Global South pushes for waste pickers’ rights in UN plastic treaty

As talks start this week on a global pact to end plastic trash, informal waste pickers groups from Asia and Africa call to make social and economic benefits for those who earn a living from collecting recyclables to be part of the agenda.

waste picker PH
An elderly female waste picker rummages through trash at a dumpsite in Dumaguete City, Philippines. Image: Greenpeace

Safer and more sustainable livelihoods for the informal waste sector must be part of negotiations for the world’s first ever treaty on plastic pollution, waste picker groups from the Global South have said.

The second round of talks to develop the United Nation’s pact to end global plastic pollution should recognise the world’s 20 million waste pickers by providing healthcare, a proper income and better working conditions, waste picker representatives from Asia and Africa told a press briefing on the sidelines of the conference, which began on Monday in Paris, France.

“In any country, waste pickers do not get fair returns for their work. Waste pickers know that there are toxic chemicals in plastic but we still make sure we recover them and save the environment,” said Indumathi, who leads a non-profit Hasiru Dala, which is a member of a collective of 35 waste picker organisations in India called Alliance of Indian Wastepickers.

“But nobody identifies us as environmentalists… and now with the changing plastic management system, it will be a worse situation; that is the reason we are asking for a just transition,” she said referring to the rise in waste burning, which she says will create a system that will reduce the recovery of resources resulting in fewer jobs for waste pickers.

Indumathi noted how the waste picker group she heads is an exception because it has partnered with the local government for its 88 members to obtain an occupational identity card, which recognises a waste picker’s authorisation and legitimacy to collect waste. Instead of hitting the streets to scavenge through trash, the work order allows them to collect segregated, inorganic waste which offers more decent working conditions and respect as a service provider, she added.

International Alliance of Waste Pickers INC2

Civil society organisations like waste picker coalitions, Indigenous People’s groups and communities most affected by plastic pollution protest over being shut out from the UN plastic treaty talks in Paris, France on 29 May. Image: International Alliance of Waste Pickers

“I want the same opportunity for every waste picker in every country to become what I am – to rise from being a waste picker to becoming an entrepreneur who provides jobs to fellow waste workers. That is the just transition that we are asking for from the treaty,” Indumathi said. 

John Chweya, who leads the waste pickers’ association of Kenya, representing 36,000 collectors, said the world owes a “historical debt“ to waste pickers, who prevent and manage pollution of the environment from rubbish, in particular plastic waste.

“Ending plastic pollution cannot happen without us, and this treaty negotiation process has to centre our voices and expertise to achieve a just transition towards that goal,” said Chweya.

I want the same opportunity for every waste picker in every country to become what I am – to rise from being a waste picker to becoming an entrepreneur who provides jobs to fellow waste workers. That is the just transition that we are asking for in the treaty.

Indumathi, Alliance of Indian Wastepickers

The second meeting of the conference is deemed critical, as it will decide on the treaty text. One of the fundamental issues being considered is the system of voting on decisions for each member nation, which requires the insight and experience of those who do the actual collection and selling of recyclable plastics to earn a living.

But observers pointed out that not all waste picker organisations, along with Indigenous people and communities most impacted by plastic pollution, were allowed inside the venue during the opening plenary on Monday.

“Despite registering for the meeting and coming all the way to Paris, fewer than one third of the people you see here were allowed inside the venue. We will not be silenced,” said Jane Patton, campaign manager, plastics and petrochemicals, for Swiss-based nonprofit environmental law organisation Center for International Environmental Law (CIEL), who was present at the conference. 

And those who were allowed inside the venue were seated in the gallery, far from the talks, and were not given any means to air out their opinions on the rules of procedure being discussed, said CIEL. 

Jane Patton tweet

Jane Patton of non-profit Center for International Environmental Law expresses in a tweet the lack of inclusion at the UN Global Treaty conference. Image: Twitter 

“Limiting access to the negotiations’ building and sticking civil society, waste pickers, Indigenous peoples and scientists in the gallery with no microphones is not engagement. For a strong plastic treaty, we need strong public participation,” wrote CIEL in a tweet.

During the first round of talks in November in Uruguay, countries set an ambitious deadline of having a legally binding treaty agreed within a year.

But up to now, delegates are still deciding on the treaty’s core objectives, including whether some plastics should be banned and ways to improve waste management.

Strict language for chemical transparency and “false solutions”

A strong treaty should also include restrictions on certain hazardous chemicals found in plastics, which poses health risks, especially for waste collectors who deal with the petrochemical-based material on a daily basis, said Arpita Bhagat, plastic policy officer for Global Alliance for Incinerator Alternatives (GAIA) Asia Pacific, during the press briefing. 

“We really need to do know what plastic we are consuming, not just what type it is, but what chemicals there are in the composition because of their health effects,” said Bhagat.

There are over 10,000 toxic chemicals found in plastics, including bisphenol A (BPA) and Phthalates which leach out of plastic products over time and into house dust that can be breathed in everyday, studies have found.

She added that there must also be strict language in the treaty text against “false solutions” labeled as waste-to- energy, where municipal waste is burned to generate a small amount of energy, and co-processing in cement kilns, which is the burning of plastic to power cement manufacturing.

Ahead of the conference, the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) released a report that cited burning plastic waste in cement kilns as a key strategy in the design and implementation of the global plastics treaty, which alarmed civil society.

“We need strong language against technocratic solutions that we need to be very careful about, like those proposed  by industry under the guise of being environmental but is actually greenwashing,” said Bhagat.

Most popular

Featured Events

Publish your event
leaf background pattern

Transforming Innovation for Sustainability Join the Ecosystem →