We need a decolonized global plastics treaty
CANBERRA, Australia — This week, the global plastics treaty negotiations continue in Paris, France. Dubbed the Second Intergovernmental Negotiating Committee Meeting (INC-2), the series of negotiations leading to the ratification of a plastics treaty in mid-2025 is crucial to curb the plastic pollution crisis.
It can be recalled that the first meeting (INC-1) transpired in Punta del Este, Uruguay in November last year. Environmental groups have noted that the INC-1 negotiations resulted in greater demands for a reduction in plastic production and use, the elimination of toxic substances associated with the plastic life cycle, the protection of human health, and the need for a just transition. The participation of delegates from developing countries in Latin America, the Caribbean, Africa, and Asia and the Pacific was notable as well since it ensured the representation of strong grassroots voices.
Coming to INC-2, the recent news that the United Nations Environmental Programme (UNEP) Secretariat will give only one to two entry badges for each observer organization severely limits the participation of various sectors hoping to be part of the negotiations. These sectors include business and industry, children and the youth, farmers, indigenous peoples, local authorities, nongovernmental organizations, scientific communities, women, workers and trade unions, and waste pickers.
Another issue that has come out in the lead up to INC-2 is the recently published UNEP report titled “Turning off the Tap: How the world can end plastic pollution and create a circular economy,” which promotes burning plastic waste in cement kilns as a key strategy in the design and implementation of the global plastics treaty. Various civil society organizations, the academe, and impacted communities have expressed their grave concern on this issue.
According to the Global Alliance for Incinerator Alternatives, “the widespread burning of waste in cement kilns would create … demand for cheap plastic waste for fuel that would defy global efforts toward restricting plastic production.”
In some parts of the world, this is already happening. The investigative report of Reuters found that multiple big consumer brands like Unilever, Coca-Cola, and Nestlé were funding projects to burn their plastic waste in cement kilns, primarily in low-income countries in the Global South which do not have the capacity to monitor and enforce pollution controls. Since 2018, these three corporations have been identified in Break Free From Plastic brand audits as among the top five plastic polluting companies worldwide. This is a clear example of waste colonialism.
In their book, “Discard Studies: Wasting, Systems, and Power,” scholars Max Liboiron and Josh Lepawsky noted that “waste and pollution are part of the domination of one group in their homeland by another group.” Plastic pollution as a form of negative externality is an example of waste colonialism. This can be seen in the issue of Global North countries dumping their wastes on countries in the global South.
Moreover, in its annual Brand Audit report, the Break Free From Plastic movement and its members have also raised the issue of how the plastic pollution crisis emanates from the boardrooms of Global North headquartered corporations that are using single-use plastics, especially sachets, in the packaging of their products. In fact, former Unilever CEO Paul Polman has admitted in his Fortune magazine piece that they made a mistake in introducing sachets in the market. He wrote that, “packaging this small and with such little value has proved impossible to collect at scale, let alone recycle. We need to get rid of harmful sachets for good.”
If UNEP and INC-2 negotiators are serious in coming up with a high ambition treaty, they must not only think about the health and the environmental impacts of plastics. They must also think about how these are gravely affecting low-income communities and people of color. Decisions made in the boardrooms and negotiating tables in Europe and the United States have grave ramifications on the lives, health, and livelihoods of people from developing countries.
Lastly, a global decolonized plastics treaty must ensure support in achieving its objectives for countries of the Global South and those economies in transition, including a dedicated financial mechanism, technical support, and technology transfer similar to the Paris climate agreement. It must ensure that voices of historically marginalized groups are represented. This is reparation for the waste colonialism that they continue to impose on us.
Jed Alegado is doctoral researcher at Crawford School of Public Policy at The Australian National University in Canberra, Australia. He has worked with nonprofit organizations and environmental movements in the Asia Pacific region in the areas of advocacy, campaigns, and communications for more than a decade. He is also a part-time lecturer at Ateneo de Manila University.