UNEP Report Sparks Controversy Ahead of Global Plastics Treaty Negotiations

Promoting burning plastic waste in cement kilns has been denounced by civil society, academics, and frontline groups.

UNEP Report Sparks Controversy Ahead of Global Plastics Treaty Negotiations

The United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) recently released the Spotlight report, which aims to assist national governments in negotiating a new global treaty to put an end to plastic pollution. The second round of negotiations on the development of this treaty, also known as the Global Plastics Treaty (INC-2), is scheduled to take place in Paris, France from May 29 to June 2. The report was prepared in collaboration with Systemiq, a consulting firm, and the University of Portsmouth.

However, various civil society organizations, frontline groups, and academics have expressed their concerns over the report’s promotion of burning plastic waste in cement kilns as a significant strategy in the design and implementation of the Global Plastics Treaty.

According to Dr. Neil Tangri, Science and Policy Director at the Global Alliance for Incinerator Alternatives (GAIA), this strategy allows the plastic industry to continue increasing plastic production by claiming that burning plastic waste is a solution. This approach poses a severe threat to public health and the environment, and it undermines the primary goal of the global plastic treaty, which is to cap plastic production.

Burning waste in cement kilns would create a “lock-in effect,” which would increase the demand for cheap plastic waste for fuel, thus defying global efforts towards restricting plastic production. Furthermore, this practice would replace one form of fossil fuel with another, creating more climate impacts. Burning one tonne of plastic waste releases greenhouse gas emissions equivalent to the burning of fossil fuels, and the cement industry is known to be poorly regulated.

Many people living near cement production facilities are alarmed at UNEP’s backing of this toxic strategy. Larisa de Orbe of the Mexican environmental justice groups Red de Acción Ecológica and the Colectiva Malditos Plásticos believes that waste should not be burned, but its production should be drastically reduced, and single-use plastics should be banned.

Between 2018 and 2021, imports of plastic waste into Mexico increased by 121%, and a significant portion of it is suspected to be burned in cement kilns, which operate with few controls or emissions monitoring systems.

Burning plastic waste in cement kilns releases dioxins that stay in the environment forever and are linked to cancers, reproductive and developmental impairments. This has significant health implications for the communities living nearby.

Unfortunately, burning plastic in cement kilns has become a greenwashing tactic by the plastic and consumer-facing industries under the guise of “recycling.” This practice is prevalent in low-income countries in the Global South, where pollution controls are either non-existent or poorly enforced.

There is little to no transparency around who is financing the work by the consulting firm Systemiq around the plastics treaty negotiations.