Time to End ‘Waste Colonialism’ Through a Global Plastics Treaty

Developed countries need to stop exporting their plastic trash to Asian countries under the guise of “recycling.”

By Mageswari Sangaralingam

The global production and trade of plastic waste have drastically increased over the recent decades. Plastic waste is mostly traded under the banner of plastic “recycling.” This practice of exporting waste from higher-income countries to lower-income countries that are ill-equipped to handle the waste is a form of environmental racism or, as rights holders put it, waste colonialism.

A rich and developed country should have the capacity to manage its own waste. However, instead of reducing production and investing in infrastructure for recycling, they choose to transfer their responsibility to developing and under-resourced countries. This is not only unfair but is truly an injustice. Much of the plastic being produced is single-use and of little or no recycling value. However, these plastic wastes are still destined for recycling operations although not all plastics can be recycled.

Waste that cannot be recycled due to contamination or being low value is considered residual waste, and most often is dumped openly or burned in the recipient countries. When the waste is burned, the toxic fumes cause respiratory problems and other ailments in the neighboring communities. Since such practices are situated around the most vulnerable communities; they suffer the most from breathing difficulties, asthma, skin problems, various kinds of cancers and other chronic illnesses.

In Surabaya, Indonesia, it was reported that communities were using plastic waste to fuel their stoves for making tofu. Dioxins were found in eggs from chickens in the neighborhood. The cost and burden to public health and the environment far outweighed the revenue that is purportedly gained from poor recycling practices and waste trade.

From early 2018 after China closed its doors to waste imports under its Operation National Sword, we have witnessed firsthand illegal recycling plants popping up in Malaysia, mostly by investors from China. These pop-ups operated without permits, using low-end technology and environmentally harmful methods of disposal. We are now increasingly seeing investors from China opening up paper and plastic recycling plants in Malaysia. Most of these plants have on-site incinerators to burn the residual waste. Local communities and the environment have to again bear the brunt from toxic air pollution and ash disposal, while witnessing their rivers being polluted.

On top of this, there is another issue we have to deal with: hidden plastics that come with other materials. These come in the form of plastics in imports of paper bales, plastics in electronic and electrical products, textile waste, rubber, and tire waste.

In addition to these challenges, there is the trade of refuse-derived fuel, which includes 30 to 50 percent plastic waste. Moreover, we must grapple with the consequences of microplastics produced in the recycling process, ultimately infiltrating water bodies. Microplastics are pervasive, found in existing waste, and present in virtually every corner of the world — whether in wildlife, on mountains, or within our bodies.

When countries in Asia started pushing back and campaigning against waste dumping, we found that plastic waste simply shifted destinations; waste is now being dumped in countries such as Myanmar and Laos. An investigation by collaborative newsroom Lighthouse Reports and six partners found some of the waste dumped in Myanmar comes from the West. This is an environmental injustice. This is why we have been calling for a ban on trade in waste and stricter enforcement to curb illegal trade.

Plastic wastes as well as their trade and management threaten workers, communities, ecosystems, and planetary boundaries, particularly in Global South countries. The Basel Convention on the Control of Transboundary Movements of Hazardous Wastes and Their Disposal addresses some of these threats but also leaves many gaps.

The Basel Convention has provisions on waste generation and minimization. However, these provisions are all voluntary guidance that has failed to curb the plastic pollution crisis. The emphasis remains on recycling (often downcycling) rather than upstream action with waste prevention at source, such as stricter standards on the extraction of natural resources and redesigning products using sustainable materials and practices.

Prevention must be obligatory and binding for plastics. This must be the primary task for the prospective international instrument on plastic pollution – also known as the Global Plastics Treaty – that is currently being negotiated.

However, at the Global Plastics Treaty negotiations, some entities, particularly plastics industries, are lobbying for the treaty to be limited to waste management rather than production controls. Some countries want the treaty to focus on recycling and reusing plastics, referring to it as “circularity in the plastics supply.”

Plastics are made with fossil fuels and thousands of chemicals, many of which are known to be highly toxic, as well as thousands of other substances that have never been studied and may be just as harmful. All forms of plastic waste management harm the environment and human health, and violate human rights.

Plastic burning, whether by open burning or controlled burning in incinerators, cement kilns, or pyrolysis, and even in state-of-the-art facilities,  generates significant toxic and carbon emissions as well as hazardous ashes laden with microplastics.

Recycling and waste management infrastructure simply cannot deal with the amount of plastic being disposed of. Furthermore, plastic recycling does not address the health threats from chemicals in plastics. Recycling can spread these toxic chemicals even further.

We cannot recycle our way out of this plastic crisis. Plastic circularity or sustainability are false narratives. The world needs to stop producing unnecessary and hazardous chemicals, including plastic polymers, and reduce production on the whole, all while ensuring a just transition for the most vulnerable, such as waste pickers, waste workers, and those working in the recycling value chain.

Waste colonialism, whether in the form of trade in plastic waste and other hidden plastics, perpetuates social and environmental injustice. However, ending the plastic waste trade without reducing plastic production will likely trigger more dumping, cause toxic pollution, and contribute to the climate crisis.

Ultimately, a plastics treaty focused on binding upstream measures while establishing binding criteria for truly safe plastic waste management, and a Basel Convention with stronger governance and implementation powers and all loopholes plugged, will be the best combination to address the harms of plastics and plastic pollution across the whole life-cycle of plastics.

For years, the Global Alliance for Incinerator Alternatives (GAIA) has been at the forefront of the movement to end the plastics crisis, through policy changes, movement-building, and on-the-ground solutions. Our solutions include advocating for a reduction-first approach to plastic pollution. GAIA supports members in building new systems that move cities from outdated waste management infrastructure to people- and community-centric solutions such as the reuse and refill systems. Zero waste policies and systems are the way forward to end the plastic crisis.

Ending waste colonialism is on the horizon.

Source: The Diplomat (13 March 2024)

Original article here: https://thediplomat.com/2024/03/time-to-end-waste-colonialism-through-a-global-plastics-treaty/?