A new global plastics treaty might become reality this week, when heads of State, Ministers of Environment and other representatives from 175 countries will meet in Paris for the second session of the Intergovernmental Negotiating Committee to develop an international legally binding instrument on plastic pollution. The negotiations will address the entire lifecycle of plastic, including its production, design and disposal, with the hope of establishing a bold and ambitious treaty on one of the world’s most pressing environmental problems.
The movement to break free from plastic has been growing over the last decade, from community groups picking up waste on their local beaches to national bans on plastic bags and developing reusable packaging systems. Through years of sustained action and awareness-raising by communities, organisations and leaders, the plastic crisis has gained the world’s attention and brought us to this pivotal moment.
Here are just a few stories from three of Asia’s zero-waste warriors on the frontlines of the fight.
Standing up to Waste Colonialism in Malaysia
In 2018, China banned the import of plastic waste setting off a chain reaction in the global plastic waste trade. Almost overnight Malaysia became the new global dumping ground for plastic.
“We could see what was coming even before the Chinese waste ban had come into force and alerted the Malaysian government to this new dirty waste trade problem. Governments are often slow to respond, so it is important to get on the front foot of any issue” says Mageswari Sangaralingam, who radiates calm and thoughtful energy as she recounts five years of campaigning with Sahabat Alam Malaysia/Friends of the Earth Malaysia and other concerned groups against a devastating waste trade.
This struggle has taken Mageswari from the fields of Malaysia to the halls of power in the capital and the United Nations in Geneva. She traveled the country documenting community complaints of foul-smelling smoke and piles of waste dumped from makeshift warehouses that popped up to process the plastic waste. The burning of plastic is particularly toxic to human health. Some community members complained about respiratory problems and skin rashes, while parents worried about their children and the elderly coughed all night. By working with the Basel Action Network, who had placed GPS trackers in the waste stream, Mageswari could track illegal waste coming into Malaysia and tip off government officials and the media. This scandal of illegal waste trade hit the news headlines, building momentum for change nationally and globally.
Mageswari works diligently and methodically and is deeply involved in both national and international campaigns, meaning she is often up early speaking with colleagues on the other side of the world and on late-night strategy sessions. Since she began organising to stop the plastic waste trade into Malaysia, imports have reduced by almost half, from around 800,000 tons in 2018 to 400,000 tons in 2021, a result of governments strengthening regulations, imposing bans, increased enforcement and international action, like the inclusion of plastic wastes into the Basel Convention on Transboundary Movement of Hazardous Wastes an their Disposals.
“One of the things I am most proud of is taking community stories from Malaysia to the United Nations and that governments listened and did something. It may not have been enough, but it has made a difference on the ground and inspired us to keep up the fight” – Mageswari said.
Activists build a giant monster of plastic waste in Indonesia
Indonesia is grappling with a major plastic problem, both from the dirty waste trade and exploding national use. Researchers at the International Pollutants Elimination Network (IPEN) found harmful chemicals contained in plastic have contaminated the local food chain, exposing people to toxins linked to serious health problems, such as cancer, diabetes and immune system damage. When visiting the idyllic beaches of Bali, you see workers rake plastic from the beach every morning in a never-ending struggle that is threatening both marine life and the tourist industry on which so many livelihoods rely.
Abdul Ghofar, a twenty-nine-year-old activist with WALHI/ Friends of the Earth Indonesia, is trying to turn the tide. In 2019, Ghofar joined several other civil society organisations to start the “Pawai Bebas Plastik” or Plastic Free Parade campaign. This collaborative national campaign sought to use creative and fun actions to engage people in the political process, such as concerts, movie screenings, stunts and huge carnival-like protests. This movement has helped transform the plastic debate in Indonesia and led to over 100 cities and provincial governments implementing single-use plastic bans on different items, such as plastic bags, straws and styrofoam. “Melawan dengan gembira! – Our secret weapon in the fight against harmful plastic is joy. We encourage people to join our zero waste movement and take action in a way that is fun and exciting,” says Ghofar, with a big smile on his face.
In 12 ‘brand audits’ volunteers gathered waste from across Indonesia to build giant plastic monsters, and in the process documenting which corporate brands are polluting the country. Coca-Cola, Danone, Unilever, Nestle and other transnational corporations make the list of the most common rubbish found.
After building a giant plastic waste fish in 2019, the next project was a 15 metres long plastic snake for the 2022 event. The snake represented Indonesia’s coastal and marine areas polluted by plastic and was so heavy that ten volunteers were needed to carry it during the protests, taking turns every 10 minutes.
“You see people’s eyes light up when they see the plastic monster. In a fun way, they understand not only the problem, but that together we can solve it. Before we saw plastic pollution as a personal problem, now we understand it is a systemic problem caused by corporations and lack of government action,” says Ghofar.
Activists across Indonesia are hopeful that the new global plastic treaty will strengthen their national and local campaigns. The entire plastic and waste problems need to be addressed through strong public policies that encourage reuse, ban unnecessary single-use plastics, reduce plastics production, avoid false solutions and hold corporations accountable.
Learning from the Sri Lanka plastic spill
In 2021 the plastic crisis crashed into the coast of Sri Lanka, with a container ship spilling 1,680 tonnes of plastic pellets and 9,700 tonnes of other toxic chemicals into the sea. Plastic accumulated on beaches up to 2 metres high, destroying entire ecosystems. It was one of the country’s worst-ever environmental disasters that is still awaiting proper clean-up and compensation.
“There is a lack of transparency and accountability in the investigation process, but the public has the right to know. No autopsy has been conducted on the turtles, dolphins and whales that have died, to determine the ingestion of these plastic and micro-plastic chemicals through food chains,” said Hemantha Withanage.
Therefore his own organisation, Centre for Environmental Justice (CEJ)/Friends of the Earth Sri Lanka, took the lead, partnering with universities to do the research. They found high levels of toxins, nitrogen, heavy metals, and endocrine-disrupting chemicals, including bisphenol and polyaromatic hydrocarbons, attached to plastic nurdles and in the water around the shipwreck.
Hemantha has litigated and won some of the most significant environmental cases in Sri Lanka, including one victory resulting in increased enforcement of a ban on single-use plastic bags. As the current chairperson of Friends of the Earth International he never seems to tire of new challenges. Hemantha is advocating for an ambitious new global plastic treaty so we can learn from Sri Lanka’s shipping disaster and break free from plastic.
Oceans of plastic pollution are a grisly sign of a system gone horribly wrong. The cure has to be more than surface-deep. Beneath every mountain of plastic trash lurks a more complex crisis in which the oil industry, over-consumption, corporate power and global injustices are enmeshed. Only 9% of plastics ever produced have been recycled. In order to be effective, the new global treaty must act as a spark for system change.