High-stakes treaty negotiations expose the challenge of just transition in the plastics sector

High-stakes treaty negotiations expose the challenge of just transition in the plastics sector

Workers make products at a household plastic company in Fuzhou, Fujian province, China. The question of ‘just transition’ in the plastics sector will be one of the biggest issues during negotiations for a global, legally binding plastics treaty in Nairobi, Kenya next month

(Costfoto/NurPhoto via AFP)

The word ‘plastic’ makes people think of many things: convenience, falseness, economy, surgery. When Shirley Payne thinks of plastics, she recalls a terrifying struggle against suffocation in February 2023.

“I thought that I was going to die,” says the 77-year-old former school teacher, whose back garden borders a 144-square mile plastics refinery complex in Port Arthur, Texas, known as ‘cancer alley’.

Shirley had just gone to bed when “I felt the right side of my tongue getting bigger,” she tells Equal Times. “I tried to swallow but I couldn’t. My tongue just kept swelling up, so I grabbed the phone and called my son on speed dial. But I couldn’t tell him what was wrong. I couldn’t even talk. He came straight over and rushed me to hospital. By that time, I was in anaphylactic shock and my tongue was wrapped up in a towel. It was half-way down to my chest.”

The doctors treated Shirley with morphine and ephedrine before sending her to an allergy specialist who, she says, blamed the episode on “something in the air”.

Now, Shirley carries two emergency ephedrine inhalers with her everywhere she goes, but fear of another attack prevents her venturing outside for more than a few minutes at a time.

“It’s like I’m living in a bubble,” she tells Equal Times over the phone from Port Arthur. “I’m even afraid to sit on my patio and breathe the air outside. The street is filled with nothing but white dust and every time a car goes by, it kicks up a plume. When I called the city council, they said there was nothing they could do because the refinery owns the street. It’s frightening because I know that my life is in danger.”

Shirley’s husband, a petrochemicals worker, died of lung cancer – after suffering for years from asbestosis – in a microcosm of the health crisis affecting her neighbourhood.

The issue of how to secure justice for people like Shirley will bubble below the surface at the negotiations for a global legally binding plastics treaty, which began last year and are set to resume in Nairobi, Kenya in November. For communities like Shirley’s, change cannot come fast enough.

Living and dying in a “poisoned city”

As many as one person in 53 in Port Arthur faces an excess threat of cancer, according to the investigative news organisation ProPublica. The figure is 190 times higher than the United States Environmental Protection Agency’s acceptable rate of one person in 10,000.

But local people say that Port Arthur’s suffering has largely been ignored by the companies operating in the town – which include ExxonMobil, Texaco/Motiva, Chevron, Valero Refining, Total, Shell and Saudi Refining/Saudi Aramco – as well as authorities because the town’s residents are mostly poor, Afro-Americans and Hispanics, who historically worked in the plants.

John Beard is a former union official with United Steelworkers and founder of the Port Arthur Community Action Network who worked as an operator in the town’s ExxonMobil refinery for 38 years.

He tells Equal Times that company executives “don’t know you. We don’t go to church together. We’re not in the same social circles. Our kids don’t go to school together or play on the same football or basketball teams. They’re not in the cheerleading squad or drama club. We don’t have that relationship because those communities don’t come together and have any interface.”

Beard says that because of his work he now has reduced lung capacity but that many of his co-workers have suffered worse. “A friend of mine found out last year that he’d contracted a form of leukaemia,” he tells Equal Times. “Another co-worker in Port Arthur died 8-10 months ago. He got sick when our plant was on strike, went through all the testing, and when they finally determined that he had cancer, they said: ‘You’ve got six weeks at most to live and we’re sending you back home so you can get your affairs in order.’ He only had four weeks in the end, and three of those four weeks he spent sedated because of the pain.”

Beard recites the names and stories of other co-workers who died from cancer like obituaries in a community paper. “I know people who retired on Friday and by Monday they were gone,” he says. “Most people don’t get to live more than five years after retirement. I’m in my sixth year so I consider myself blessed, but I know many people who are not, all from working in a plant and being exposed to this stuff in the air 24/7.”

One local cancer survivor, Etta Hebert, had a husband who was in remission from cancer, a daughter, a cousin and a sister who all contracted cancer, an ex-husband who died from liver cancer and a brother who died from prostate cancer.

“We live in a very obvious cancer cluster,” Beard says. “This is what it’s like to live in a poisoned city. People are being sacrificed and we’re sick and tired of being sick and tired. We don’t want any more petrochemical plants.”

Toxic chemicals, decent work and a healthy planet

The sector is so dangerous to work in that in 2013, just one ExxonMobil refinery and chemical plant in Louisiana reported 76 accidents – such as fires and explosions – which resulted in the release of “almost half a million pounds of polluting chemicals into the air”.

‘Upstream’ workers in plastics production, refining and processing may be exposed to hazardous chemical additives including phthalates, Bisphenol A (BPA), lead, perfluorinated substances (PFAS, which are also known as ‘forever chemicals’) and polybrominated diphenyl ethers (PBDEs). These substances can be carcinogenic, reprotoxic and endocrine disrupting yet many – perhaps most – workers are not given adequate protective equipment, and the scale of the plastics pile that is stacking up defies easy disposal for workers, industry or the planet.

For many workers though, the short-term threat of job loss can outweigh the longer-term fear of contracting a terminal disease.

Tom Grinter, chemicals director at the global trade union federation IndustriAll, says: “Everybody wants to live in a world where there’s clean healthy oceans for our planet. The planet needs to be protected going forward and everyone wants to work together to find solutions to environmental issues but obviously not at the expense of protecting workers’ rights and decent jobs.”

He adds: “For a chemical worker in Peru facing the sack for just joining a union, keeping the right to have a union trumps the issue of a circular economy in the immediate term.”

The question of ‘just transition’ – of how to win and maintain support from workers in the production, processing and refining sectors whose jobs are on the line – will be one of the hottest potatoes in the plastics treaty haggling.

One senior European Union official taking part in the negotiations and speaking on condition of anonymity, told Equal Times: “There needs to be a lot of attention to the upstream part of the plastics lifecycle but perhaps not in the way that some trade unions would like. We are talking about dealing with a production sector that in some instances may have a negative impact on the environment, so there will be a negative impact on production, and they may feel that would have a negative impact on jobs in the industry. That’s clear.”

Beard says that for this reason, unions have to be nuanced when talking about ending the fossil fuel age – because where he comes from: “Them’s fighting words,” as he put it.

Instead, he proposes a simple, clear message to workers facing redundancy: “’If your old job in the petrochemical industry ends on Friday, then on Monday morning, you walk into your new, clean, green renewable energy job, paying a good, living, union wage, that allows you to not even miss a single pay cheque.’”

Cutting plastics to limit global heating

Plastics are so ubiquitous, they are found in everything from food packaging and foetuses to furniture and fresh Antarctic snow. In September, microplastics were even found in clouds.

However, studies indicate that production will have to be cut by 75 per cent by 2050 simply to be compliant with the Paris Agreement target of limiting global heating to 1.5°C. The trend however is for an explosive increase that the industry hopes can be accommodated with greener disposal.

London-based Euro Petroleum Consultants for instance, proposed a plastics recycling rate of 75 per cent to manoeuvre around a hike of more than 100 per cent in the sector’s use of fossil fuels by 2050. The Plastics Europe trade association calls for a “massive investment in collection, sorting and recycling infrastructure globally”.

One treaty negotiator privately argued that the industry will need to have its wings clipped in any eventual plastics treaty. “It’s hard to see an agreement without obligations regarding the volume of primary plastic production,” the source said. “I think the discussion is very much about putting some kind of limitation to the growth of plastics production.”

But the United States is leading nations that want to hold out for voluntary “national action plans,” and it is not hard to see why.

Global plastics production helped to drive post-war economic growth, rocketing from 2 million tonnes a year in 1950 to around 380 million tonnes per year in 2015, producing a cumulative 6.3 billion metric tonnes of waste. With current trends of production and waste management, plastic waste will reach 12 billion metric tonnes by 2050. In addition, due to the fact that the life cycle emissions of the plastic sector amounted to 1.3 gigatonnes CO2 equivalent in 2020, by 2050, that figure is projected to nearly triple and reach 3.2 gigatonnes, potentially dooming future generations to runaway climate change.

With a global market value of US$593 billion in 2021, plastics are the gift that keeps giving to investors. “Life in plastic, it’s fantastic,” as Aqua’s ‘Barbie Girl’ song had it.

But the price tag for the investor bonanza has been paid by the world’s flora and fauna – at an annual cost of around US$3.7 trillion – as well as by the industry’s workers and their communities, for a sum that has never been calculated.

Just nine per cent of plastic waste is currently recycled, with landfill and incineration much more common, despite the environmental cost. The remainder disfigures coastal areas, the air, earth and our bodies alike. Microplastics, which can carry toxic chemicals and stimulate the release of endocrine disruptors, were found in 75 per cent of breastmilk samples by one survey last year.

Taxing multinationals to fund public waste services

The plastics treaty has great potential to change this, if it is accompanied by a global wave of “adequate public investment” in municipal waste collection, according to Daria Cibrario, a policy officer at the global union federation, Public Services International. She is calling for new legislative efforts and fully biodegradable solutions.

“Public authorities should be bold and not just outsource these activities to the private sector which often thrives on vulnerable workers like waste pickers and preaches the benefits of market economy,” Cibrario says. “When there is a threat to life on the planet, we cannot rely on market solutions. Unregulated private corporations created the problem. It is the responsibility of states to hold corporate actors accountable and ensure they pay their fair share to fix the problem.”

She continues: “We must invest not only in waste management infrastructure – equipping countries to have proper collection, sorting, transportation, and safe disposal – but also in the staff. There must be a strengthening of local government finance geared toward creating human infrastructure as well.” Funds should be raised for this by taxing multinational polluters, she says.

Gerardo Gabriel Juara, environment secretary of the Association of Environmental Workers in Buenos Aires, agrees: “It is clear that nations and companies must assume a collective commitment to transition towards more and better jobs in the plastics chain and in its auxiliary tasks,” he says.

Adoum Hadji Tchéré, secretary general of the National Union of Municipal Workers of Chad (Synacot), is calling for states to encourage biodegradable plastics and raise awareness about reuse, recycling and reduction.

“Plastic pollution is a major hazard for our members in waste services as it causes respiratory infections. Besides, the obstruction of water drainage by plastic waste causes dangerous overflows when it rains: the consequence is that our members are forced to remove plastic clogs which increases their workload and creates further occupational hazards on the job,” he says.

Leaving no worker behind

Globally, some 15-20 million people work in the informal recycling economy – with another four million in the formal sector, according to the International Labour Organization. Many fall sick or see out their days working on mountains of trash that can tower up to 20 feet high in places such as Nairobi’s Dandora dump, which was hit by a cholera alert in 2018.

Unions and many environmentalists want to see all waste workers – including waste pickers – in decent working conditions, while ensuring that upstream workers are not left behind.

“We can’t rely on an army of the working poor to implement the utopian vision of a circular economy, where 100 per cent of plastic waste is recycled and companies can continue to produce,” warns Cibrario. “Waste workers are sometimes in such poor conditions without contracts, PPE [personal protective equipment], training or even basic social security. Many of them, working on illegal dumps want to keep their right to work. We are saying to them: ‘You have a right to work, but decent work!’”

Multinationals and plastic industry associations have now allied themselves with some waste pickers groups on occasion, in a trend that unions see as cynical and divisive.

Bert De Wel, the International Trade Union Confederation’s (ITUC) global climate policy coordinator adds: “The strong focus on waste pickers [in negotiations] is very important as they are the most vulnerable workers in the value chain, but it is not politically neutral. It shifts attention onto the waste and recycling phase of plastics which some parties are very happy with because then they don’t have to talk about waste prevention at source.”

The third Intergovernmental Negotiations Conference (INC3), which is being held at the United Nations Environmental Programme headquarters in Nairobi between 13 – 19 November, will grapple with these issues, following publication of the first draft negotiating text in September.

The new text contains no decisions but a menu of multiple options that one environmentalist described as containing “all our dreams and all our nightmares”. Which will win out remains to be seen.

The fifth and last round of negotiations should conclude by the end of 2024 – and a treaty is expected to emerge in early 2025.

That agreement is expected to introduce legally binding measures along all stages of the plastics lifecycle from the upstream production, processing and refining petrochemical sector to the downstream municipal waste collectors and waste pickers.

Plastics: Plan B for the fossil fuel industry

Petrochemicals are seen as a fallback for the fossil fuel industry because of their potential to offset reduced demand elsewhere as electric vehicles proliferate and the renewables revolution advances. Today, petrochemicals account for around 10 per cent of all fossil fuel use.

Daniela Durán González, senior legal campaigner at the Center for International Environmental Law (CIEL), tells Equal Times: “As negotiations advance, we’re starting to strongly see the presence of industries that see plastics as a ‘Plan B’ for the fossil fuel industry. Petro-states starting to oppose and resist the advance of negotiations, and big producers of plastics polymers and precursors and firms very linked with the oil and gas producers of the world, are becoming involved.”

Another CIEL official, Jane Patton, said that at the last INC in Paris, oil giants Shell and Exxon and the German chemical company BASF were among the firms sending staff to lobby.

But the EU official who spoke to Equal Times pushes back against the idea that plastic producers should be excluded from negotiations because they have a conflict of interest. “It is quite normal that those companies are included in the discussions,” the unnamed source says. “It doesn’t mean that we agree with all they say but we would be very worried if they weren’t there because it would mean they didn’t take what we were doing seriously.”

One of the negotiation’s crunch points will be over mandatory cuts to the production of plastics with fossil fuel feedstocks. The proposal faces opposition from the US, Gulf nations and some Asian countries.

A Japanese attempt to limit the treaty to marine pollution and plastics disposal was beaten back last year. Over 150 civil society groups and scientists subsequently signed a letter complaining about industry lobbying at the talks.

“It’s obvious that the fossil fuel-dependent countries and industries are very unhappy with the discussions on provisions affecting the production volumes of primary plastics,” the EU official warns. “It will be one very difficult area of discussion.’”

Holdout nations argue that plastics pollution can be contained with waste reuse, recycling and reduction programmes that allow production to continue expanding. Production caps are thought to be supported by a more ambitious group of 59 countries.

Issues such as public subsidies for plastics production, a global ban on single-use plastics and restrictions on toxic chemicals could also be inflection points in the talks, informed sources say.

“We will always need plastics”

The question of who will fund countries transitioning away from unsustainable plastics will inevitably become a forum for haggling, over questions such as who benefits from it?

The EU official described this as “a tricky issue” which might ultimately be solved with bilateral aid through multilateral agencies, rather than a financial mechanism funded by governments. But “there is an important element of industry and economic transformation that will require sizable resource mobilisation at the domestic level in all countries,” the official adds.

While employers groups like Plastics Europe push for “sustainable plastics production” for decades ahead, Maike Niggemann, a senior policy advisor to the IndustriAll union, says that “we will always need plastics, there is no way around it”.

Environmentalists want more alternatives to plastics to be brought into the production chain as soon as possible but Niggemann points to the enormous range of products that currently depend on them.

“It is not possible to replace all plastics so I don’t think there will be a complete ‘phasing out,’” she says. “There will be more circularity. We will look for different feedstocks and some plastics with hazardous properties may have to be phased out but a future entirely without plastics is not a desirable future.”

One negotiator canvassed by Equal Times agrees: “It’s hard to see – even under very optimistic scenarios – how we would come to an agreement with plastic volume reduction targets.” They continue: “I think the discussion is very much about putting some kind of limitations to the growth of plastics production.”

Back in Port Arthur, as he weighs the possibilities of global heating-powered storms barrelling ever more powerfully over the Texas coast, John Beard has a different take. “This is pollution and pollution can kill,” he says. “We have to cut the head off the snake because if these products are harmful, we shouldn’t be exporting them, and others shouldn’t be receiving them.”

Companies which refuse to take responsibility for the damage their products cause should be told: “’You don’t have a market for doing business anymore,’” he says. “’Any products that come out, we will not buy. We will phase them out, and you’ll go out of business.’”

“They understand nothing but money,” Beard concludes. “When you take away their ability to make money, they will change their behaviour.”