Meet Our Members – EARTH Thailand

EARTH Thailand: Banking on citizen science towards environmental activism and protection

Interview with Penchom Saetang by Sonia G. Astudillo and Dan Abril

Filing an EIA lawsuit. Photo courtesy of EARTH Thailand

For Penchom Saetang, Executive Director of EARTH Thailand, it all started in the 1991 chemical explosion in the port of Klong Toey in Bangkok that ripped chemical warehouses and shanties in the area.  With over 23 kinds of chemicals stored in the warehouses and a newly established military government, “the Thai officers could not handle the explosion, nor identify the kind and volume of chemicals present.”

Together with like-minded friends, Penchom organized a public seminar to explore the situation and demand the government to release information about the explosion and provide assistance to the victims.  By the end of 1991, a Toxic Chemical Committee was formed to assist victims, discuss industrialization issues, assess existing industrial policies, and provide support for banning hazardous chemicals. 

From the committee, this Liberal Arts and Journalism graduate, set up the Campaign for Alternative Industrial Network (CAIN) in 1998 and eleven years later in 2009, CAIN gave way to Ecological Alert and Recovery or simply, EARTH Thailand which was registered as a foundation. 

From 3 to 4 staff, EARTH now has 10 regular employees and while it has the same objectives and mission as CAIN’s, the work has greatly expanded with more activities like environmental monitoring in communities, tools to analyze chemicals in the environment, and more experts in the field who can provide assistance including legal assistance to the community.

GAIA sat down with Penchom to talk about EARTH’s project, plans, challenges, and successes. 

What are EARTH Thailand’s top priorities?

We promote social and environmental justice to communities affected by bad waste management, illegal dumping, and communities that are being affected by hazardous waste recycling. We also work with communities affected by the waste trade of plastic scraps and other scraps. In 2008, the Thailand and the Japanese government were entering into a contract on economic partnership or the form of free trade agreement.  We learned that the draft bipartite contract would allow waste trade and that once we enter into the partnership, Japan can send in their waste to Thailand.  We could not stop the partnership because a number of Asian countries already signed it.  That was the first time we had a campaign against the waste trade. Since then, we wanted to know the impacts related to waste imports.  We found that Thailand imported huge volumes of plastic waste from other countries and there was an increase in this importation in 2018 when China signed the Sword Policy banning the import of plastic and other materials.

Ban Plastic.  Photo courtesy of EARTH Thailand

What are EARTH Thailand’s main and ongoing campaigns? 

We work on the waste importation issue.  This includes plastic, electronics, metal scraps, and other hazardous waste.  We are also opposing the recycling of electronics and hazardous waste and also pushing for the Basel ban amendment ratification.

There are several waste-to-energy project proposals in the country and we are opposing that too.  

We have several citizen science projects on environment, health, and reducing industrial pollution.  What we do is we provide support to communities to have environmental monitoring and sampling and support them by producing reports that they can use to push the government to solve environmental issues in the area.

We also work with partners on other issues such as mercury and sustainable development.  

What are your biggest accomplishments/achievements?

What we do is strengthen the community and give them a better solution / stronger negotiation to their problem. Our role in supporting the communities has stimulated/encouraged the actions of the environmental and health agencies.

Some concrete achievements like in 2002, we succeeded in the campaign in calling for additional health damage compensation provided to the chemical explosion victim of 1991 from the government.

We are also a part of the social movement to support the Minamata Convention and Basel Convention. We supported the government to ratify the Minamata Convention and the Thai government now had accession to the Minamata Convention. This year the government is considering ratifying the Basel Ban Amendment. And now we are campaigning to end the plastic scrap importation to Thailand and we hope it will succeed.

Using the citizen science approach, we have set up environmental monitoring activities in different communities. This can empower the communities in their fight with industrial pollution and toxic waste problems in a number of communities.

We do research to support lawsuits of communities against the hazardous waste recycling case and in 2020 one community in Ratchaburi Province which had fought for almost 20 years against the recycling company won a class-action lawsuit against the recycling company

There are three levels to our work:

  • Community which includes training, consultancy, data gathering, and simplifying information for their use in environmental movement
  • Connecting with international network such as IPEN, GAIA, and CSOs in Thailand
  • Policy Advocacy and law improvement which involves advocating for environmental law.
Photo courtesy of EARTH Thailand

What challenges are you currently facing?  How is your work impacted by the COVID crisis?

There are many.  There are external factors such as in the earlier period of our activities, we found that we cannot coordinate with agencies such as environmental agencies that should be working on industrial pollution. There was no collaboration there.  Recently, it is getting better but still challenging because the biggest environmental policies are being dominated by industrial investors or big businesses.  It is difficult to overcome them, particularly in the legal & policy areas.

With regards to waste management, plastic waste is very challenging, especially at the policy level.  Local political parties and authorities didn’t want to enforce measures to encourage the general public to reduce plastic waste. Plastic reduction is still on a voluntary base.  We still have a lot to do to solve the plastic issue.

With environmental justice, our problem is the mentality and attitude of the government and judicial authority. The process takes a long time.  We need a platform for dialogue to change attitudes and mindsets on environmental justice.  We need to think about how we can enter into their way of thinking.  Corruption is also a big challenge.

Internally, EARTH has a big problem with staff turnover.  Most of the staff stay short term and often move to other fields such as the government or private sectors or pursue higher education.  Every time it happens, I have to start again and train new staff on how to analyze data, do advocacy work…  It is hard for us to continue working efficiently and to conduct effective campaigns. In fighting the hazardous waste and pollution issue, we still need more knowledge and technical things to strengthen our action and campaign.

The budget is also difficult because we have to raise funds.  Projects last for four years at most and we have to comply with all the requirements of the funding agencies and it is difficult to handle everything.

With the pandemic, we cannot move and do environmental monitoring, particularly in impacted areas. Project implementation could not happen and there are an increasing number of online meetings and conferences. 

What are the main environmental issues that your country/region is facing?

There are big issues such as environmental contamination/deterioration by industrial pollution, the state of marginalized people and their land rights and then there are dam constructions and climate change related to deforestation.  Lots of things but now the big challenge we have in Thailand is about special economic development.  It is a  big and tough challenge for CSOs and many communities.  Thailand just declared 3 provinces under the Eastern Economic Corridor (ECC) when they will receive a special period in investment and we know those industrial investments do not always go well with environmental protection.  The government also announced more than 20 special economic zones across the country and those have all become pollution hotspots.

KhonKaen hotspot. Photo courtesy of EARTH Thailand

Farmers and agriculturists are affected, then the marginalized groups who are discriminated against under different laws but even more so with the special economic zone, and then labour groups discriminated against on their daily wage and no risk protection to chemical exposure, and then migrant workers who are the worst of.

Tha Thum Hotspot.  Photo courtesy of EARTH Thailand

These economic zones bring in big investors and corporations and all types of investments from multinational corporations.  We observe from 2018 that there have been an increasing number of waste recycling being promoted and constructed in the EEC area.  We launched a campaign against dirty recycling this 2021 and call for more regulations and measures to control toxic emissions.   Beyond air pollution, other problems from waste recycling are wastewater, land contamination, and illegal dumping.  Waste recycling is now one of the big problems of EARTH Thailand aside from WTE projects and waste dumping.

Lawsuit against dirty recycling.  Photo courtesy of EARTH Thailand

How do you see your organization’s work evolving in the next few years? 

We try to promote the citizen scientist team to have better technical knowledge with some scientific tools which can help them provide environmental monitoring and analyzing contamination in areas, provide good reports, and teach negotiating power to communities to policy and decision-makers.

We hope to develop local communities to campaign against dirty recyclers.  We can build the citizen scientist team to provide training support and provide consultancy to affected communities.  In parallel, we have to move on and advocate for other policy changes such as the modification of the environmental laws.

We will also campaign for Extended Producer Responsibility (EPR) and continue working on it along with the circular economy.

Photo courtesy of EARTH Thailand

Citizen science is very important because when we talk about health, the environment, and science, people have the belief that those things fall in the hands of scientists, economists, and academic institutions.  When we want to do environmental monitoring, the community doesn’t have the skill to do that.  But we have to fight environmental problems.  Citizen scientists need to work with the community.  If we don’t have a device, we can’t do anything and we can’t ask for assistance from academic institutions for free.  People need to depend on people.  If we’re fighting pollution, we need to strengthen citizen science and use our knowledge and provide support to affected communities.

Citizen science approach is used by many countries to empower the negotiation skills of the people.

What are your thoughts on the waste crisis that many countries in your region (and in the world) are living in right now? 

Waste importation from the west is still happening.  Thailand and other countries in the region are targets for dumping due to corruption in these countries and the low labour cost. 

Plastic waste is related to consumption and economic “development”.  We have to keep watching this issue because it will be a big crisis in the future even if countries have policies and similar goals to reduce.  

I call this the crisis of recycling.  Low-income countries such as Cambodia, Laos, Myanmar, and other low-income countries in Africa are dealing with the plastic waste trade because richer countries can send their waste to them in the guise of recycling and there are no environmental regulations to control this.

Who inspires you the most in the environmental work (in your country or in the world)?

I respect and admire those who contribute to public interest and social well being, no specific idols. I learned from some teachers and friends during my schooling and undergraduate life and I wanted to do something related to public interest like them. After graduation, I initially was not interested in environmental work.  But later, I realized that in this area, I can do something for the greater good.  

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Interested to support the work of EARTH Thailand?  Visit www.earththailand.org/en/

The scale of global plastic pollution has been brought to light in recent years. Over 300 million tonnes of plastic is produced each year, and more than 90 percent of it ends up in landfills, waste dumps, incinerators, and on lands and waterways. Like many other countries in Southeast Asia, Indonesia is dealing with growth in both domestic consumption of single-use plastic and waste arriving at the ports in the name of trade. Indonesia has been labelled as the second largest contributor to ocean plastic leakage after China. In addition to the amount estimated to leak into waterways and the ocean (9 percent of the 4.8 million tonnes of plastic waste generated in Indonesia every year), the majority of plastic waste in the country is being inadequately managed through open burning (48 percent), dumping on land or dumpsites (13 percent).

In response to the unprecedented plastic pollution crisis, fast-moving consumer goods companies and the petrochemical industry have supported and promoted countless miraculous-sounding technologies, pushing back on their bad reputations as major plastic polluters. CreaSolv is Unilever Indonesia’s flagship project on this front, and the media has touted it as an example of a technological innovation that can solve the entire global plastic waste problem by recycling the lowest-value plastic.

Two years after the highly-celebrated launch of the pilot plant in Indonesia in 2017, however, the fuss around the CreaSolv project quieted down as the company secretly shuttered the operation. Reports from local investors revealed multi-layered fallout of the CreaSolv project, from the logistical difficulties of sachet collection through challenged economics around the end products.

Civil Society Organizations Demand Unilever Stop Sachet Production and Switch to Reuse/Refill Systems

FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE: 19 JANUARY, 2022, 9am PHT

Manila, PhilippinesAn investigation from the Global Alliance for Incinerator Alternatives (GAIA) in Asia Pacific of Unilever’s sachet recycling efforts in Indonesia revealed that the company’s claims of the recyclability of sachets using a controversial method that industry calls “chemical recycling” has been largely a failure. Two years after the highly-celebrated launch of the pilot plant in Indonesia in 2017, the company secretly shuttered the operation due to insurmountable logistical, financial, and technical challenges. 

Unilever has come under increasing fire due to its outsized role in the plastic pollution crisis by producing single-use plastic packaging around the world that cannot be reused or recycled, causing massive amounts of waste that can only be dumped or burned. Unilever’s plastic sachets are particularly problematic, as their multiple layers of different types of materials, adhesives, and dyes make it impossible to recycle. 

Instead of listening to civil society’s calls to stop producing sachets and create and pursue zero waste solutions such as reuse and refill delivery systems, Unilever started a public relations campaign claiming its “ innovative CreaSolv technology” would be “the first in the world to be able to recycle and reuse multilayer plastic packaging waste.” 

According to the Break Free From Plastic movement’s annual brand audit report last year, Unilever is the third biggest corporate plastic polluter in the world. In Indonesia, plastic sachets make up 16 percent of plastic waste, amounting to 768,000 tonnes per year.

Key Findings: 

  • Unilever aimed to collect 1,500 tonnes of sachet waste for recovery in 2019 and 5,000 tonnes in 2020, but the program failed and was shuttered after two years. 
  • The goal was to recycle multilayer sachets to make new sachets, but due to low recyclability potential of sachets and technological failures, the plant could only process mono-layer sachets to make a different kind of packaging.
  • Unilever sought to prove that with this new technology plastic sachets could be part of a circular economy and recycled multiple times, but forty to sixty percent of waste feedstock was lost as residue during the process, and the recyclability of the product is unproven. 
  • The now closed facility cost Unilever more than EUR 10 million (or equivalent to IDR 156 billion) for construction since 2011. Uncollected sachets were either stored in warehouses, burned or dumped in landfills. The abrupt closure has also disrupted waste pickers’ livelihoods, who were engaged in collection for the project.

“We had our reservations when we first heard of the project,” said Froilan Grate, GAIA Asia Pacific Regional Coordinator.  “But we are always open to innovations as long as it will not create additional problems that the people will have to deal with later.  Clearly, Unilever’s CreaSolv project is not a solution to the sachet problem.  This is another of Unilever’s deceiving publicity stunt designed to altogether avoid the problem (single-use plastics) and the solution (redesign their packaging) so its business as usual. In the end, the plastic problem worsens and people are blamed for it.” 

Aliansi Zero Waste Indonesia (AZWI) Co-coordinator Rahyang Nusantara said “the project is a distraction created to make us think that this is the solution to the plastic waste issue.  AZWI members have shown that there are solutions and it starts from the ground through policy work and multi-sectoral cooperation.  What we need is for the plastic industry and the fast-moving consumer goods industry to recognize that the Zero Waste system works and they need to be a part of it instead of pushing for fake solutions that are detrimental to the environment.”

Read the Investigation: https://www.no-burn.org/unilever-creasolv/

Press contacts:

Sonia Astudillo, Regional Communications Officer, GAIA Asia Pacific

sonia@no-burn.org 

Claire Arkin, Global Communications Lead, GAIA

claire@no-burn.org

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Zero Waste events – One of the best ways to beat plastic pollution at an organizational and community level

Contributed by Abishek Pradhan (Zero Waste Himalaya)

The Himalayan Cleanup, Ladakh, 2018.

A report by the United Nations Environment Program says, ‘Around the world, one million plastic drinking bottles are purchased every minute, while 5 trillion single-use plastic bags are used worldwide every year. In total, half of all plastic produced is designed to be used only once — and then thrown away.

Plastic waste is now so ubiquitous in the natural environment that scientists have even suggested it could serve as a geological indicator of the Anthropocene era.

Today, we produce about 300 million tonnes of plastic waste every year. That’s nearly equivalent to the weight of the entire human population.

Our addiction to plastic, especially single-use or disposable plastic, has severe environmental consequences and impacts our well being. 

Researchers estimate that more than 8.3 billion tonnes of plastic has been produced since the early 1950s of which only 9% has been recycled. The rest of that plastic has ended up in either a landfill, burnt, or the natural environment.

India Prime Minister Shri Narendra Modi, delivering his 2019 Independence Day speech at Red Fort, pitched for freedom for India from single-use plastic by 2022. He explained how plastic clogs drains and causes other civic problems but that is just a small part of the problem. Plastics do not degrade and disintegrate into microplastic that has gone all pervasive. Microplastics have been found inside human placenta, water, soil, air, salt, human poo, the arctic, Mt Everest, and  plants. It is estimated that an average person ingests an amount of plastic equivalent to the size of a credit card in one week. Plastic pollution is a toxic threat to our and planetary life.  

The waste crisis is not a littering problem, it is an exploitation of the ecological resources, a big factor in sustainable city planning and administration, an issue of animals rights, a human health issue, and a severe product design crisis. Only through actions at all levels (administrative, community and individual) can this crisis be addressed and progress can only be made collectively. Waste management must have a strategy that systematically reduces waste and is the responsibility of the individual, community, institutions and companies. Waste must be designed out and must be addressed at a systemic level. 

We are facing a serious waste crisis in the mountains, and also in our own hometown. The dumping grounds are overfilling as our indiscriminate consumption of disposable plastic has increased. No amount of management after waste has already been created would be able to take care of the problem. We have to think of measures that do not create waste in the first place or as little waste as possible. 

As organizations working for the welfare of common citizens we must be advocates of sustainability / sustainable development and always lead by example.

Here’s what will help in making your events sustainable at every step on the way, 

PRE-EVENT PLANNING:

1.Assessment

The organizers must identify plastic, non biodegradable, and non-recyclable items, opt to avoid them altogether or replace them with reusable or compostable alternatives. 

2.Sustainability Communications

Crafting sustainability communications with the vendors, collaborators, service providers, and participants curating the event’s overall sustainability strategy including goal setting and executing plans to help achieve this. 

Navratri Celebration, Plastic Free Senchal Darjeeling, 2021.

3. Donor sensitization

Sometimes donors bring in items such as plastic water bottles, Tetrapak juice items, other plastic packaged offerings which might be hard to refuse once it has been provided. There is a need to engage with them early on to tell them of your Zero Waste intentions so that they are sensitized towards providing the right kind of support that does not result in adding to the waste heap. 

DURING EVENT IMPLEMENTATION:

1. Infrastructure

Setting up color-coded dustbins, bags, and signages at your event to help drive waste segregation at source. 

2.Stakeholder Training

Training various stakeholders including the food stall vendors on the waste segregation process to be followed.

3. Volunteers / Organizing Team 

Our team on ground must help build excitement and participation for the event being a Zero Waste event. 

The Himalayan Cleanup, Nagaland, 2019.

4. On-Site Waste Sorting

The team must consist of trained volunteers to manage, segregate, and sort the event waste into multiple categories for resource recovery.

5. Food Donations

The excess food must not be wasted and should be either donated to people in need or at least used as animal feed. 

POST EVENT:

1. Sustainable Disposal

Working with our local partners to recycle and compost your event waste and repurpose them into valuable resources. 

2. Waste Audit & Recommendation

Providing a detailed waste audit report and further recommendations post the event for improved efforts in later events. 

Important pointers for organizing a Zero Waste Event. 

  • Say NO to FLEX. 

Use Cloth Banners instead and it’s best to reuse even those. 

  • Don’t use single-use cutlery. 

Using reusable cutlery must always be the priority. T here are biodegradable options available but exploiting any resource for extreme convenience is both unethical and unsustainable. 

  • Don’t distribute or sell packaged water. 

Water is a necessity for life but plastic is the largest and the worst polluter. Use reusable flasks, bottles, and cups. Ask the sponsors or service providers for inverted container dispensers and ask for a refill option such as a portable water filter. Ensure enough water availability so that emergency use of packaged water is avoided and announce where the water is available. 

Navratri Celebration, Plastic Free Senchal Darjeeling, 2021.
  • Decorum over decoration. 

Avoid balloons, plastic flags, flashy plastic flexs, or any plastic item that will be used for the sake of the event and then sent off to the landfill to contaminate the ecology for thousands of years. 

  • Use biodegradable, recycled, local, and handmade stuff. 

Be mindful while planning, managing and executing. Try to keep the carbon footprint of the event to the minimum. It is important to understand that there can be no true welfare in unsustainable events. 

The people look up to us, they imitate our actions with the thought that whatever NGOs and CSOs are doing is progressive and empowering but promoting the rampant use of Single-Use Plastics and jeopardizing the collective health of the planet for the sake of convention and convenience is ignorant, immoral, and unsustainable. 

We hope you will do your part in building a Zero Waste Himalaya and make your events Zero Waste and Sustainable. The people and principles you serve, look up to you. 

” Unless someone like you cares a whole awful lot,

Nothing is going to get better. It’s not. “

Dr. Seuss

In Solidarity! 

The Himalayan Cleanup Team, Zero Waste Himalaya

 Cities can #BreakFreeFromPlastic by banning non-recyclable plastic and ending waste incineration.

July 28, 2021–Global Alliance for Incinerator Alternatives (GAIA) has released a report analyzing the challenges of recycling plastic in five major U.S. cities, closing out Plastic Free July.

Today, solid waste disposal costs cities and residents – with their health and their pocketbooks. The cities in this study have the potential to be at the forefront of reimagining the system and truly shifting their communities to a circular, zero waste economy.

The study looks at 5 cities: Baltimore, Detroit, Long Beach, Minneapolis, and Newark, cities that currently incinerate their waste or have recently relied on waste incineration, highlighting how burning waste undermines successful recycling programs. Environmental justice leaders in each city are pushing to shift their local systems away from burning waste to build systems towards zero waste.

Here are the key findings from the report

  • Lack of data transparency obstructs solutions. Good data leads to good policy. Data on municipal waste flows is absent, old and difficult to find. This allows the plastic industry to exploit loopholes and push self-serving narratives, and creates challenges for cities and communities that want to shift to true zero waste systems.
  • Most plastic is designed to be dumped or burned, harming communities. Cities can reduce pollution by banning non-recyclable plastic. Only 8.8% of all plastic in the waste stream in the five cities is actually recycled. The remainder is incinerated, landfilled or could supply plastic-for-fuel or chemical recycling facilities. 
  • Recycling rates are low because most plastic produced is not recyclable. Companies, not cities, should pay. 64.3% of all plastic in the waste stream in the five cities is not recyclable through municipal recycling or state redemption programs.
  • Cities should prioritize collecting only plastic that can be recycled. In the five cities, only 24% of potentially recyclable plastic (#1, #2, #5) gets recycled; 76% gets incinerated or landfilled. Conversely, 12%-55% of all plastic that ended up in single-stream recycling programs was not recyclable. 
  • While plastic recycling must be improved, it has its limits. Plastic reduction and zero waste systems must be prioritized.  Zero waste infrastructure like reuse, refill and repair provides up to 200x as many jobs as disposal, furthers environmental justice, and improves sustainability.

Below you’ll find quotes from local organizers in each city about the plastic crisis and harms of waste incineration. All speakers below are available for interviews:

Shashawnda Campbell, Environmental Justice Coordinator, South Baltimore Community Land Trust:

“In Baltimore the Bresco incinerator causes 55 million dollars a year in health damages. The environmental injustice of burning trash, including plastics, in communities of color and low income could never be undone because that would mean bringing back the lives that have been lost to air pollution and we all know that can’t be done. What could be done is transitioning to zero waste and away from incineration to make sure no more lives are lost.”

Sandra Turner-Handy, Community Outreach Director, MI Environmental Council: 

“We know that air pollutants released by Detroit’s incinerator in it’s 33 years of operation were found to cause asthma, premature death, nonfatal heart attacks, irregular heartbeat, decreased lung function, coughing and difficulty breathing.  In one neighborhood association of a 5 by 8 block area, just east of the closed facility; we lost over 22 neighbors to COVID in 2020.  Even though Detroit’s incinerator shut down in 2019, our communities living around the facility are still experiencing its negative health effects.”

Akira Yano, Organizer, Minnesota Environmental Justice Table:

“Hennepin County, which owns the HERC incinerator and defends it against decades of community opposition, must stop harming its most vulnerable residents. It must stop deploying the false choice of landfilling versus burning trash. This report shows that plastic is a crisis for our waste management system. The county needs to act by shutting down HERC as soon as possible, so that it does not burn more plastic into the air of its most vulnerable residents. Instead of pouring money into propping up the aging and failing HERC, Hennepin County should help address the plastic crisis by investing in a circular zero waste system and lobbying against increasing plastic production.”

Whitney Amaya, Incinerator Organizer, East Yard Communities for Environmental Justice: 

“The plastic industry is harming our community, communities across the nation and the globe at every step. Locally, we have to bear the burden of breathing dirty air from the oil industry that’s fueling the transportation of plastic to the rest of the nation and from the incinerator that burns trash from several communities outside our own. This is a non-stop cycle because when it comes to plastic, most of it is made to be disposable, which means extraction is continuously happening and harming our communities & environment in the process every time.”

Maria Lopez-Nunez, Director of Environmental Justice and Community Development, Ironbound Community Corporation: 

“The Ironbound Community has faced decades of pollution from an unjust waste system that has allowed the Covanta incinerator to operate and for plastic to proliferate across the state. False solutions, such as incineration and chemical recycling, are preventing a just and equitable transition to Zero Waste for environmental justice communities across New Jersey and allowing the fossil fuel and plastic industry to continue to burn the planet. This report clearly shows that our government officials have failed the Ironbound Community time and again. Not only have they allowed the Covanta incinerator to continue to burn, they have turned a blind eye to the waste problem.” 

Read the report: no-burn.org/5cities/

Press Contact: 

Markeya Thomas, markeya.thomas@gmail.com

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GAIA is a worldwide alliance of more than 800 grassroots groups, non-governmental organizations, and individuals in over 90 countries. With our work we aim to catalyze a global shift towards environmental justice by strengthening grassroots social movements that advance solutions to waste and pollution. We envision a just, zero waste world built on respect for ecological limits and community rights, where people are free from the burden of toxic pollution, and resources are sustainably conserved, not burned or dumped. 

By Adi Varshneya, Zero Waste Communities Coordinator, GAIA US & Canada

What’s wrong with America Recycles Day? 

“America Recycles Day” and its host organization, Keep America Beautiful both have nice-sounding names, but that’s part of the problem. While the organization Keep America Beautiful seems like a friendly non-profit, in reality it is an industry-sponsored group that lends public credibility to corporate interests. According to investigations including a recent exposé in The Intercept, packaging and beverage industries formed Keep America Beautiful in the 1950s to stop fledgling regulations on single-use disposables from spreading. 

Through a series of ad campaigns spread out over decades —including the infamous “Crying Indian” commercial, which uses racist tropes about indigenous peoples to co-opt centuries of indigenous environmental stewardship and land struggles — the organization built a narrative around “litter” that diverts responsibility the growing plastic pollution problem away from corporations and onto individual consumers. America Recycles Day is an extension of this industry greenwashing. Keep America Beautiful’s corporate partners currently include some of the world’s top plastic polluters, including Coca-Cola, Pepsi, and Nestle. Several of these have lobbied against much-needed waste reduction solutions, such as bottle deposit legislation and bans on single-use disposables. In positioning recycling as the ultimate solution to our waste problem, corporate producers have meticulously evaded responsibility for the waste they create by claiming their products are “recyclable.” 

So Keep America Beautiful is a little dodgy… but recycling is still a good thing, right? 

Even with the best available recycling technology, the maximum recycling level for the current mix of plastics produced be somewhere between 36% and 53%. Municipalities are burdened with the massive, costly task of collecting, sorting, and processing recycled waste. This task has become more difficult now that more and more Asian countries are following China’s lead in rejecting imports of American recyclables. Our recycling systems aren’t equipped to deal with the staggering volume of plastic waste produced in this country.

Much of this discarded plastic waste, including multi-layered plastics (such as potato chip bags), are extremely difficult and costly to recycle. Since they can’t, in a practical sense, be recycled, they end up in landfills, incinerators, and the environment. Domestic end markets for recycled materials are lacking, partly because the shale fracking boom makes virgin plastic extremely cheap: Coca-Cola, Pepsi, and Nestle only use 9%, 3%, and 2% recycled content in their products, respectively. We’ve only recycled 9% of all the plastics ever produced, while plastic production is expected to quadruple by 2050. Recycling is simply not enough. 

So should we even bother with recycling? 

Recycling is not enough, but that doesn’t mean we should forget about recycling altogether. We need to work with municipalities and mission-based recyclers to improve our recycling systems. Real recycling requires universal access to recycling and composting services, as well as the education, outreach, and incentives to help people separate their waste correctly. Policymakers should also require producers to use minimum recycled content, which would be one of many initiatives required to boost local economies by building domestic markets for recycled materials.

We also need to make sure risky burn technologies promoted by some of Keep America Beautiful’s sponsors such as “chemical recycling” (usually meaning plastic-to-fuel) aren’t sold to cities as sustainable waste management strategies. “If it doesn’t protect our health and the environment and prevent the need for more resource extraction, it’s not recycling”, according to the Alliance of Mission Based Recyclers. 

If recycling isn’t enough, what is? 

Recycling is just one piece of a much larger puzzle that must include upstream solutions to reduce the amount of waste produced in the first place. Communities and businesses across the world are working with local governments to get their municipalities on the road towards zero waste: they’re supporting initiatives around reuse and refill, organizing around product redesign, implementing bans on single-use disposables, improving collection services, and much more. Visit zerowasteworld.org to find stories and case studies about these powerful, placed-based zero waste solutions that are supporting both environmental and social goals. Corporations need to play their part, too.

They’ve profited by externalizing the costs of their waste onto our communities and environment  for too long — it’s time to force them to take real, measurable actions towards reducing their waste and sustainably managing the end life of their products. Keep America Beautiful’s stated mission of inspiring and educating “people to take action every day to improve and beautify their community environment” is best exemplified by the global movement of sanitation workers, small businesses, sustainability departments, and community-based organizations working to Break Free From Plastic and build holistic solutions towards zero waste.

Villagers pick through discarded imported plastic that was dumped there by a nearby paper recycling company whose imported paper was contaminated with plastic, in Sumengko Village, near Gresik, Surabaya, Indonesia on 21st February, 2019.

Hong Kong / Berkeley, USA, 23 April 2019 — Water contamination, crop death, illness, and the open burning of plastic waste have all flooded into Southeast Asia along with the world’s “recycled” plastics, according to a report by GAIA (Global Alliance for Incinerator Alternatives) with data analysis on the global waste trade from Greenpeace East Asia.

“Plastic waste from industrialised countries is literally engulfing communities in Southeast Asia, transforming what were once clean and thriving places into toxic dumpsites. It is the height of injustice that countries and communities with less capacity and resources to deal with plastic pollution are being targeted as escape valves for the throwaway plastic generated by industrialised countries,” said Von Hernandez, the global coordinator of the Break Free from Plastic movement.

To measure changes to the flow of ‘recyclable’ plastic waste before and after China’s 2018 foreign waste import ban, Greenpeace East Asia collated import-export data from the 21 top exporters — with USA, UK, Germany, and Japan at the top —  and 21 top importers of plastics scraps.

Meanwhile, GAIA’s field investigations in Indonesia, Malaysia, and Thailand detailed illegal recycling operations and crime syndicates, open burning, water contamination, crop death, and a rise of illness tied to environmental pollution that has led citizens to protest and governments to rush in restrictions to protect their borders, many following China’s lead with import bans.

Data indicates that Southeast Asia’s current plastics crisis is the pinnacle of a global experience, with waste piling up globally and domestically for all countries involved, even former exporters. Across the board, plastic waste exports dropped almost 50%, from 12.5 million tons in 2016 to 5.8 million tons in 2018 (available data from January to November 2018). Because plastic manufacturing is projected to rise, this drop in exports in part means ‘recyclable’ plastics will continue to stockpile or head for improper disposal at home. [Note 1]

But even the export of this waste doesn’t ensure proper disposal. Today, exports make their way into any country without adequate regulation to protect itself. North Sumengko, Indonesia, for example, turned into an international dumping ground almost overnight, and GAIA’s field investigation found trash piled two meters high, makeshift dumps, and open burning in the farming community.

This process will continue until decisive action is taken. After China’s import ban, waste flooded into Malaysia, Vietnam, and Thailand, who quickly set up import restrictions. Then, exports overflowed into Indonesia, India, and Turkey.

“Once one country regulates plastic waste imports, it floods into the next un-regulated destination. When that country regulates, the exports move to the next one. It’s a predatory system, but it’s also increasingly

inefficient. Each new iteration shows more and more plastic going off grid — where we can’t see what’s done with it — and that’s unacceptable,” said Kate Lin, a senior campaigner with Greenpeace East Asia.

The Basel Convention will convene April 29 to May 10 in Switzerland to consider a proposal from Norway for greater transparency and accountability in the global trade of plastic waste. The proposal says exporters of plastic waste should receive permission from destination countries in advance — a system known as “prior informed consent” that is already in place for other types of hazardous waste.

“As wealthy nations dump their low-grade plastic trash onto country after country in the global south, the least the international community can do is safeguard a country’s right to know exactly what is being sent to their shores. However, ultimately, exporting countries need to deal with their plastic pollution problem at home instead of passing the burden onto other communities,” said Beau Baconguis, Regional Plastics Coordinator at GAIA Asia Pacific.

This plastics crisis also has a clear origin: corporations that mass produce plastic packaging to boost profits.

“Recycling systems can never keep up with plastic production, as only 9% of the plastics ever produced are recycled. The only solution to plastic pollution is producing less plastic. Heavy plastic users — mainly consumer goods companies like Nestlé and Unilever, but also supermarkets — need to reduce single-use plastics packaging and move towards refill and reuse system to get us out of this crisis,” said Lin.

Note to editor:

Photos for press use can be found here.

GAIA’s research is compiled on a dedicated microsite:  wastetradestories.org

Greenpeace East Asia’s data analysis can be found here.

Note 1: Based on historical trends, global cumulative plastic waste generation is expected to reach over 25,000 million metric tons by 2050. Geyer, R. et al (2017) Production, use and fate of all plastics ever made. Science Advances Vol. 3, no. 7. https://advances.sciencemag.org/content/3/7/e1700782. Plastic waste generation has been increasing in key exporting countries like Germany (increase of 3.9% between 2015 and 2017) and USA (estimated to increase 12% in 2018 compared to 2015).

Media contacts:

Claire Arkin, Communications Coordinator, GAIA, claire@no-burn.org, +1-510-883-9490 ext: 111

Sherma Benosa, Communications Officer, GAIA Asia Pacific,  sherma@no-burn.org, +63 917 815 7570,

August Rick, International Communications Officer, Greenpeace East Asia, Beijing, august.rick@greenpeace.org, +86 155 2818 9404,

Greenpeace International Press Desk, pressdesk.int@greenpeace.org, phone: +31 (0) 20 718 2470 (available 24 hours)

By Monica Wilson

It seems like every week, a corporation maligned for its role in the plastic pollution crisis comes out with some new recycling pledge, accompanied by fanfare and applause. Just last month, Starbucks announced that it will be phasing out plastic straws in favor of “recyclable” plastic lids (containing more plastic than the old straw-and-lid combo did). Earlier this year, Pepsi pledged to make its packaging 100 percent recyclable by 2025, and Unilever committed to making its packaging 100 percent recyclable, reusable or compostable. Sounds like a step in the right direction — right?

No. These announcements may sound great, but they look painfully naive in the face of the growing storm that is the global plastic recycling market. At the same time that the news is filled with these flashy industry recycling pledges, we are getting an increasingly frantic story from across the country and the world that our plastic simply isn’t getting recycled.

2017 study found that of all the plastic ever created, only a paltry 9 percent has been recycled, and the rest is clogging our streets, waterways, and has even made its way into our food systems. Beyond the fish on our plate, tiny pieces of plastic have been found in sea salt, honey, and even beer. Not to mention 94 percent of the United States’ drinking water.

For decades, brands have bankrolled flashy media campaigns to convince us that our switch to disposables over reusables was perfectly fine for the planet because we could just recycle them into new products. The ugly truth is that instead of dealing with the mounting piles of plastic waste enabled by this harmful mind-set, we sent much of it to China, burdening that country with the responsibility of land-filling or burning the large quantities that couldn’t be recycled. Now China has had enough, restricting imported waste in 2017 and imposing tariffs of 25 percent as of Aug. 23, and the West’s fantasy that its plastic waste was being taken care of elsewhere has come crashing down.

As of January 2018, cities across the country have had to break it to their citizens that the yogurt cups, takeout containers, and single-use cutlery that they were dutifully putting into the recyling bin were being sent straight to a landfill. Last month Waste Management, the largest waste company in America, announced that it would not be collecting plastics with codes #4 through #7 for recycling in Sacramento, making the Starbucks “sippy cup” lid just another disposable item destined for the landfill.

So where does that leave those lofty corporate “recyclability” goals? Most likely in the garbage with the rest of the plastic.

We can’t count on recycling to save us from the plastic pollution crisis, especially when the plastic industry is planning on increasing production in the next decade. Even if we were to miraculously find a way to recycle the millions of single-use throwaway plastic Starbucks cranks out every year, more and more plastic will overwhelm recycling systems and decimate the market.

As consumers, we must demand that these companies do more than give us the same-old “recycling will save the day” line, and take things into our own hands. Cities and states can be the first line of defense against plastic pollution through sound policy that minimizes waste instead of merely managing it.

As of now, food and beverage single-use disposables make up approximately 25 percent of all waste produced in California, gumming up recycling systems and clogging our landfills. Berkeley is tackling this problem head-on. A proposed ordinance from a coalition spearheaded by the city’s recycling provider, the Ecology Center, would mandate that all restaurants provide reusable foodware to customers dining in, and charge a small fee for takeout disposable foodware. Takeout items would need to be compostable or recyclable by local standards.

This is one of the most ambitious waste reduction policies in the country, and would force global chains like Starbucks and McDonald’s to limit their use of throwaway items and change packaging design. Imagine if cities across the country adopted the same measures. Companies like Starbucks would have to wake up and smell the coffee.

Plastic recycling has long been used as a crutch to justify industry’s ever-increasing production of single-use plastic. We need bold, innovative solutions to the plastic pollution crisis at the global level, not tired, recycled promises.

Monica Wilson is the Global Alliance for Incinerator Alternatives’ policy and research coordinator and the associate director of GAIA’s U.S. office. She has been working on waste issues around the world for more than 15 years.