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A flood of plastic

How to reduce the amount of plastic waste in waterways and drains

Written by Lucy Tanner 2023

A man wearing red gloves stands on piles of plastic waste in the Kalamu River, Democratic Republic of Congo.

This stretch of the Kalamu River in Kinshasa, Democratic Republic of Congo, is full of plastic waste. Photo: Flot Mundala/Tearfund

A smiling Brazilian woman collects water from a running tap fixed to a red brick wall.

From: Safe drinking water - Footsteps 120

How to value, look after and ensure the safety of drinking water

Plastic is mouldable, light, strong, waterproof and versatile. 

Different forms of plastic can help save energy, reduce food waste and support access to healthcare, safe drinking water and household products.

But after it has been used, this same plastic becomes solid waste. And if it is not managed properly it can pollute the soil, water and air, affecting the health of people, domestic animals, fish and wildlife. 

Globally, about 2 billion people do not have access to solid waste collection or recycling. This means they have little option but to dump or burn it. 

Plastic pollution

Today, half of all the plastic made is designed to be used only once before being thrown away. For example, water sachets. 

These have been both a good and a bad thing in many countries. They provide safe drinking water in small quantities for people who otherwise could not afford it. But the sachets are made from a complicated type of plastic that is almost impossible to recycle in a cost-effective way.

‘Globally, about 2 billion people do not have access to solid waste collection or recycling’

When plastic waste, such as sachets and bottles, ends up in rivers or drains it blocks the flow of water, increasing the risk of flooding. Flood water, often contaminated with human waste from flooded latrines and sewers, pollutes wells and other sources of drinking water. This increases the spread of water-borne diseases such as cholera. 

As climate change leads to an increase in the likelihood of extreme weather events, such as heavy rain, the need to keep waterways and drains clear of plastic is becoming more and more critical. 

Blue, pink and yellow patterned bags woven from plastic waste, next to bright coloured sandals.

Plastic waste in Kinshasa is used to make bags, sandals and other items that can be sold for a profit. Photo: Flot Mundala/Tearfund

What needs to happen?

  1. Reduce

    We need to substantially reduce the amount of single-use plastic being produced. And at the same time, the management of water resources needs to improve so people can have safe water without having to buy it in plastic sachets or bottles.

  2. Recycle

    We need to ensure that plastic waste is collected and recycled or disposed of safely and responsibly. Local churches and other community groups can do a lot to help in this area. For ideas, read the Footsteps editions on ‘Waste’ and ‘Community-led advocacy’.

  3. Commit

    We need binding, global commitments that hold governments and companies to account for their actions, such as the United Nations plastics treaty.

United Nations plastics treaty

By the end of 2024, leaders from more than 150 governments around the world are hoping to agree on the contents of a global plastics treaty. Tearfund is calling for this treaty to fully address how plastic pollution impacts people living in poverty.

Discussion questions

  • What is plastic used for in your community?
  • What happens to it when it is thrown away? What are the effects of this?
  • How could your community reduce the amount of plastic that is used and thrown away?

Additional resources

Written by

Written by  Lucy Tanner

Lucy Tanner is a Senior Associate (plastics and waste) in Tearfund’s Global Advocacy and Influencing Group

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