Give me Convenience or Give Me Death

Give me Convenience or Give Me Death

Written by Stiv Wilson. Article originally posted in Story of Stuff.

At this point in modern life, we likely touch plastic more than we touch our loved ones.  Plastic has become a ubiquitous symbol of globalization. Most of us have a limited relationship to this material, experiencing it only from purchase to disposal.  But there is a whole story that exists before and after when we come into contact with it, and that’s the real Story of Plastic.

One of the most common misconceptions about plastic is its recycling value, but the story there is nuanced. Recycled plastics don’t have much value, especially given our rising levels of virgin plastic production. What’s more, not all plastic is created alike, and plastics with little or no recycling value are likely to end up poisoning people and the environment. For the most part, countries in the developed world pass off this burden to developing nations. We simply can’t recycle our way out of this problem.

We wanted to see where low value plastic recycled in the US and other developed countries ends up. That curiosity took us to Indonesia, and what we found was startling.

We throw all sorts of plastic into our recycling bins, which then gets sorted at big, automated recycling facilities. In this process, flat plastic often gets mistaken for paper and ends up in huge bales of recycled paper. These bales as loaded into shipping containers and exported to countries with fewer environmental controls and cheap labor to be recycled into new paper and cardboard products. At the paper plants in countries like Indonesia, the flat plastic “contaminants” are sorted out by hand.

The problem is that the onslaught of these exports is near constant, so all that plastic ends up being dumped in open fields and neighborhoods where an informal sector of wastepickers sort through it for materials that can earn them money from the recycling operators in country. They make about $1.50 a day sorting through these mountains of plastic waste for recyclables like flattened aluminum cans and beverage bottles. And because the trucks of plastic never stop, they continue to look only for the highest-value materials. The rest of the plastic – ”residuals” like snack wrappers, bags, and other scraps – could technically be recycled (for the most part), it has so little value that it’s not worth it even for someone making just $1.50 a day to pick it up.

Places like this, in Surabaya, Indonesia, are the end of the line for plastic from all over the world. To get rid of the onslaught of plastic that keeps coming from places like the US, The European Union, and Australia, it’s openly burned or used as fuel in local neighborhood tofu factories. The ash is full of toxics and is dumped without any control, often adjacent to rivers and rice fields. The unfiltered smoke from hundreds of stacks goes straight into the air.

In other neighborhoods in this area, the residual plastic separated from the paper is dumped in communities willing to sort it for a few extra dollars to augment rice farming and other small-scale industries. The result is a surreal landscape of litter, with hills of waste and the occasional tree sticking through a floor of plastic so thick you can’t see the ground. Here, too, the plastic is burned to make room for more, sending dioxins and heavy metals straight into the soil and water table. The smell of burning plastic is omnipresent, and induces headaches and sore throats within minutes of stepping out of car. There is little public health data in places like rural Indonesia, but I can say anecdotally there’s something in plain view that’s hard to stomach: there are few old people. People in these communities don’t seem to live long lives. They are choking on plastic and its poisonous fumes.

It’s easy to look at this sort of practice out of context and blame a country like Indonesia for ‘bad management.’ But what’s missing from the dialogue is that the current global system of plastic consumption and disposal depends on this reality.  If poor people in other countries weren’t sorting out the few valuable materials and burning the rest of our Trader Joe’s packaging and water bottle wrappers, the recycling systems in developed world countries would economically collapse.

It’s easy to look at this sort of practice out of context and blame a country like Indonesia for ‘bad management.’ But what’s missing from the dialogue is that the current global system of plastic consumption and disposal depends on this reality.  If poor people in other countries weren’t sorting out the few valuable materials and burning the rest of our Trader Joe’s packaging and water bottle wrappers, the recycling systems in developed world countries would economically collapse.

This environmental horror is one of the main reasons China announced that it would no longer take our waste. That alone has drastically affected the economics of recycling globally, but also created a race to the bottom where developed world countries are desperately trying to find new places to dispose of our waste. In a sense, this system is designed this way, not necessarily by any one evil specter, but more from a series of bad ideas that have become an entrenched system that is hard to change.

Luckily, in all the places where these problems exist, there are people fighting back, working to change the system. They’re working to stop waste imports and ban low- and no-value plastics from their communities. But we in privileged societies also have an obligation to work in solidarity with people in developing countries and to push back at the convenience industrial complex that created this mess in the first place. That means organizing against corporations like Nestlé, Procter & Gamble, and Unilever who profit from this model. It means passing strong policies aimed at reducing the amount of plastic in the system and making companies responsible for the waste that their products leave behind.

The Story of Plastic will show not only what this hidden global system looks like, but also how a global movement is rising up to fix it. It not only can be done, it must be done.

Silliman University Commits to Zero Waste and Sustainability

Silliman University Commits to Zero Waste and Sustainability

Dumaguete, Philippines – Silliman University (SU), a private university in the central part of the Philippines, is implementing a new policy that eliminates single-use plastic bags and aims towards Zero Waste, the first university in the country to do so. SU’s new environmental policy was approved unanimously by its Board of Trustees (BOT) on November 17.


The university’s commitment to the prevention of environmental pollution, conservation and enhancement of natural resources, and sustainability is defined in the Environmental Principles, Policies, Guidelines and Best Practices that the SU BOT has adopted in full.


SU’s environmental policy will translate to action the university’s recognition of its calling to be a community of stewards of creation, and is in line with its perspective of “total human development for the well-being of society and environment.” The university seeks to be a model of a sustainable campus “by demonstrating the principles of Zero Waste, the waste management hierarchy, energy conservation and renewable energy utilization, biodiversity conservation, and a reduced carbon footprint.” 


The policy provides for the application of environmental principles in five policy areas: waste prevention and management, green procurement, food and food waste, events and festivals, and greening of the campus. It reiterates the university’s belief that everyone is a stakeholder and has a role to play in sustainability, and therefore “engages the whole Silliman community, the city we live in, and beyond.”


By being a model and incorporating environmental issues into its teaching, research, and community service, Silliman hopes that students entering the university will leave with a deeper commitment to sustainability and with the competence to protect the environment wherever their lives may take them.


One immediate focus of Silliman University starting this semester is to improve on-campus waste management, announced SU president Betty Cernol-McCann during the All-University Academic Convocation on November 19.


“The practice of proper waste management in the University shall be effective immediately,” said Dr. McCann. “Henceforth, all trash cans will be properly labeled and faculty, staff, and students will be asked to segregate waste accordingly. Waste Management Committee members and volunteers will visit each building to label bins and provide instructions on segregation.” All biodegradable wastes from the campus, she said, will be composted with the assistance of the College of Agriculture. Meanwhile, reuse and recycling of all recyclable materials will be maximized.


Another immediate focus of the University is to minimize plastic waste.  “We will intensify our drive against one-use plastics and prohibit bringing to campus containers and wrappers that contribute heavily to waste pollution,” Dr. McCann added. In support of the international Break Free From Plastics movement, she said, a consistent media campaign and Information, Education and Communication strategy will be employed to disseminate information on the policies and guidelines associated with this objective.


The blueprint for action was developed by a team led by Dr. Jorge Emmanuel, Adjunct Professor at the Institute of Environmental and Marine Sciences (IEMS) and a Balik Scientist under the Department of Science and Technology (DOST). Questions or suggestions may be sent to the Waste Management Committee coordinated by the office of the SU president. The full text of the SU Environmental Principles, Policies, Guidelines, and Best Practices is available at:  


Contact: Madeline B. Quiamco, PhD

Office of Information and Publications

Phone:    +63-35-420.6002 extension 230


A Global Response to the Global Plastic Crisis

A Global Response to the Global Plastic Crisis

Originally posted in Ciel.

We are overwhelmed by plastic pollution. This is the last call to save the planet.

by: Claudia Fiorella Santonocito, Geneva-based intern of the Center for International Environmental Law (CIEL)

Marine plastic pollution is now under the magnifying glass of a group of experts tasked with recommending a global response to the plastics crisis. Here’s what to expect at their meeting next week.

Plastics are a product of the fossil fuel industry. Not only is the fossil fuel industry the most polluting industry in the world and largely responsible for climate change; it’s also driving the plastics boom.

Indeed, between 5 and 13 million tons of virgin plastic are contaminating our oceans each year. (In total, an estimated 8,300 million tons of virgin plastics have been produced to date.) But despite growing attention to the issue, plastic production is expected to grow by 33% by 2025, with dramatic consequences for human health and the environment.

So far, many fragmented initiatives have been promoted to address marine plastic pollution, but a lack of coordination and legally binding commitments have undermined their effectiveness. To truly address the problem of plastic pollution, we have to start at its source — fossil fuels — and address plastic throughout its entire lifecycle. Clearly, there are no easy solutions for addressing the plastic pollution crisis. That’s why we must act now to reduce, reuse, and redesign plastics at the global level.

How is the global community addressing the plastic pollution crisis?

The UN Environment Assembly (UNEA) — the highest political forum on environmental matters, involving all 193 member states of the United Nations — has set into motion discussions on how the world will tackle plastic pollution. In December 2017, UNEA established a group of experts to present options for combating marine plastic litter and microplastics. Among other things, this group is tasked with identifying ways to address the plastic problem and determining how feasible and effective those different options will be.

What will the Expert Group work on next week?

Building on the outcomes of its first meeting in May, the Expert Group will meet in Geneva, Switzerland, on December 3-7 to provide concrete recommendations for addressing legal, financial, and technological barriers to combating marine plastic litter and microplastics from all sources. The group of experts, with representatives from member States, international and regional conventions, NGOs, and other relevant stakeholders, is tasked with identifying a wide array of options for tackling plastic pollution as a global community.

Why a new global convention on plastic pollution is needed

None of the 18 international environmental agreements or 36 regional environmental agreements are primarily tailored to address marine plastic pollution, according to a UNEP assessment. Because of the urgency and complexity of the plastics crisis a new, a comprehensive treaty is needed to adequately and effectively address plastic pollution in addition to implementing other conventions and develop shorter term national and regional initiatives.

For this reason, the Expert Group is expected to adopt a shared vision on this issue and may include a request to UNEA for further commitment to pursuing a treaty. CIEL will be at the meeting, coordinating a global civil society task force composed of experts, academics, and other NGOs to push the process towards a new convention on plastic pollution.

Four pillars for a convention on plastic pollution

CIEL and our partners have developed a thought starter on what such a convention should cover and what it could look like. In that respect, it is critical to consider the full impact of plastics, beyond just marine waste. Plastics and microplastics have been found not just in our oceans, but also in our freshwater, soil, and air. In fact, they disperse and accumulate much faster in soil and freshwater environments than in the ocean, having deep impacts on human health.

CIEL and our partners propose an international convention based on four pillars:

The convention should aim to strengthen cooperation among different governing bodies and better coordination of rules from the main pollution-oriented conventions.

The convention should include measures to reduce plastic pollution (such as reducing and restricting the production of certain polymers and toxic additives, and banning single-use plastics and packaging) and to harmonize legislation and standards for labeling and product design.

The legal framework should include a mechanism for providing financial support for developing countries to implement the agreement, taking inspiration from the successful experience of the Montreal Protocol on the Ozone Layer, which aimed to reduce emissions responsible for destroying the ozone layer. The convention should set up a multilateral fund, similar to the one set up under the Montreal Protocol, to help developing countries start projects to reduce plastic pollution and to cover implementation costs.

The convention should provide technical support in order to ensure informed, science-based decision-making and avoid false solutions to the plastic pollution crisis. This could include knowledge exchange networks, as well as scientific and economic committees or ad hoc scientific and economic groups, both of which would draw upon experts from academia, industry, and civil society.

Join us!

More than 90 organizations have already joined us in asking UNEA4 to advance the process for a future free from plastic pollution. We want to give a strong signal to delegates that there is massive support to address the roots of plastic pollution. If you are an organization interested in signing on, click here to join us!

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