The role of the informal waste sector in ‘closing the tap’ on plastic pollution
In recent years, plastic pollution has become an important focal area on the international policy agenda, as epitomized by the adoption of the resolution entitled End plastic pollution: Towards an international legally binding instrument – henceforth ‘plastic treaty’ – at the resumed Fifth Session of the UN Environment Assembly (UNEA 5.2) in March 2022. ‘Closing the tap’ on plastic pollution is key to reducing its adverse social, economic, and ecological impacts. This requires developing and implementing sustainable plastic waste management policies and systems across localities and scales.
Marginalized communities in developing countries are often the most exposed and vulnerable to plastic pollution and its socio-environmental impacts. Waste management systems in developing countries often struggle to keep up with increasing waste generation rates of rapidly growing economies, urbanization and changing consumer habits. For another, limited waste management capacities are often compounded by waste exports from affluent countries in the Global North. Alongside this, informal waste collection and recycling systems have developed to turn valuable types of waste into resources and livelihoods for millions of informal workers worldwide. These informal activities are often referred to as the informal waste sector (IWS).
Despite its critical role in preventing and mitigating plastic pollution, the IWS lacks social and political recognition across contexts. It is thus momentous that the recent UNEA 5.2 draft resolution recognizes “the significant contribution made by workers under informal and cooperative settings to collecting, sorting and recycling plastics in many countries”. With the negotiation process towards a plastic treaty rapidly approaching, improving the knowledge base on how such an agreement may impact and facilitate a just transition of the IWS is imperative.
Against this backdrop, the United Nations Human Settlements Programme (UN-Habitat), the Norwegian Institute for Water Research (NIVA) and the International Knowledge Hub Against Plastic Pollution (IKHAPP) hosted an online Expert Group Meeting (EGM) from 4-6 April 2022. The EGM was attended by representatives from waste picker organizations, non-governmental, international, and intergovernmental organizations (NGOs), as well as academic and research institutions. Reflecting on the 3-day interactive workshop, this story highlights key discussion points related to a just transition of the IWS under the forthcoming negotiations towards a plastic treaty.
What does ‘a just inclusion’ of the informal waste sector mean in practice?
As part of the journey toward ending plastic pollution, the principle of ‘leaving no one behind’ calls for acknowledging that reducing inequalities, discrimination, and marginalization, as well as ensuring human and workers’ rights are key aspects of curbing the releases and impacts of plastic pollution. But what does this principle entail for the IWS in practice?
The UNEA-5.2 mandate constitutes an important catalyst toward recognizing the ongoing and historical contribution of the IWS to waste management and the socio-economic injustices prevailing therein. However, as underlined by several speakers throughout the EGM, the due recognition of the IWS at national and local levels is yet to be achieved; there is a need to holistically recognize the contribution of all actors involved across the IWS, including waste pickers, collectors, transporters, cleaners, sorters, recycling shops, and processors. A key takeaway message was that a just and inclusive transition should be co-developed to benefit IWS workers, by protecting human rights, labor conditions, and health, rather than focusing solely on registration and taxation.
Participatory collaborations, capacity development activities, and cooperative platforms are key for IWS workers to raise and enhance their voices, visibility and validity across contexts and decision-making levels. The organization of waste pickers in associations and cooperatives has a long tradition in countries such as Brazil and India. Waste pickers are also increasingly making themselves heard through NGOs with global reach, including Women in Informal Employment: Globalizing and Organizing (WIEGO) and the Global Alliance of Waste Pickers – both represented at the EGM. Waste picker organizations are key in promoting and securing waste pickers’ rights and livelihoods, developing capacity within, and strengthening IWS value chains, and influencing policies to cover the true socio-environmental costs of plastic pollution.
Active participation of the IWS in the design of pollution reduction strategies is another key element of a just inclusion of IWS workers in practice. This is particularly so for the widespread implementation of Extended Producer Responsibility (EPR) mechanisms. EPR systems that are exclusive of the IWS may divert valuable materials and livelihood sources away from waste pickers and other IWS workers and disrupt well-functioning informal recycling supply chains. On the other hand, if developed with the active participation of IWS workers, EPR systems can support developing mechanisms that may ensure fairer prices for the sourcing and handling of recyclables, including costs of transportation, storage, and labor conditions, such as trialled in the SWaCH model in Pune, India and presented at the EGM. As a starting point for mitigating the risks of IWS exclusion and for promoting opportunities for increasingly inclusive EPR systems, the Global Alliance of Waste Pickers presented a declaration on EPR, including principles for just and inclusive EPR policies.
How can the development of a plastic treaty facilitate a just inclusion of the IWS?
While there is no straightforward answer to this question, one may begin by looking at how other multilateral environmental agreements (MEAs) have dealt with related concepts of informality, hazardous waste, and indigenous knowledge. For example, the Minamata Convention of Mercury specifically addresses informal artisanal and small-scale gold mining (ASGM) communities in the text of the convention (Article 7). Similarly, it was echoed throughout the EGM that the IWS needs to be recognized and addressed specifically in the text of a forthcoming plastic treaty.
Other relevant MEAs to consider include the Basel Convention, which offers technical guidance on how to address environmentally sound management of waste in the informal sector, and the Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD), which recognizes traditional and indigenous knowledge providers as key actors, and which set up a dedicated working group to draw up guidelines for the same. Relatedly, participants in the EGM stressed the need for IWS actors to be actively part of the negotiations towards a plastic treaty from the onset, particularly by making funds available for the active participation of workers and representatives in the upcoming meetings of the INCs on plastic pollution.
In preparation for the upcoming INC meetings, the first ad-hoc Open-Ended Working Group (OEWG) will be hosted in Dakar, Senegal, from May 30. to June 1. 2022. Alongside this meeting, multi-stakeholder dialogues (MSDs) will be open to non-state actors, including NGOs, CSOs, and informal and cooperative workers. In this context, the outcomes from the MSD focusing on a ‘just and inclusive transition to a plastic pollution-free economy’ are much awaited and will be subject to attentive scrutiny from IWS actors. IKHAPP team members will be following the OEWG in Dakar in person and share insights on the outcomes of the event in a follow-up story thereafter.
Thank you to all who attended the EGM, actively participated in the discussions, and contributed with insightful presentations, including: David Marquis (UNEP), Johnson Doe (Global Alliance of Waste Pickers), Jeroen Ijgosse (WASTE Netherlands), Uttam Kumar Saha (Practical Action), Mari Williams (Tearfund), Sonia Dias (WIEGO), Lubna Anantakrishnan (SWaCH), Maria Soledad Mella Vidal (RED LACRE Chile), Taylor Cass Talbott (WIEGO), Kabir Arora (Global Alliance of Waste Pickers), Marianne Bailey (Secretariat of the Minamata Convention on Mercury), Ludovic Bernaudat (UNEP), Antonio Q”Apaj Conde Choque (Secretariat of the Convention on Biological Diversity) and Carlos Martin-Novella (Basel, Rotterdam, and Stockholm Conventions).
Written by Emmy Nøklebye (Research Assistant, NIVA). Any questions may be sent to firstname.lastname@example.org