Remoulding the Global Plastics Treaty

As a global instrument to end plastic pollution, it also needs to ensure social justice and equity principles for the informal recycling worker

Updated - June 08, 2024 01:16 am IST

Published - June 08, 2024 12:08 am IST

‘The informal waste and recovery sector (IWRS) is more than a minor player in worldwide municipal solid waste management systems’

‘The informal waste and recovery sector (IWRS) is more than a minor player in worldwide municipal solid waste management systems’ | Photo Credit: Getty Images

As discussions still continue for an international legally binding treaty on plastic pollution, it becomes crucial to consider how it can support a fair transition for individuals who collect and recycle waste informally. According to the OECD Global Plastic Outlook, global production of plastic waste was 353 million tonnes in 2019 — more than double since it was in 2000, and is set to triple by 2060. Only 9% of this was recycled, 50% sent to landfills, 19% incinerated, and 22% disposed of in uncontrolled sites or dumps. According to the United Nations Environment Programme, of the 9% recycled, 85% was done by informal recycling workers.

Editorial | Plastic solution: Beyond the Global Plastics Treaty

These workers collect, sort and recover recyclable and reusable materials from general waste, alleviating municipal budgets of financial burdens around waste management and, at large, subsidising the environmental mandate of the producers, consumers and the government. The Centre for Environment Justice and Development has also observed that they promote circular waste management solutions and help mitigate greenhouse gas emissions, valuably contributing to sustainability. Their efforts significantly reduce plastic content in landfills and dump sites, effectively preventing plastic leaking into the environment.

The need for recognition

Yet, these workers are often overlooked and remain highly vulnerable in plastic value chains. They face risks such as increasing privatisation of waste management, waste-to-energy or incineration projects, and exclusion through other public policy interventions in plastic waste management in the norms of Extended Producer Responsibility (EPR).

The informal waste and recovery sector (IWRS) is more than a minor player in worldwide municipal solid waste management systems. According to the UN-Habitat’s Waste Wise Cities Tool (WaCT), the informal sector accounts for 80% of municipal solid waste recovery in many cities.

A recent study by UN-Habitat and the University of Leeds estimates that around 60 million tonnes of plastic from municipal solid waste pollute the environment, including waterbodies, due to inadequate collection services and mismanagement of solid waste. Without the IWRS, the volume would be higher. However, as highlighted in the recent Leave No One Behind Report, strategies to reduce plastic pollution often neglect to effectively involve the recovery capacities, skills, and knowledge of the IWRS. This oversight worsens livelihood vulnerabilities and undermines existing informal recovery systems.

Global treaty, need for a just transition

The Global Plastics Treaty is a significant attempt to establish a legally binding agreement aimed at reducing and eliminating plastic pollution. The decision to establish an Intergovernmental Negotiating Committee (INC) was made in early 2021 during the fifth UN Environment Assembly in Nairobi, Kenya. The INC’s journey, beginning with an Ad Hoc Open-Ended Working Group meeting in Dakar, Senegal, in mid-2022, was followed by subsequent meetings in Uruguay, Paris, and Nairobi, with the fourth INC-4 in Canada in April this year. The final INC-5 meeting in South Korea will continue to see active participation from the International Alliance of Waste Pickers (IAWP).

The IAWP, a vocal participant in the UNEA Plastic Treaty process, emphasises the importance of supporting the formalisation and integration of informal waste pickers into discussions on addressing plastics. It also advocates including waste pickers’ perspectives and solutions at every stage of policy and law implementation.

These measures aim to acknowledge waste pickers’ historical contributions, protect their rights, and promote effective and sustainable plastic waste management practices. There is no universally agreed-upon terminology for a just transition or a formal definition of the informal waste sector and its workforce. Clarifying these definitions is crucial.

India’s voice is important

As a key representative from the Global South, India promotes an approach that enhances repair, reuse, refill, and recycling without necessarily eliminating the use of plastics altogether.

India has also stressed the importance of adopting country-specific circumstances and capacities. Hence, India’s informal waste pickers, who are indispensable, remain central to the discussion.

We, therefore, need to rethink the formulation of our EPR norms and raise questions on how to integrate this informal worker cohort into the new legal framework.

As the final round of negotiations for the Global Plastics Treaty approaches the INC-5, a key question remains — on how a global instrument to end plastic pollution can enable a just transition for nearly 15 million people who informally collect and recover up to 58% of global recycled waste, thereby shaping a sustainable future. By incorporating their perspectives and ensuring their livelihoods are protected, the treaty can embody social justice and equity principles while leaving no one and no place behind.

Neethi P. is Senior Researcher at the Indian Institute for Human Settlements (IIHS), Bangalore and an Advisory Member to the Karnataka Labour Policy (KLP) Committee. Akbar A. is the Director, Programme Design at Hasiru Dala, a social impact organisation that works with waste pickers and other waste workers in Karnataka. The views expressed are personal

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