Linking Plastic Crisis to Desertification: Greenpeace


It is World Environment Day, a United Nations day dedicated to creating awareness and action for protecting the environment. This year's theme focuses on land restoration, desertification, and drought resilience under the slogan "Our land. Our future. We are #GenerationRestoration. But what is desertification and what does the plastics crisis have to do with it? Let's delve into and understand this multifaceted crisis together.

Desertification is the process by which natural or human activities reduce the soil fertility, vegetation cover, and generally the biological productivity of arid and semi-arid areas also known as drylands. Degradation of these drylands has become a growing concern in Africa, Central Asia, and many parts of the world. While desertification is attributed to activities like deforestation, overgrazing, and climate change, the current global plastics crisis is one of the disguised significant contributors.

Plastic-related emissions fuel desertification

Did you know that raw materials of plastics are primarily fossil fuels, with crude oil, natural gas, and coal being the most common raw materials? Now you know.

November 2023: Days before the third round of Global Plastics Treaty negotiations start in Kenya, Greenpeace Africa and other activists fill the streets of Nairobi to demand world leaders deliver a strong treaty for people, community and climate.

From the point of extraction, refining, and manufacturing processes involved in plastic production, greenhouse gas emissions are released into the atmosphere. These emissions contribute significantly to the climate crisis.

The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) has identified climate change as a critical driver of desertification in drylands due to the erratic weather patterns - unprecedented rise in temperatures and altered precipitation which exacerbate land degradation.

Plastic pollution does not only contribute to greenhouse gas emissions during manufacturing, but during plastic waste management as well. Incineration and landfill decomposition of plastics release harmful greenhouse gases, like, carbon dioxide and methane, to the atmosphere, further intensifying the greenhouse effect, leading to more severe and frequent droughts, heatwaves, and other climatic conditions that promote desertification.

Plastics, silent degraders of soil health

Apart from the impact on climate, plastics contribute to desertification through direct soil contamination. Microplastics - broken down fragments of plastics smaller than 5 mm, infiltrate the soil, altering its physical and chemical properties.

Soil Investigation in Karahan, Adana Province, Turkey. © Ihsan Yalcin / Greenpeace
Soil samples taken in Adana/Karahan, Turkey. © Ihsan Yalcin / Greenpeace The report "Game of Waste", prepared by Greenpeace Mediterranean, assesses the impact of the dumping and open burning of suspected imported plastics in five different illegal dumpsites across Southern Turkey. It identifies a wide range of toxic chemicals in the ash and soil of all five sites, many of which are associated with plastic packaging or the burning of plastics.

A study shows that microplastics in soil affect its structure by increasing porosity which leads to reduced water retention capacity, making the soil less able to support plant life, which is crucial for maintaining soil stability and preventing erosion.

Moreover, microplastics absorb and transport toxic pollutants disrupting the soil's natural life, affecting soil microorganisms and insects that play essential roles in soil health and fertility. The combination of physical disruption and chemical contamination by microplastics makes soils more vulnerable to the erosive forces of wind and water, accelerating the process of desertification.

With the above facts, what's the way forward?

Addressing the interconnected challenges of plastic pollution and desertification requires a multi-faceted approach. Cutting plastics production is the primary solution, Greenpeace calls for a reduction in plastics production by at least 75% by the year 2040. Cutting plastic production is a critical step. This can be achieved by increasing investments and promoting refill and reuse systems and the use of alternative circular materials to reduce the volume of new plastics being produced.

Climate Summit People's March in Nairobi. © Greenpeace
Climate activists take to the streets at the Africa Climate Summit in Nairobi, Kenya, urging the African Union to lead by example and protect African biodiversity, end fossil fuels driving catastrophic climate change and invest in real solutions by shifting to solar and wind energy. Signs read "Less talk more action for Climate". © Greenpeace

Additionally, improving waste management practices to prevent plastic pollution from reaching soils is essential. This includes better collection systems, as well as public education campaigns to reduce plastic consumption and encourage proper disposal.

At the global level, international cooperation and comprehensive environmental policies can help create a more sustainable future where the impacts of plastics on soil health and climate are minimised. The Global Plastics Treaty, a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to end the age of plastics once and for all is currently being negotiated at the United Nations . Ahead of the fifth session of the Intergovernmental Negotiating Committee in South Korea this November, we need help in pressuring our leaders to negotiate a strong Global Plastics Treaty that will cut down plastics production devoid of any compromise.

Plastic Waste in Verde Island, Philippines. © Noel Guevara / Greenpeace

Let's end the age of plastic!

Ask world leaders to support a strong global plastic treaty that addresses the whole life cycle of plastic.

Take action

In conclusion, the plastics crisis and desertification are deeply interconnected issues yet barely known by many. By understanding and addressing how plastic production and pollution contribute to land degradation, we can take significant steps towards preserving our soils, mitigating climate change, and preventing further desertification.

Gerance Mutwol is a Greenpeace Africa plastics campaigner based in Nairobi, Kenya.

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