A new study in Europe is claiming up to 3,000 of the world's poorest people — an average of one every 30 seconds — die every day due to waste management problems, including plastic pollution.
But a trade group representing the plastics industry in the United States is pushing back against the assertions made by Tearfund, a relief and development agency.
Tearfund, in its warning, has attracted the backing of well-known natural historian David Attenborough who is calling the situation "one of the most pressing problems of today."
The new report, called "No Time to Waste: Tackling the Plastic Pollution Crisis Before It's Too Late," talks about all uncollected trash that's dumped or burned and puts a heavy emphasis on plastics.
Key factors leading to deaths are "air pollution from burnt waste, diarrhoeal disease caused by dumped waste, and mosquito-borne disease caused by dumped waste," Teddington, England-based Tearfund states.
Tearfund said it is basing its numbers on "published data, academic research and expert opinion."
The group said that the death toll is between 400,000 and 1 million people each year due to mismanaged waste, and the estimate of one death every 30 seconds is based on that higher estimate.
Tearfund, through its new Rubbish Campaign, wants companies to disclose the number of single-use plastic products they sell by next year and commit to a 50 percent reduction in that number by 2025. The group also wants companies to ensure one single-use plastic item is collected and recycled for each one sold. Companies also need to "provide employment with dignity" to waste pickers.
The report is available at www.tearfund.org/notimetowaste.
While the American Chemistry Council agrees that mismanaged waste is a huge problem, the trade group calls Tearfund's work misleading.
"We share the goals and commitment of the study's authors. However we question the report's methods and believe the characterization of the report's findings is misleading," said Steve Russell, vice president of the ACC Plastic Division, in a statement.
"The report itself attributes health impacts to all types of municipal waste — organic, paper, cardboard, metals, glass and plastics. Organic waste, in particular, is more likely to contribute to various health effects cited in the report and studies show that it makes up a large portion of unmanaged waste," Russell continued.
ACC points to a World Bank study that indicates 40 percent of the waste in Indonesia's rivers is organic, including food. The mix also includes health and hygiene products. A separate study from the same organization, the trade group said, indicates 6.4 percent of waste in low-income countries is plastics.
"Unmanaged waste is an urgent problem," ACC's Russell continued.
He pointed to the recently announced Alliance to End Plastic Waste as one way the industry is responding. The Alliance, made up of member companies, is pledging $1.5 billion to find ways to keep plastic waste from entering the environment.
"There is no question that dumping of waste in streams and rivers, on roadsides or open spaces, and open pit burning of waste is neither healthy nor sustainable," Russell said in his statement.
The Tearfund report was created in association with Fauna & Flora International, a conservation charity, the Institute of Development Studies, which describes itself as a global research and learning organization, and WasteAid, a waste management charity.
"Large companies place vast amounts of single-use plastic into communities that don't have waste management, with significant and growing planetary health impacts. As this report shows, we cannot recycle our way out of plastic pollution — we need systemic change," said Zoë Lenkiewicz, head of programs and engagement for WasteAid, in a statement.
Tearfund, in releasing the report, specifically called out four multinational companies — Coca-Cola, Nestlé, PepsiCo and Unilever — for contributing to plastic pollution.