Cementing plastic pollution: Indonesian islanders file environmental litigation against Holcim
13 Feb 2023 --- Indonesian environmentalists are taking Swiss corporation Holcim, one of the world’s largest cement producers, to court over pollution caused largely by refuse-derived fuel (RDF) from plastic packaging waste, which has caused massive flooding on the island of Pari. The plaintiffs say Holcim’s actions are putting the island under existential threat.
The climate lawsuit between the Pari Islanders and Holcim is a joint work with Swiss NGO HEKS and the European Center for Constitutional and Human Rights. Pulau Pari has lost 11% of its surface area in the past 11 years due to rising sea levels, according to HEKS.
Holcim has been operating in Indonesia for around 17 years and according to one study, the Swiss corporation released more than 7 million tons of CO2 between 1950 and 2021. That amounts to 0.42% of all global industrial CO2 emissions since the year 1750 – or more than twice as much as all of Switzerland released during the same period.
Speaking to PackagingInsights, Abdhul Ghofar, an urban campaigner for Wahana Lingkungan Hidup Indonesia (WALHI), says he “hopes the climate litigation conducted by the Islanders of Pari against the world’s largest cement factory can inspire other world citizens that corporations destroying the environment can be held accountable in court.”
“We hope that other corporations responsible for environmental damage and climate change will seriously follow scientific recommendations to reduce emissions significantly and change their production patterns.”
The RDF debate
In 2021, a Reuters investigation accused major FMCGs like Unilever and Coca-Cola of “dirty and misleading” waste incineration practices in collaboration with major cement producers.
A representative of one of these producers said anyone believing that waste-to-energy (WTE) practices are not a viable solution to pollution “believe in fairy tales.”
Holcim is also defending its position against the Pari Islanders, stating: “We do not believe that court cases focused on single companies are an effective mechanism to tackle the global complexity of climate action.”
“We believe in partnering across the building value chain to accelerate the transition to net zero together. That’s where we are focusing our efforts to scale up our impact.”
However, critics like HEKS and WALHI say cement factories in Indonesia are involved in destroying karst ecosystems, agricultural land and violating human rights for local and indigenous communities.
Cement factories and cement production mines cause various natural disasters, especially floods, droughts and landslides, says Ghofar.
“Indonesia is a country with a limited number of waste management industries. Cement producers are asked to utilize waste from other industries, such as fly ash and bottom ash, to be used in the cement production process,” he explains.
“The cement factory is also an off-taker of RDF, mostly made from plastic packaging waste. RDF is used as a mixed fuel in cement kilns and coal-fired power plants with a 5-10%. During the emergency period of the COVID-19 pandemic, the cement factory was a place to process some of the medical waste from health care facilities.”
The packaging problem
In 2022, plastic waste contributed 18.3%, and paper or cardboard waste contributed 11.1% nationally, says Ghofar. Much of this waste comes in the form of sachets, he continues.
“Packaging companies must change their business models to be more environmentally friendly. Reducing the use of plastic, innovating environmentally friendly packaging.”
“In particular, packaging companies must develop a roadmap for reducing plastic waste by manufacturers as per their obligation, according to the minister of Environment and Forestry.”
Until early 2023, manufacturing and retail producers such as packaging companies have “not seen seriousness,” Ghofar asserts. “Waste from packaging companies will eventually be burned at the landfill in an incinerator or processed into RDF, which will be burned in cement factories and coal-fired power plants.”
“The use of technologies such as WTE, RDF and co-firing in cement factories to process waste is due to the low commitment of companies, including packaging companies, in reducing their waste.”
Zero waste or downstream?
Ghofar says he hopes the climate litigation conducted by the Islanders of Pari against the world’s largest cement factory can inspire other world citizens.
“Corporations destroying the environment can be held accountable in court. We hope that other corporations responsible for environmental damage and climate change will seriously follow scientific recommendations to reduce emissions significantly and change their production patterns,” he says.
“Currently, serious efforts are being made to push the business ecosystem toward a circular economy. Civil society groups are also pushing for the reuse movement as one of the steps to respond to the waste pollution situation. A zero waste-based approach is preferred over downstream solutions such as WTE incinerators and co-firing in cement factories and coal-fired power plants.”
“If there is no real action from corporations such as packaging companies, then pseudo-solutions such as WTE incinerators and co-firing will be chosen as solutions. There is a danger lurking through the pollution from the waste burning process.”
By Louis Gore-Langton
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