Improve water supply in poorer nations to cut plastic use, say experts

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Focusing on improving the water supply in developing nations could be a powerful way to fight the scourge of plastic waste in the oceans, experts have said, highlighting that the issue has received little attention.

People in developing countries, and many middle-income countries, often rely on plastic bottles of water as their piped water supply can be contaminated or unsafe, or perceived as such.

Hundreds of billions of plastic water bottles are produced each year. In rich countries, they are a thoughtless luxury, but in many poor and emerging economies people have few alternatives.

“It is an issue, as the water supply system has problems with water quality in many countries,” said Brajesh Dubey, professor of civil engineering at the Indian Institute of Technology Kharagpur, co-author of a new “blue paper” on the problem of plastic waste in the oceans.

“The obvious solution is building a safe water supply infrastructure which ensures quality supply.”

The extent of the growing plague of plastic waste in our oceans has been laid bare in recent years, prompting widespread calls for action around the world. Cleaning up plastic waste that is already in the sea has been one of the main areas of focus so far.

This is necessary to remove the menace to marine life, but methods of preventing plastic waste from reaching the ocean in the first place must also take priority, according to the report published on Wednesday.

Its key recommendations are to improve wastewater and stormwater management, and to build local systems for safe food and water which would remove the need for plastic bottles.

Wastewater and stormwater management are needed to stop plastic containers from finding their way into rivers, and therefore the sea, when they are discarded. Better local water supplies would remove the dependency that millions of people have on plastic bottles.

Other experts agreed and called for urgent action to improve water and sewage supplies around the world, which could rescue people from poverty and ill-health, as well as cut plastic waste.

“Without a shred of a doubt, access to a safe and affordable drinking water supply would significantly reduce the amount of plastic used, and ultimately discarded, to deliver water to unserved populations,” said Richard Connor, editor-in-chief of the UN World Water Report, who was not involved in Wednesday’s paper.

“So would improved stormwater processing, although the impact of the latter would be mitigated if people didn’t need to rely on plastic bottled water in the first place.”

Providing a safe water supply must also be accompanied by sewage and solid waste collections, added Jonathan Farr, senior policy analyst at the charity WaterAid, pointing to the problem of ditches filling with plastic bottles.

“The priority has to be to guarantee people a safely managed water supply. There are 2 billion people without a safely managed water supply. You can’t imagine resilient or prosperous countries without that.”

Even in rich countries where the water supply is reliable and safe, people often drink bottled water, but ways can be found to wean them off it. Connor points to the example of Italy, where before the coronavirus crisis there were an increasing number of water kiosks offering refills for small sums.

In the UK, there has been a move to reopen and set up free water fountains in public areas. These initiatives have been stalled by the coronavirus crisis, throwing their future into doubt.

Building safe water supply and sewage networks in the dozens of countries that need it will take years. In the meantime, countries should also focus on the proper collection and recycling of plastic bottle waste, experts told the Guardian.

“[Improving the water supply] will not happen overnight – in the interim, what is needed is the development of proper plastic recycling infrastructure, with proper collection and recycling,” said Dubey.

“The bottles are typically from PET [polyethylene terephthalate], which has a good recycling value. What is lacking is proper collection systems and capacity locally for recycling.”

A deposit and return system for plastic bottles would help, said Anne Katrine Normann and Jan-Gunnar Winther of Norway’s Centre of the Ocean and the Arctic, which published a separate paper last week on ocean management.

“If it was easy to deposit used plastic bottles, it would facilitate both reuse and recycling,” they said.

“It is also a matter of continuously informing people about waste treatment and the environmental impacts of plastic litter, as it takes both time and effort to change attitudes.

“Society, business and nature will benefit from the accelerated reuse and recycling of plastics.”

They also called for more research into the impact of a lack of clean drinking water on plastic waste levels, to spur further work on this aspect of the problem.

Wednesday’s “blue paper” was commissioned by the High Level Panel for a Sustainable Ocean Economy, made up of 14 heads of government in support of the UN’s sustainable development goals.

The report found that the growing quantities of plastic in the ocean, which are creating an unprecedented hazard for marine life – and the impacts of which are largely unknown – was “symptomatic of many societal challenges” threatening the health of the oceans, directly and indirectly.

These include:

  • The lack of access to sanitation and wastewater and stormwater processing for millions of people around the world.

  • The need for safe use and disposal of chemicals.

  • The development and degradation of coastal zones.

  • The need for an efficient use of natural resources.

  • The need for improved access to safe food and water.

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