NGOs condemn UN support for plastic waste incineration ahead of treaty negotiations
22 May 2023 --- Civil societies, academics and frontline groups are expressing concern over a new United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) report, which promotes burning plastic waste in cement kilns as a key strategy in the design and implementation of the global plastics treaty.
The widespread burning of waste in cement kilns would lead to a “lock-in effect,” maintaining demand for cheap plastic waste for fuel that would defy global efforts toward restricting plastic production, warns Global Alliance for Incinerator Alternatives (GAIA).
Last week, UNEP released its Spotlight report to support governments in negotiating a new global treaty to end plastic pollution. The second round of negotiations on developing the treaty, by the International Negotiating Committee on Plastic Pollution (INC-2), will take place in Paris, France, May 29-June 2. The report was prepared in part by Systemiq, a consultancy firm, and the University of Portsmouth, UK.
“Burning plastic waste in cement kilns is a ‘get out of jail free card’ for the plastic industry to keep ramping up plastic production by claiming that the plastic problem can be simply burned away,” says Dr. Neil Tangri, science and policy director at GAIA. “Not only does this pose a grave climate and public health threat, it also undermines the primary goal of the global plastic treaty – putting a cap on plastic production.”
The non-profit organization calls the climate impacts from the cement industry “devastating,” with 8% of the world’s carbon emissions originating from cement production. Widespread burning of waste in cement kilns would replace one form of fossil fuel with another, GAIA finds.
NGOs demand reduction
Decisive to the second round of negotiations will be states’ decisions on whether the treaty will consider the health and environmental aspects along plastics’ entire life cycle or whether it will be limited to treating plastic solely as waste. The former is favored by scientists and civil society organizations, while some industry representatives are pushing the latter.
GAIA notes that 99% of plastic is made from fossil fuels and according to another UNEP report, burning one metric ton of plastic waste releases roughly the equivalent GHG emissions. The association further claims that the cement industry is known to be poorly regulated, making it “one of the dirtiest types of facilities.”
Graham Forbes, global plastics campaign lead at Greenpeace USA, also comments on the UNEP report and states that it does not address the role of plastic production in creating the plastics and climate crisis.
“Any plan that still results in 100 million metric tons of plastic pollution per year, 17 years from now, is inadequate. While the report recognizes the importance of reuse and a just transition for workers, especially waste pickers, it largely ignores the potentially fatal problems associated with refining, use, incineration, landfilling and recycling of plastics. A treaty that does not cap and reduce plastic production will fail to deliver what the people need, justice demands and the planet requires,” says Forbes.
Greenpeace also issued a letter to US President Biden calling for a change in stance toward the treaty’s stipulations. The letter is intended to draw public attention by including signatories of several high-profile figures.
Meanwhile, Zero Waste Europe’s (ZWE) head of policy Aline Maigret tells PackagingInsights that according to scientific research, the participation of the fossil-fuel industry in the climate negotiations has been instrumental in delaying progress in this field. “We are worried that involving parties with a vested interest in perpetuating the plastic crisis act contrary to the very purpose of the treaty.”
UNEP announced it would limit the number of observers participating in the negotiations. While five people per organization can register to attend, only one will be able to enter the building. Civil society organizations have voiced their objections, stating that the result affects civil society, Indigenous Peoples, workers and trade unions, scientists and others who provide much-needed expertise in the negotiation halls.
Jane Patton, plastics and petrochemicals campaign manager at the Center for International Environmental Law (CIEL) issued the following statement: “Observer participation is not optional, to be deprioritized if the room isn’t big enough: UNEP has repeatedly recognized the critical role that observers play in negotiations and the very mandate for these negotiations calls for the ‘widest’ participation possible.”
“The intention to restrict participation to one representative per organization flies in the face of the mandate and established best practice by severely curtailing observers’ ability to engage in the process. The physical capacity limits of the UNESCO building – the location chosen for the upcoming plastics treaty negotiations – were a known issue, and going over those limits for registered participants was foreseeable and preventable,” continues Patton.
She asserts that advancing a strong and effective treaty demands that civil society organizations, scientific experts, rightsholders, workers and people living along the frontlines of the plastics crisis can participate in the process.
“We call on UNEP to immediately remedy the situation by providing overflow rooms with streaming and effective participation access and alternate arrangements for the hundreds of observers who are effectively shut out of the negotiation process. UNEP must take steps to kick the polluters responsible for the plastics crisis out of the room and prioritize the voices of impacted communities in the negotiations,” stresses Patton.
Maigret adds that for the second round of the plastics treaty negotiations, ZWE hopes member states will not lose sight of previous climate commitments, which concretely means that plastic production should be capped at a level compatible with 1.5-degrees celsius warming.
“It will also be key that discussions do not solely focus on plastic litter but on the whole life cycle of plastics from production to disposal, including social and health impact. In addition, we hope that member states will put forward prevention and reuse of plastics as crucial elements in achieving these goals,” she concludes.
By Natalie Schwertheim
To contact our editorial team please email us at email@example.com
Subscribe now to receive the latest news directly into your inbox.