The “Second Life” of Plastics?: On Toxic Recycling

By Xavier Sun, Taiwan Zero Waste Alliance

We know most plastics can be recycled, turned into recycled plastic pellets in recycling facilities, and sold to other plastic manufacturing factories (domestic or abroad) to be processed into new plastic products.  However, we have very little knowledge about the (hazardous) chemicals that are also “recycled” during this process.

It is actually a “toxins in, toxins out” situation. Take PVC for example. The first products made of “virgin” PVC may contain many other “functional chemicals”, such as phthalates and fire retardants. While the lifecycle of these virgin PVC products ends in recycling facilities (although better than incinerators), the functional additives stay in the newly processed and recycled PVC pellets.

Since 2018, many countries have found hazardous substances in imported toys. The International Pollutants Elimination Network (IPEN) reveals in their report,  “Toxic Loophole” that worldwide, toys made from recycled plastic, contain toxic substances such as dioxins and brominated flame retardants. 

Meanwhile, the report, “Worldwide Contamination of Recycled Plastic Globally”, analyzed recycled High-Density Polyethylene (HDPE) pellets from different countries and all were found to contain a broad spectrum of hazardous chemicals including UV-blockers, brominated flame retardants, and bisphenol-A (BPA) (See Figure 1). The three chemicals found by the study have been conclusively proven to have endocrine-disrupting properties and can cause harm to human health. 

Figure 1. The “high concern” and ”hazardous” chemicals found in recycled HDPE plastic pellets.

The report also discloses the lack of regulation or data transparency of the chemicals present in both virgin and recycled plastic pellets. In manufacturing plastic, UV-blocks and flame retardants could be added in most upstream plastic pellets due to the flammability of most plastic products and their vulnerability to sunlight. In the recycling process, these chemicals are retained and will still be present in the recycled pellets. The BPA detected in almost all samples tested might indicate mis-sorting of recycled polycarbonate with HDPE. Hence the inclusion of hazardous and high-concern chemicals may re-enter the whole life cycle of plastics again and create a “Toxic Circular Economy”.  

With the lack of transparency and government regulations, the ingredient list of recycled pellets is not certain, and there could be more hazardous chemicals that may be transferred into recycled-plastic-made products that the study was not able to identify.

With the massive overproduction of virgin plastic pellets, the trend and amount of plastic recycling must increase accordingly. However, given the concerns raised by the IPEN’s research, transparent data on chemicals in plastic pellets and the mandatory testing of plastic pellets (both virgin and recycled) using reliable but cheap testing methods should be established so that people can have a clear idea of “what kind of products made by these pellets are acceptable”.


  1. Straková, J., DiGangi, J., Jensen, G., et al (2018 October) Toxic Loophole: Recycling Hazardous Waste into New Products. International Pollutants Elimination Network.
  2. Brosché, Ph.D.1 , S.,  Strakova, MSc.1,2, J., Bell, MSc.1, L.,  Karlsson, Ph.D, T., (2021 December) Widespread Chemical Contamination Recycled Plastics Globally.  International Pollutants Elimination Network,
  3. International Pollutants Elimination Network (2022 February) How Plastics Poison the Circular Economy.
  4. Center for International Environmental Law (2017 September) Fueling Plastics: Fossils, Plastics, and Petrochemical Feedstocks.

Interview with Kabir Arora and Haris Najib by Dan Abril 

[Photo courtesy of the Alliance of Indian Waste-pickers]

Founded in  2008, the Alliance of Indian Waste-pickers (AIW) was established by four organizations working on the issues of waste pickers:  Kagad Kach Patra Kashtakari Panchayat (KKPKP), Chintan, Self Employed Women’s Association (SEWA) and Stree Mukti Sanghatana (SMS). These organizations allied to ensure that the collective voice of waste pickers is represented at the national public agenda. 

As an organization representing waste pickers, AIW has been actively involved in advocating  the cause of waste pickers by conducting training for member organizations, development of policy analysis and recommendations, generation of research studies, and organizing of the waste-pickers in India 

We had a chance to talk with the alliance’s National Coordinator, Kabir Arora and his associate, Assistant Coordinator, Haris Najib on the challenges and joys of handling such a noble organization. 

What are the priorities of the Alliance?

Currently, we are working on a  database. Many of our members have been keeping rudimentary data of organized waste-pickers. Still, we need a more detailed database to provide us with an overview of the membership and the condition of waste pickers in India.  As such, the database shall also serve as a resource for our present and future advocacy work. 

We also keep a tab on programmes and policies when it comes to many aspects such as plastic waste management. The Indian policy landscape is very dynamic and we have to keep negotiating with authorities so models created out of years of struggle of waste pickers won’t be disregarded simply because there is a change in guard.  

The Extended Producers Responsibility (EPR) has also come into focus since many organizations worked to have the role of waste pickers recognised in the discussions. 

[Photo courtesy of the Alliance of Indian Waste-pickers]

What are the main ongoing campaigns of AIW? 

As we are an alliance engaged in organizing of informal workers, our key work is to ensure that waste pickers have access to social protection measures such as medical care and state insurance programs and benefits like scholarships for their children, and skill-building courses.

In addition, our focus has been on the involvement of waste-pickers in Extended Producers Responsibility (EPR) and the integration of waste-pickers in the Solid and Plastic Waste Management Systems.  

What are your biggest accomplishments/achievements?

One of our major achievements was in 2016 with the inclusion of waste pickers and informal waste collectors in the Solid and Plastic Waste Management Rules 2016. This was borne out of the years of advocacy work that started with the Alliance’s inception in 2008. Since that win, we have been engaged in high-level campaigns and have pushed for the participation of waste pickers in discussions on issues that impact the sector. 

Municipalities now understand that waste pickers need to be involved in the process. Before the alliance was set up, people’s approach to waste and waste pickers and understanding of the informal recycling sector was very generic. Now they see the intricacies of waste picking and are able to deal with it in strategic ways through different programs in the community.  It gives us a bigger space to work as a coalition. We are happy that we have reached this status.

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

As an alliance of waste pickers, we face a number of challenges. First, as a network composed of more than 25 members, it takes us time to reach a consensus on issues. Consensus requires multiple consultations, and as a network, we do not shy away from that process. Members face many challenges including municipal authorities changing their policies and we have to keep negotiating with the authorities to keep policies favourable to waste pickers. 

Second, not all waste pickers get the benefits outlined in various laws and policies. Given the extensive size of the sector and our limited resources, we can only reach a limited few.  

The outbreak of COVID-19 brought more challenges. Waste pickers were disproportionately impacted by the pandemic. Aside from the loss of income under lockdown rules, several waste pickers faced domestic violence and it was quite sad that we could not provide support for everyone who needed the assistance. On the other hand, some cities – like Bangalore, and Delhi gave waste pickers passes so they can continue collecting waste door-to-door.

Overall, the COVID-19 tragedy brought by the pandemic held us together. The network became strong and the number of people holding the network together increased. Our present goal of creating a database is a result of the pandemic.

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

Incineration is not a big challenge at this point since the union government refuses to fund waste incineration projects. Currently, the state governments are asked to look for the funds by themselves if they want to construct one in their area. 

However, we face other issues such as climate change and plastic pollution. Both are horrible and they are interconnected. Waste pickers’ settlements are littered with no-value discards since there are no collection facilities set up by the municipality. Technically, the government should be the one collecting materials that have no value but unfortunately, they don’t do this function. Waste pickers are left with no other option but to burn them as keeping the discards costs waste pickers’ money. 

[Photo courtesy of the Alliance of Indian Waste-pickers]

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

We will continue to advocate for the inclusion of waste pickers and focus on organizing and strengthening the network. Overall, we have a positive outlook as the law is on our side – but even though we have the law on our side – we have to be on guard as the privatization of waste management would displace waste pickers and we have to ensure that waste pickers are not removed and would continue to have a place in the waste management system. 

The ongoing national and international discussions on the production, management, and recycling of plastic -have placed a new set of questions regarding just transition for waste pickers, finding the answers to those questions would be a new quest. 

Another area of work would be exploring structures and systems for waste pickers to handle the ever-increasing frequency of extreme weather events. 

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

The crisis of waste is also the crisis in how our local governments function.  For waste pickers, waste is a livelihood and it is an opportunity to feed their family. There is a great book, “Rubbish Belongs to the Poor” by Patrick O’ Hare, the book argues that waste should be seen as a common  for vulnerable populations to support itself and this is something we should look into as governments move to the privatization of waste management, leaves waste-pickers out of work

We also look at waste from a very technical point – this includes incineration to dispose of waste. These technical solutions lack human participation. It does not look at the concern of labour, the concern of workers, and the concern of communities surrounded by waste. There is a justice concern there.  Without the emphasis on of labour and workers’ rights and entitlements, you cannot come up with solutions to deal with such complex problems. 

Do you collaborate with partners in other regions? If so, how?

We are a member of the India Plastics Pact and we are leading the discussion on the inclusion of the informal sector in the process of recovering and recycling plastic.  We collaborate regularly with other organizations working on informal workers’ rights such as the Working People Charter and Women in Informal Employment: Globalizing and Organizing (WIEGO).

We also have exchange programmes with waste-pickers organizations in Nepal, Bangladesh, and Indonesia. If resources permit, we get in touch with waste pickers’ organizations in other countries and we ask them to visit us and check how the work is done or vice versa – And finally, we collaborate with environmental organizations such as the World Wildlife Foundation (WWF- India), GAIA, and GAIA members in India. 

How does your work on waste relate to social justice?

The quest for dignity for waste pickers. We organize waste pickers to articulate their aspirations and hopes for the future and work together for their realization.  We as a network have a policy that nothing about waste-pickers or waste management, without waste-pickers, and ensure that waste-pickers represent and speak for themselves.  This has been very clear to us since day one.

Internally we invest a lot on training and workers’ education as it is a central reference point to ensure that all our waste pickers are represented and listened to. 

[Photo courtesy of the Alliance of Indian Waste-pickers]

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

Three organizations are pioneers and serve as an inspiration for AIW. First is SMS. We applaud their skill in stirring the conversation towards the involvement of waste pickers in waste management and actually putting it into practice. Then there is Hasiru Dala. Their immense creativity when it comes to waste management and looking at the reuse economy as an alternative source of livelihood for waste pickers is remarkable. Also, there is Chintan in Delhi for their regular reporting in regards to air pollution and their opposition towards waste incineration. 

We would also like to cite a group of sisters from Shillong who organized themselves and is currently managing organic waste and a composting plant –  and they were the ones who approached us! They are an inspiration as they organized themselves. 


For updates, check out the Alliance of Indian Waste-pickers at If interested in supporting the creation of their database and their continuing education and training for waste pickers, you may reach them at:

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.  


Interested to support the work of EARTH Thailand?  Visit

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


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:

Press contacts:

Sonia Astudillo, Regional Communications Officer, GAIA Asia Pacific 

Claire Arkin, Global Communications Lead, GAIA


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, 



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. 


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. 


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:

Press Contact: 

Markeya Thomas,


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 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.