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Poverty makes plastic pollution worse

"Rio de Basúra" — a river of trash — in Guatemala. (Photo credit: 
a_le_jan_dro N/Flickr Creative Commons)
"Rio de Basúra" — a river of trash — in Guatemala. (Photo credit: a_le_jan_dro N/Flickr Creative Commons)

Guatemala City, the impoverished Central American metropolis, has almost no system for managing solid waste.

As a result, huge surges of plastic trash wash down the Motagua river to choke the massive Mesoamerican Reef and many Caribbean beaches.

Plague of plastic

Every year, 8 million metric tons of plastic enter the world’s oceans; 90 percent of that plastic pollution washes down just 10 river systems that run through some of the world’s poorest regions.

The Ganges in India is one of those rivers — and it bears not just plastic trash, but also untreated human, industrial and agricultural waste.

This fall, an all-female engineering is traveling along the Ganges to track all the sources of plastic waste feeding into the river, so as to better manage the massive outflux of trash.

Meanwhile, while rich countries like the United States continue to create and consume the majority of the world’s plastic.

Managing the mess

Poor countries simply do not have the infrastructure to deal with the ever-growing plague of bags, bottles, hypodermic syringes, and other refuse.

Plastic bans are one solution that are readily available to rich and poor nations alike.

In the Philippines, which is the world’s third-worst source of ocean-born plastic pollution, the government is considering an outright ban on consumer plastics.

Recycling is not necessarily a solution — less than 10 percent of plastics get recycled in the first place, and most of these can only be recycled once.

But collection of plastic trash for re-use — or at least to keep it out of the ecosystem — is an option.

One new social venture, Vancouver, Canada-based Plastic Bank, will even exchange collected plastic trash for cash, health care, tuition, and other basic needs.

Brand visibility

Worldwide, the actual sources of plastic trash turn out not merely to be low-income countries, but the corporations that produce the plastic in the first place.

This year, a massive plastic-cleanup campaign led by the advocacy group BreakFreeFromPlastic collected more than 470,000 pieces of plastic trash.

Almost 50 percent of the trash collected had clearly marked brand names, and of those, most were brands owned by just three companies:

Coca-Cola, PepsiCo and Nestlé.

Sources: The Intercept, Vatican News (Vatican City), The Times (U.K.), The Guardian (U.K.), UGAToday (University of Georgia), Fast Company

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Josh Wilson

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