Our world has an urgent rubbish problem. One in four of us have no safe way to dispose of rubbish, meaning many are forced to live and work among piles of waste. But Christians around the world are uniting to take action.
Mismanaged waste is having a huge impact on the lives of people living in poverty, and the rapid growth in plastic pollution is making this worse. But right now we have a historic opportunity to beat this rubbish problem.
2 billion people - one in four of us - have no safe way to dispose of rubbish, meaning many have no choice but to dump or burn it. This is making people sick, releasing toxic fumes, flooding communities and causing up to a million deaths each year - that's one person dying every 30 seconds.
During 2023 and 2024, nearly 200 governments are meeting to develop the first-ever international agreement on plastic pollution. Together, we're calling for an effective, binding plan that holds big polluters to account, reduces plastic production, supports the vital work of waste pickers, and ends the impacts of plastic pollution on people living in poverty.
At Tearfund, we believe in a more just and compassionate world, where everyone has the opportunity to fulfil their God-given potential. But right now, our world - that God has blessed us with and asked us to care for - has a rubbish problem. And it is people living in the world's poorest countries who are suffering the worst effects from plastic pollution and mismanaged waste. Plastic pollution is directly impacting the achievement of over half of the United Nations' Sustainable Development Goals. It is also contributing directly to the climate emergency through plastics production and emissions from the burning of plastic waste.
For those living in poverty, plastic pollution is not only a threat in its own right, it is also a threat multiplier, amplifying existing threats to people's health, local environments and livelihoods. For example, while the climate emergency has led to an increased likelihood of extreme weather events such as heavy rainfall, the additional problem of plastic pollution blocking drains and waterways means the resulting flooding can be far worse.
The plastics treaty provides an excellent opportunity to make real progress in tackling poverty, both by lessening the impact of plastic pollution on people living in poverty through reducing the use of plastics and by seizing the opportunity to create improved livelihoods within a circular economy in plastics.
The growing waste crisis is having a huge impact on the lives of people living in poverty and is also harming God's beautiful creation. Poonam Nair, from Sahaasee, one of Tearfund's partners in India put it well when she said “We must take responsibility to protect the God-created earth, and develop policies to preserve it.” People are impacted by environmental issues including plastic pollution, and part of our calling as Christians to love our neighbours is to care for the environment they live in too.
When we care for and act to protect God's creation, it is one way of loving and worshipping God with all our heart, soul, mind and strength, as Jesus taught us (Mark 12:30). It's also a way of putting our love for God into action, and shows love to our neighbours who are suffering from the harmful impacts of mismanaged waste and plastics.
In Romans 12:1-2 we're urged to give all of our lives as worship, and not conform to the patterns of this broken world. Reflecting on how we consume and what we throw away should be part of our response as Christians.
The first step is to sign our rubbish petition to ask the Australian Government to push for a plastics treaty that fully addresses the impacts of plastic pollution on people living in poverty.
Add your voice at www.tearfund.org.au/rubbish or by signing one of our Rubbish Campaign action cards (which you can order by emailing us at [email protected]).
If you'd like to get your church or friends and family involved, we also have resources you can use for Sunday sermons, bible studies and discussion groups. All of these are available at https://www.tearfund.org.au/rubbish/deepen-your-faith
We've got lots of resources planned to help you get your church involved in Tearfund's Rubbish Campaign. These resources will be available in May and you will be able to download them at https://www.tearfund.org.au/rubbish/deepen-your-faith
If you just have a few moments on a Sunday morning to promote the campaign, let us know at [email protected] and we'll send you action cards so everyone can add their voice to the campaign during your slot.
Because tens of thousands of people took action during the first phase of the Rubbish Campaign, all four companies have made significant new commitments, and we continue to both track their actions on each of these and engage them on what more they should do.
In 2019, we had four 'not rubbish' commitments we asked the companies to make, and we've seen responses from the companies on each of these:
REPORT: on the number of units of single-use plastic that they sell
Result: All four companies now publicly disclose their annual plastic footprint in metric tonnes through the Ellen MacArthur Foundation Global Commitment!
REDUCE: how many units of single-use plastic they sell
Results: All four companies have committed to reducing their use of virgin plastic, and The Coca-Cola Company were the first to announce a re-use target of any major company in their sector in February 2022 and this was followed by PepsiCo in December 2022
RECYCLE: and collect one single-use plastic item for every one they sell
Result: All companies now have commitments for recyclable materials and the use of recycled content in their plastic packaging. Unilever and The Coca-Cola Company Company have targets linked to the collection of plastic packaging and Nestle has defined an ambition for plastic waste collection.
RESTORE: work well with waste pickers
Result: PepsiCo, Coca-Cola Company Company, Nestlé and Unilever are now founding members of the Fair Circularity Initiative which was convened by Tearfund and launched in 2022, with the aim of ensuring respect for the human rights of waste pickers and greater recognition of their crucial role in reducing pollution and sourcing material to be recycled. In their launch statement companies committed to adopting principles in their value chains that will help drive better incomes and working conditions for waste pickers, and mean that waste pickers are included in the decision-making processes that affect their lives. We're also now encouraging more companies to join the Initiative and commit to the principles.
We know far more needs to be done by these companies - and many others - but these are real breakthroughs, and we give thanks to God for all that has happened. It was only with the support of thousands of Tearfund supporters, and crucially the grace of God as we witnessed answered prayers and countless 'God-incidences' along the way. We continue to engage with the four companies to see further progress, as well as ensuring these pledges are implemented.
For the global rubbish campaign, we are working closely with our teams, partners and movements of Christians in over 10 countries. In some contexts, our work is sensitive but the list includes the UK, Brazil, Bolivia, Canada, Honduras, Kenya, Malawi, Netherlands, New Zealand, Zambia, Zimbabwe and Australia.
As well as working with Tearfund teams and campaigners globally, we are part of the Renew our World coalition, which is a global movement of Christians taking action and praying for a fairer world. This is a coalition that Tearfund helped to form in 2017 and now has campaigns running in 20 countries, with members including Anglican Alliance and World Evangelical Alliance.
The development of a legally binding treaty on plastic pollution is an incredible opportunity to bring about systemic, wide-ranging change on plastics and waste. Read more about the treaty.
During 2023 and 2024, the Australian Government will be meeting with nearly 200 other governments to negotiate the world's first agreement to address plastic pollution.
Australia has signed up as a member of a High Ambition Coalition for the treaty - a group of countries who want an ambitious treaty that brings an end to plastic pollution by 2040. We are asking the Australian Government to use its position in these negotiations to push for a plastics treaty that fully addresses the impacts of waste on people living in poverty, by ensuring four things are included in the final agreement:
So far, Australia has shown support for a strong treaty. They were a founding member of the High Ambition Coalition - a group of countries who want an ambitious treaty that brings an end to plastic pollution by 2040 - and they have also been very supportive of waste picker participation.
The Australian Government should use its position in the High Ambition Coalition to call for a treaty that addresses not only the environmental impacts of plastics pollution but also the social impacts.
We want the Australian Government to use their platform to make sure that justice is central to the plastics treaty: plastic pollution isn't just an environmental problem - it's affecting millions of human beings. They have done some of that so far, but there is more we'd like to see them do.
As voters, constituents and citizens we need to keep up the pressure with the campaign to ensure the positive words so far are followed by action, especially as negotiations continue and it comes to the implementation.
2 billion people - that's one in four of us globally - don't have any bin collections. They have little other option but to burn or dump their plastic and other waste. The results are wide-ranging and extremely harmful - causing toxic fumes, flooding, increasing the risk of cancer and other serious diseases, and creating emissions that contribute to the climate emergency.
And yet, between 2000 and 2019, plastic waste generation more than doubled, and it's set to rise further. Today, half of all plastic is designed to be used just once before being discarded.
Voluntary actions by governments and companies have proven insufficient. Not all companies have made commitments, and existing promises have not delivered meaningful change fast enough. Academic modelling confirms that current promises are completely inadequate to address plastic pollution. Without global action to tackle the issue of plastic pollution, global plastics consumption is projected to almost triple by 2060. The impact of this increase on the lives of people living in poverty will be catastrophic.
What's more, those doing the most to address this problem at present - the waste pickers who collect 60% of all the plastic that gets recycled globally - are often working for little pay in unsafe conditions.
What is needed now are global commitments that are binding on both governments and companies and which cannot be watered down or reneged on. We need strong targets that hold both governments and companies to account, and set a level playing field for all. This is actually something that many companies themselves recognise the importance of and have called for. The treaty provides an incredible opportunity to bring about systemic, wide-ranging change on plastics and waste, to accelerate progress towards the successful delivery of the United Nations' Sustainable Development Goals and ultimately to bring about real change for people living in poverty.
Negotiations on the treaty are taking place over two years and there is still a long way to go in the process. The UN set out a clear mandate for what the treaty should address, which includes “promot[ing] sustainable production and consumption of plastics through, among other things, product design and environmentally sound waste management, including through resource efficiency and circular economy approaches”.
The treaty is uniquely positioned to address both the symptoms and the causes of plastic pollution by taking what is described as a “full life-cycle approach” to the problem. Tearfund, along with other campaigners, are calling for a treaty that addresses each stage in the life-cycle of plastics, from the sourcing of raw materials, through the production, product design and consumption of plastics, to waste management and prevention of leakage into the environment. The impacts of plastic pollution are felt at every stage along this lifecycle so only by taking a holistic approach can we hope to solve the problem.
Our Rubbish Campaign is highlighting that plastics are part of a much wider rubbish crisis. To bring real change to those living in poverty, we need to address plastic pollution and waste together, which includes universal access to waste collection and securing rights, protections and a fair income for waste pickers.
There will be five, week-long, in-person negotiation sessions in total to develop the plastics treaty. The first has already taken place in November 2022, in Uruguay. Colleagues from Tearfund UK and Tearfund Brazil were there meeting with governments, influencing the conversation and laying the groundwork for the campaign. The next session takes place in Paris in May 2023 and the remaining sessions are provisionally scheduled for November 2023, April 2024 and November 2024. Those who meet are called the 'International Negotiating Committee', so the meetings are known as INCs. The first was INC1, the second will be INC2 etc.
The negotiations will be attended by teams from nearly 200 governments, as well as scientists, campaigners, businesses, grassroots groups, and groups representing those who will be impacted by the treaty, such as the International Alliance of Waste Pickers, who we are working closely with. Not everyone is coming with the same intentions, and at the first negotiations, significant numbers of lobbyists from fossil fuel and petrochemical companies were present, with a very different vision for the treaty to ours.
We'll continue to have a team from Tearfund at the negotiations, meeting with governments and trying to influence the outcomes. We are also working to support some of our partners to attend, as well as a delegation from the International Alliance of Waste Pickers, to ensure their voices are heard at the decision-making tables.
The International Alliance of Waste Pickers describes a waste picker as an individual involved in the collection, segregation, sorting, and sale of recyclables (paper, plastic, metal, glass, etc.) in an informal or semi-formal capacity as own-account workers.
Many different terms have been used to describe waste pickers. In South Africa they are known as Reclaimers, while in Uruguay they are Clasificadores, translated as 'classifiers', emphasising their role in sorting materials as well as collecting.
At least 20 million people earn an income as waste pickers globally - collecting, sorting and recycling plastic. They are the hidden heroes of the recycling system, collecting 60% of all the plastic that gets recycled. But often working in dangerous conditions, for little pay and recognition, despite their crucial role.
Waste pickers are making a tremendous contribution to the fight against plastic pollution, cleaning up their communities and enabling companies to meet their collection targets. There is no doubt that without them the problem of plastic pollution in low- and middle-income countries would be far worse.
Waste pickers are the backbone of the collection and recycling system in many places, collecting approximately 60 per cent of all the plastic gathered for recycling globally.
They are making a tremendous contribution to the fight against plastic pollution, cleaning up their communities and preventing plastic from being dumped and burned. However, at the same time, they suffer a range of severe human rights abuses, including stigma, discrimination, dangerous working conditions and low pay.
Despite the challenges they face, waste pickers have shown incredible entrepreneurship, resilience and ingenuity in their work. The treaty process must listen to and take account of the huge amount of experience and expertise they have to offer to this process if it is to achieve its ambitions in these locations.
Justice for waste pickers must be at the centre of the treaty. This means ensuring greater protection of and respect for waste pickers' human rights.
In the words of Maditlhare Koena, who works as a waste picker in South Africa and represents the International Alliance of Waste Pickers at the UN treaty negotiations “A strong treaty must provide and guarantee better and decent work, social protection, more training opportunities and greater job security for workers.”
We are working to support waste pickers as they articulate for themselves what a successful treaty would look like for them, and their positions can be found on the International Alliance of Waste Pickers' website: https://globalrec.org/
Single-use plastics are plastic materials that are considered 'disposable' and are generally used only once before they are discarded. This could include plastic water bottles, plastic cups and plastic bags. Today, half of all plastic produced is designed for single-use purposes - used just once before being discarded.
As it stands, the plastics industry is the fastest-growing source of industrial greenhouse gas emissions in the world, with the UN Environment Programme estimating that the greenhouse gas emissions from plastic production, use and disposal could account for 19 per cent of the total global carbon budget by 2040. Most of these emissions appear upstream, where the production of plastic relies heavily on fossil fuels - gas, coal and oil - to meet global demand.
In low- and middle-income countries, a lack of proper waste management leads to large amounts of waste being burnt in the open air releasing dangerous air pollutants including black carbon which is a major contributor to the climate crisis. In fact, open burning of waste, including plastic waste, produces 11% of global black carbon emissions.
During the first phase of our Rubbish Campaign in 2019, we targeted some of the top global distributors of single-use plastic. Tearfund's research across six countries showed that all together, 4.6 million tonnes of carbon dioxide equivalent emissions are produced a year from the open burning of Coca-Cola Company Company, Nestlé, PepsiCo and Unilever's plastic pollution.
Recycling is an important piece of the puzzle, but recycling alone won't end the world's rubbish problem. The world's plastic pollution is huge - and growing. To use an analogy, if we are to address the crisis fully, we need to 'turn off the tap' as well as mop up the flood.
Urgent action is needed to reduce how much single-use plastic is made and used, and to replace them with refillable, reusable and packaging-free alternatives.
Globally, only 14% of plastic packaging is collected for recycling, with less than 9% actually being recycled, so there is a huge need to scale up safe methods of recycling as part of our response to the crisis but that must go hand in hand with reduction, and any scaling up of recycling must happen in partnership with waste pickers - the hidden heroes of the world's current recycling, who collect the majority of the plastic that is being recycled currently.
The first thing we can all do is to reduce our use of single-use plastics (SUPs) such as plastic bags, coffee cups, plastic plates, cutlery, bottles of water and soft drinks. We can also use products without plastic packaging, such as bars of soap or shampoo bars.
It's important to remember the phrase 'reduce, reuse, recycle' in that order. Reducing our use of SUPs will make the biggest difference. Sometimes, this can mean just going without them or choosing non-plastic options, or if that's not possible we can use reusable products instead. If you can't reduce or reuse, then recycling your plastic is the next best thing you can do, but it's much better to reduce our plastic in the first place.
For more ideas, or to sign up to take our 'Rubbish Challenge' to reduce your own waste, visit https://www.tearfund.org.au/rubbish/deepen-your-faith