Life of Plastic: International body of waste pickers demands representation in all treaty discussions

Requests United Nations funding for six waste pickers from different regions to attend subsequent meetings

By Zumbish
Published: Friday 02 December 2022
A delegation of International Alliance of Waste pickers (IAW) at the ongoing negotiations on a global treaty to end plastic pollution in Uruguay’s Punta Del Este. Photo: IAW

The ongoing negotiations on a global treaty to end plastic pollution in Uruguay’s Punta Del Este saw a win for waste pickers, with a voluntary body formed to ensure they are heard. The ‘Group of Friends of Waste Pickers’ will warrant their representation at intergovernmental negotiating committee (INC) meetings.

Waste pickers are the largest workforce in the recycling chain and recover a higher proportion of recyclable materials than formal waste management systems. More than 20 million people in the world work as waste pickers, according to an International Labour Office report from 2013.

Read more: Life of Plastic: Uruguay talks inch towards last two days; final decision still awaited

A delegation of International Alliance of Waste pickers (IAW) attending the negotiations demanded to be represented in all future treaty discussions. It also called for ring-fenced United Nations funding for six waste pickers from different regions to attend subsequent meetings.

IAW is a networking process that connects and supports thousands of waste picker organisations in over 28 countries

A day before the Uruguay talks — the first round of negotiations by INC — the Uruguay government had hosted the inaugural meeting of the Group of Friends to ensure waste pickers’ interests are represented in the Plastics Treaty Process. 

Mamogala Muskene, director of the Department of Forestry, Fisheries and the Environment and member of the South African delegation, chaired the meeting.

The core objectives of the Group of Friends are to mobilise and coordinate political and technical support to ensure that the interests of waste pickers are reflected in the treaty and to ensure that the learning and knowledge of waste pickers inform the treaty discussions. 

The Group of Friends will serve as a platform for regular exchange, dialogue and consultation among member state representatives, groupings and specialised agencies about experiences and good practices to inform the plastic treaty debate, among the other key objectives.

Down To Earth spoke to waste picker representatives at the event from Asia, Africa, Europe and the Americas, who have asked for their knowledge and expertise to be at the centre of the discussions.

“Waste pickers must be represented in every stage of national policy design as the (plastic) treaty is implemented. I am also here to emphasise the importance of involving waste pickers and workers in the informal economy,” Barbra Weber, a waste picker from the United States, told DTE.

“There is a need for waste pickers’ participation wherever policy decisions are being made, but we often do not receive the right opportunities,” said Indumathi, an Indian representative. 

Waste pickers seek just transition for themselves and other workers in the plastic value chain discussion part of the Plastics Treaty process, said Maddy Koena from South Africa.

Read more: Life of Plastic: Indian producers, brands contribute majorly to polymer pollution says CSE; here is how

A just transition is defined as ending plastic pollution in a way that is as fair and inclusive as possible to everyone concerned, creating decent work opportunities and leaving no one behind. 

It is based on making visible those already working at all stages of the plastic value chain. This includes workers under informal and cooperative settings and recognising their fundamental human dignity and their historical contribution.

“A plan for a just transition will provide and guarantee better and decent work, social protection, more training opportunities and greater job security for workers at all stages of the plastic value chain, including workers in informal and cooperative settings (including waste pickers) and all workers affected by plastic pollution,” it was raised.

Earlier this year, in March, the United Nations Environment Assembly (UNEA) took place in Nairobi, and the IAW was present at the event, joining leaders from 175 countries. 

Besides agreeing to negotiate a global treaty to end plastic pollution, for the first time, they acknowledged “the significant contribution made by workers under informal and cooperative settings to collecting, sorting and recycling plastics.”

The approved resolution 5/14, titled End Plastic Pollution: Towards an International Legally Binding Instrument, mandates the convening of INC. 

The first meeting (INC-1) is being held in Uruguay till December 2, 2022, and began 28 November. The aim is to reach an agreement by the end of 2024 with four additional rounds of negotiations, ideally with significant intercessional work and to open the agreement for adoption in 2025.

The members of the Plastics Treaty Working Group, IAW, also asserted a demand that a report highlighting the contribution of waste pickers in recycling and reducing plastic pollution be requested.

Read more: Life of Plastic: India its own worst enemy in tackling polymer pollution; here is how

“We request the member states to mandate the Secretariat for commissioning a report demonstrating waste pickers’ contribution to reducing plastic pollution and encouraging recycling. When the status report for the meaningful participation in INCs and contribution of waste pickers in plastic pollution reduction is prepared, we would like to provide inputs for the same.”

The IAW initiated the process of constitution of the Group of Friends in the plastics treaty process.

It was supported by the global network Women in Informal Employment: Globalizing and Organizing, the government of Uruguay, charity group Tearfund, the environmental group Global Alliance for Incinerator Alternatives, non-profit Center for International Environmental Law and non-profit Norsk Institutt for Vannforskning.

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