Plastic bag bans can help reduce toxic fumes

Burning plastic smells awful. It also gives you that choking feeling… which is no surprise when you know that plastic is basically made of oil and gives off toxic fumes when it burns.

Incineration of plastic waste in open fields is a major source of air pollution. About 12 per cent of most municipal solid waste is made up of plastic of one kind or another, and 40 per cent of the world’s garbage is burned, according to a the study “Toxic Pollutants from Plastic Waste – A Review.”

The plastic bag bans recently announced by Tanzania and Zambia, which follow effective bans in Kenya and Rwanda, are good news in terms of air pollution, given that much of Africa’s waste ends up in flames.

“This is such positive news and I hope more countries in Africa and the world follow suit in phasing out single-use plastics,” says James Wakibia, a prominent campaigner for Kenya’s plastic bag ban implemented last year. “It’s sad that Uganda’s ban is not working,” he adds.

The burning of plastics releases toxic gases like dioxins, furans, mercury and polychlorinated biphenyls (better known as BCPs) into the atmosphere, and poses a threat to vegetation, and human and animal health.

Smoke seen rising from burning waste in Nairobi’s Dandora dumpsite. Kenya’s plastic bag ban has reduced the amount of plastic waste ending up here, but there’s still plenty. Photo by James Wakibia.

Dioxins settle on crops and in our waterways where they eventually enter our food and hence our bodies. These dioxins are potentially lethal persistent organic pollutants that can cause cancer and disrupt thyroid and respiratory systems.

Phthalates, the very chemicals that give plastic their desirable qualities—flexibility and softness—are endocrine disruptors, associated with a plethora of health problems, from fertility issues and neonatal impacts on babies to allergies and asthma.

“Burning of plastic waste increase the risk of heart disease, aggravates respiratory ailments such as asthma and emphysema and cause rashes, nausea or headaches, and damages the nervous system,” says the study.

Burning plastic also releases black carbon (soot), which contributes to climate change and air pollution.

Around the world, efforts are being made to reduce the amount of plastic waste that ends up in landfills or in our oceans. For instance, in March 2019, the European Union approved a law to ban many single-use plastic items, such as plastic cutlery, single-use plastic plates, plastic straws, and plastic balloon sticks, from 2021.

Birds vie for space with flying plastic bags above Dandora dumpsite in Nairobi, Kenya. Photo by James Wakibia.

“Plastic that cannot be recycled should stop being manufactured,” says Wakibia. “It really doesn’t make sense to manufacture products whose value is measured in minutes and which persist for an eternity without degrading. We are killing the planet with our greed to make profit without care. Burning plastic contributes a lot to air pollution and people living near dumpsites and those working there are at a great risk of developing respiratory diseases and cancer,” he adds.

In March 2019, the United Nations Environment Assembly passed a resolution entitled Addressing single-use plastic products pollution. The resolution encourages governments and the private sector to “promote the more resource-efficient design, production, use and sound management of plastics across their life cycle”.

It also encourages Member States to “take comprehensive action, in regard to single-use plastic products, to address the waste through, where appropriate, legislation, implementation of international agreements, provision of adequate waste management infrastructure, improvement of waste management practices and support for waste minimization”.

Air pollution is the theme for World Environment Day on 5 June 2019. The quality of the air we breathe depends on the lifestyle choices we make every day. Learn more about how air pollution affects you, and what is being done to clean the air. What are you doing to reduce your emissions footprint and #BeatAirPollution?

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