New UNEP Report Sparks Controversy Ahead of Global Plastics Treaty Negotiations
Civil Society, Academics, and Frontline Groups Denounce Promotion of Burning Plastic Waste in Cement Kilns
FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE: May 16, 2023
New York, NY, USA– Today the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) released its Spotlight report, which is meant to help national governments negotiate a new, global treaty to end plastic pollution. The second round of negotiations on the development of the Global Plastics Treaty (INC-2) will take place in Paris, France on May 29-June 2. The report was prepared in part by Systemiq, a consultancy firm, and the University of Portsmouth.
Civil society organizations, academics, and frontline groups are expressing their concern over the report’s promotion of burning plastic waste in cement kilns as a key strategy in the design and implementation of the Global Plastics Treaty.
“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 Global Alliance for Incinerator Alternatives (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.”
Widespread burning of waste in cement kilns would create a “lock-in effect,” perversely creating demand for cheap plastic waste for fuel that would defy global efforts towards restricting plastic production.
The climate impacts from the cement industry are already devastating–8% of the world’s carbon dioxide is from cement production. Widespread burning of waste in cement kilns would replace one form of fossil fuel with another. 99% of plastic is made from fossil fuels, and according to a UNEP report, burning one tonne of plastic waste releases roughly the equivalent greenhouse gas emissions.
The cement industry is known to be poorly regulated, making it one of the dirtiest types of facilities. Many living near these sites are alarmed at UNEP’s backing of this toxic strategy.
“To tackle the plastic crisis, waste should not be burned, but its production should be drastically reduced, and single-use plastics should be banned,” says Larisa de Orbe of the Mexican environmental justice groups Red de Acción Ecológica and the Colectiva Malditos Plásticos. “Environmental authorities in Mexico and the Human Rights Rapporteur on Toxic Substances have recognised that the burning of waste in cement kilns has caused environmental disaster and the violation of human rights in the territories and communities near these activities.”
Between 2018-2021 imports of plastic waste into Mexico has risen by 121%, a significant portion of which is suspected to be burned in cement kilns, which operate with few controls or emissions monitoring systems.
“To promote the burning of plastic waste in cement kilns is an irresponsible choice that has significant health implications for the communities living nearby. Burning plastic waste releases dioxins that stay in the environment forever, and are linked to cancers, reproductive, and developmental impairments. These are the very same chemicals that are threatening the residents of East Palestine, Ohio,” states Dr. Linda S. Birnbaum Scientist Emeritus and Former Director of the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences and National Toxicology Program and Scholar in Residence at the Nicholas School of the Environment, at Duke University.
Burning plastic in cement kilns has increasingly been used as a greenwashing tactic by the plastic and consumer-facing industries under the guise of “recycling.” For example, an investigative report from Bloomberg showed that the majority of plastic waste the UK supermarket chain Tesco collected for recycling was ending up in cement kilns in Poland. One of the largest plastic manufacturers, Dow Chemical, created a program in parts of the United States to collect “hard-to-recycle” plastics for “advanced recycling,” which an investigation by Reuters showed was primarily being sent to a cement kiln.
Reuters also found that multiple big consumer brands like Unilever, Coca-Cola, and Nestle were funding projects to burn their plastic waste in cement kilns, primarily in low-income countries in the Global South without the capacity to monitor and enforce pollution controls. All three companies have been identified in Break Free From Plastic brand audits as the top 5 plastic polluting companies on earth for five years running.
There is little to no transparency around who is financing the work by the consulting firm Systemiq around the plastics treaty negotiations.
Claire Arkin, Global Communications Lead, GAIA