratory diseases and exacerbating the climate crisis.

How do we stop these crises?

When world leaders met at the UNEA6 in Nairobi, Kenya in February 2024, to discuss how countries’ cooperation can help tackle the triple planetary crisis, Greenpeace Africa Plastic Project Lead Hellen Dena helped the discussion on plastic pollution and the solutions should remain at the forefront.

To tackle this trifecta of injustice fueled by the plastics crisis, world leaders must support a strong Global Plastics Treaty, a global agreement that must:

  • Cut total plastic production by at least 75% by 2040 to meet the 1.5° C target for our climate and to protect our health and the human rights of our communities.
  • Tackle the whole lifecycle of plastics from production to disposal.
  • Keep oil and gas in the ground and demand big brands to switch to refill and reuse systems and reduce single use plastic production. 
  • Hold countries accountable for managing their own waste and ending waste colonialism.  
  • Ensure a just transition for workers and the health of the most affected communities.

We must demand a strong and ambitious Global Plastics Treaty. Add your voice to this petition.

Note: This story was updated on March 7, 2024 to include a note on the UNEA6 meeting in Nairobi, Kenya.

Plastic Waste in Verde Island, Philippines. © Noel Guevara / Greenpeace
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Gerance Mutwol is the Greenpeace Africa Plastics Campaigner based in Nairobi, Kenya.