Skip to Main Navigation
VideoNovember 13, 2023

How Is Plastic Pollution Linked to Poverty and Development? | World Bank Expert Answers

Humanity’s use of plastic has grown exponentially since the 1950s. Today, nine million people worldwide are employed in plastic production and processing, and while they are lightweight and affordable, single-use plastics pose harmful risks to the environment, human health, and economy.

How does plastic pollution affect those living in low-and-middle income countries? What do we do around single-use plastics—plastic products that are used just once before becoming waste? And how is the World Bank responding? In this latest episode of Expert Answers, we get into the perils posed by plastic pollution. Anjali Acharya, the World Bank’s lead on marine plastics, explains more.

EXTRA: The Intergovernmental Negotiating Committee on Plastic Pollution
From November 13-19, the third session of the Intergovernmental Negotiating Committee on Plastic Pollution is taking place in Nairobi, Kenya, and it’s looking to adopt the world’s first global, legally binding resolution on plastic pollution, including the marine environment. Watch this extra piece of Expert Answers!


00:00 Welcome: Introducing the topic and the expert
01:53 Plastic pollution: Challenges for low-and-middle income countries
03:23 The threat of single-use plastics
05:36 How the World Bank is responding
06:59 Fighting plastic pollution: A personal story from India
08:58 Closure

How Is Plastic Pollution Linked to Poverty and Development? | World Bank Expert Answers



[00:00] WB Expert: It can be done. It is being done. It's about innovation, it's about behavior change. It's about having the right level of enthusiasm to really bring a change in our lifetime.

Host: Plastic pollution. You've seen it all around you in landfills, on shorelines and microplastics are even making their way into our soil and blood. But how is plastic pollution linked to poverty and development? In this episode of "Expert Answers" we get into just that. Humanity's use of plastic has grown exponentially since the 1950s.

TV Archive: We designers aren't deliberately trying to replace other materials. Plastics simply make the designer's job easier.

Host: Today, 9 million people worldwide are employed in plastic production and processing. They may be lightweight, strong, and affordable, but plastic pollution causes huge damage to the environment, human health, and the economy. In fact, it's costing us billions of dollars each year, and plastic waste has doubled between 2000 and 2019 to almost 400 million tons. Two thirds of this is from what we call single use plastics. And of that 40% comes from packaging like plastic bottles or plastic bags, but less than 10% of all plastic waste is actually recycled. The ramifications of this waste are immense and felt everywhere. However, there's hope and there are things that we can do to beat plastic pollution. To tell us more about this issue and how an organization such as the World Bank is responding, let's hear from Anjali Acharya, who leads on the World Bank's work on marine plastics. Anjali, welcome to "Expert Answers".

WB Expert: Thank you so much.

[01:53] Host: So Anjali, we've all seen how plastic pollution has been littering our cities, towns, beaches, oceans. What challenges do you think plastic waste presents to people that live in low and middle-income countries?

WB Expert: Absolutely. Plastics has now become a scourge in our lifetime, our over consumption of it, our quest for incredible amount of convenience has led to this profusion of plastics. Now, everywhere you go, you know, cities, river systems, even the top of Mount Everest, it is ubiquitous. And this is especially stock in low and middle income-countries because in these countries, the infrastructure services and waste management has not kept up with this explosion of plastic pollution. Now, on the one side, you do have sachet economies, you have low-income communities that have benefited from those affordable shampoo packets, et cetera. The downside is it's not easily recyclable. So how do you balance this out? Plastics and addressing plastic pollution is a question about justice and equity. So to make sure when we try to work with countries, corporations, or communities to transition out of this over consumption of plastic, we need to make sure that these low-income communities who depend upon this for their livelihoods, who depend on this for affordable products, are not left out of this. 

[03:23] Host: And something I found quite shocking is that a growing amount of plastic is used only once before it becomes waste. I mean, we've gotta do better than that, right? So how do we prevent this?

WB Expert: Absolutely. There have been some recent reports that have estimated that it is possible to reduce this category of single-use plastics by about 30% by 2040. And this is through a variety of different things. So for example, how do you encourage reuse, instead of having one plastic bag that you use and throw away, take a cloth bag. How do you also redesign products? So just as an example, you have a yogurt container, which has different kinds of plastics, that the body is one plastic, the cap seal is another plastic. You might have a third kind of plastic, which on which the branding is put. That's not easy to recycle. So how do we get in place regulations and incentive processes for people to move away from these multi-layer plastics as they're called to something that is more easily recyclable? This is known as design for recycling. And also trying to think through different kinds of market-based instruments and different kinds of fiscal instruments. Should we put a tax on certain types of single use plastics? Not all single use plastics have affordable alternatives, but many of them do. They are countries where they are looking at innovation. So instead of having a plastic straw, they're using bamboo reeds. Already, you see, in many countries like the Philippines or India, they're experimenting with refill reuse system, and they pay an amount, which is less than what they would pay.

Host: It's also cost effective.

WB Expert: Also cost effective. So these kinds of systems that are customized and really represent innovation, whether it's in terms of technologies or it's terms of business models, but really work for those individual communities, these are things that we really want to, you know, accelerate and bring about powerful transformative change.

[05:36] Host: And tying it back to the World Bank, what is our organization doing around this plastic pollution issue?

WB Expert: Well, we're doing a lot actually, tackling marine plastic pollution and keeping our oceans healthy is an integral part of the World Bank's mission. The World Bank already has a pipeline of something like $2.5 billion of projects, which are related to plastic pollution and prevention. A lot of these are solid waste management projects. We also are looking at other kinds of projects, whether in tourism or agriculture, water resources, where you could have plastic related components to address plastics. We have a multi-donor trust fund, thanks to many donors called Pro Blue, through which we are investing now in 60 countries. Then what are we doing? We are looking at analytics. We are trying to understand better what type of plastic, where is it starting? Where is ending? What are the resin types? What are the recycling capacities in these countries? The second block of work that we're doing is policy support. We are working with countries to really understand and unbundle how they will strategize on the kinds of plastic policies. Should they put in tax on plastic bags? Should they phase out certain kinds of plastics? What is the appropriate strategy for that particular country, for their specific context, whether it's the waste context or the socioeconomic context.

[06:59] Host: So Anjali, before I let you go, I wanted to end on a bit of a personal note. Tell us more about what got you started in the fight against plastic pollution.

WB Expert: I mean, I grew up in India. I remember a time when plastic bags was not common. We drank soda out of glass bottles, which we took, and it was a container deposit refund system. You had to return the glass bottles. If you broke one, you got into trouble and you had to pay for it. And over the years, there was this remarkable and tragic increase in the amount of plastic that's available everywhere. However, in the last few years, and I've been to Delhi recently, I have seen the power of people, the power of corporations, countries, and communities coming together to be able to adjust and rethink their relationship with plastics. And this is important because they're fed up of seeing this on the streets, on the, you know, in the river systems when they're going snorkeling or they're going fishing. And so they have determined to make progress. So the governments are putting in place policies. Corporations are rethinking the way they use plastics, and communities are starting to clean up and make sure that plastic is appropriately recycled. So today in Delhi, I do not see as many plastic bags. And in fact, it's not allowed, not to say that you don't see some of it, but it's not allowed. And this is a very optimistic and positive move that I've seen. It can be done. It is being done. It's about innovation. It's about behavior change. It's about having the right level of enthusiasm to really bring a change in our lifetime. There are many environmental issues that we work on, but this is one I feel very optimistic that we can tackle in our lifetime.

[08:58] Host: I think a powerful note of optimism to end on. Anjali, thank you again so much for joining me on "Expert Answers" to talk more about the issues surrounding plastic pollution. Really appreciate your time.

WB Expert: Thanks a lot.

Host: Thank you. A huge thanks to Anjali for joining me to talk more about plastic pollution, the dangers, what lies ahead, but also what we're doing to better fight plastic waste. That's it for this episode of "Expert Answers". I'm Srimathi Sridhar, thanks for joining me and see you next time.


Every episode of Expert Answers sits you down with a World Bank specialist: an expert answers with expert answers. From debt relief to gender equality. From COVID-19 response to inclusive growth, and much more. Our goal is to help you understand some of the biggest issues in international development today by asking our colleagues about what works on the ground and what we can do to meet the biggest global challenges. Watch previous episodes of Expert Answers!


The World Bank is one of the world’s largest sources of funding and knowledge for low-income countries. Its five institutions share a commitment to reducing poverty, increasing shared prosperity, and promoting sustainable development on a livable planet.