Life in plastic, it's NOT fantastic

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Maya Duckworth
/ Categories: Advocacy


We believe in a world where everyone can live in safe, healthy neighbourhoods and pursue their potential. But our world has a rubbish problem that is severely affecting the health and well-being of people living in poverty.

The production of plastic has grown enormously. According to the OECD between 2000 and 2019, the amount of plastic waste being produced globally doubled. Yet two billion people in low and middle-income countries don’t have access to waste collection and management services. This means there is little option but for individuals to burn their rubbish or discard it in open dumpsites, roads, waterways, or even their backyards. The World Bank tells us that In high-income countries, like New Zealand, only 2% of waste is burnt or discarded in this way, but in low-income countries, 93% of waste ends up like this.


The plastic paradox: Blessing and burden in Suwung, Bali

In the slum community of Suwung, Bali, where Tearfund’s partner Compassion International works— plastic waste is a complicated problem. The community is built beside Bali’s biggest landfill, which spans a massive 30 hectares and towers 15 metres high.


Workers pick through the waste of the Suwung tip in Bali.


On one hand, plastic provides solutions to numerous social and economic problems and rubbish also provides an income for waste-pickers. Smaller doses of hygiene products are more affordable when money is tight, and bottled water is often safer. The rubbish itself also provides a livelihood for many in the community who work as waste-pickers. *Widi, 14-years-old, calls Suwung home and is part of Compassion’s sponsorship programme. Individuals like Widi’s parents sort through this rubbish to see if there’s things that can be reused or sold. “My hero is my father because he finds good work to earn money for us”, says Widi.

But living amongst this rubbish has consequences. “Sometimes I feel disturbed by the smells here, like the trash”, says 16-year-old *Debbie who is also part of Compassion’s sponsorship programme. And when plastic waste clogs waterways, or is burnt in backyards and the nearby dump, this rubbish can impact people’s health and livelihoods, making challenging situations harder.


Widi stands in his neighbourhood.


Thanks to global advocacy, far more people are aware of the impacts of plastic pollution on the environment than they were a generation ago. Images of seabirds with stomachs full of plastic waste have become all too familiar and have demonstrated why reducing the production of plastic is vital. But plastic is causing a social emergency—not just an environmental one.


Plastic waste being sorted by community members near Suwung.


Plastic pollution is a risk to people’s health

Plastic pollution poses huge risks to people’s health. When plastic waste is openly burnt on street corners, backyards and rubbish dumps—the toxic fumes released can lead to serious respiratory issues and even damage reproductive and nervous systems. When left lying in water, plastic rubbish creates a breeding ground for disease-carrying flies, mosquitos and rodents.

Respiratory problems and dangerous diseases impact people’s abilities to earn a living and pose a serious threat to their lives. Tearfund’s research suggests that between 400,000 and 1 million people die yearly from diseases caused by mismanaged waste, including plastic.


Discarded waste in a waterway near Suwung.


Plastic pollution also threatens livelihoods

When it comes to agriculture and fishing, plastic rubbish can cause a choking hazard for livestock and fish, with dire consequences for farmers and fisher people, and animals. Academic studies in various low and middle-income countries have found up to a third of cattle and half of the goat populations have consumed significant amounts of plastic mistaking it for food. When animals swallow plastic, it often leads to bloating and even death by starvation. For those that rely on fishing and livestock for their income, this is particularly devastating.


From pollution to partial solution: The global plastics treaty

We have a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to tackle this rubbish problem. During 2023 and 2024, nearly 200 governments are meeting to develop the first ‘global plastics treaty’—an international agreement to end plastic pollution. It’s a chance to tell global leaders single-use plastics isn’t working for billions of people and the environment.

We want to ensure this agreement has targets to reduce the amount of plastic produced, increase access to waste management services worldwide, and ensure communities in poverty can access the goods they need and want without harming their health and livelihoods. We’ve launched a petition asking the New Zealand Government to prioritise these demands as they negotiate the terms of the global plastics treaty. Will you add your voice to ours:


1. Sign the petition

Visit or scan this QR code and add your name to the list of Kiwis asking our treaty negotiators not to waste this opportunity!



2. Take the rubbish campaign to your church and community

Visit and use our pack to learn about this rubbish problem together and then take action by signing our petition.



This rubbish situation can change if we act together.




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Maya Duckworth

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