The Break Free From Plastics (BFFP) Movement meeting started on July 17 in Bali, Indonesia with more than 90 individuals coming from across the world for the four-day meeting. This follows the 2016 meeting in Tagatay, the Philippines where 90 non-governmental organisations committed to work towards a ‘future free of plastics pollution’. It is hard to miss the messages about plastics in oceans and how plastics will outnumber fish or that birds and animals, even on the remotest islands, are dying from having ingested plastics. Yet, it has been hard to compete against the marketing campaigns of corporations, who spend several billion dollars selling products as well as technologies purporting to manage residual waste of their products.

The Bali meeting aims to refresh, refine and update the Tagatay strategy to reflect the challenges, victories and new political developments over the past year. The meeting opened not with introductions but in articulating the expectations of each of the participants from this meeting (Figure 1). Several organisations are working on implementing projects as part of this strategy, and there have been some early successes. In some countries, members have been able to stop waste incineration plants, while in others have been able to get legislations that ban plastic bags. Surfrider Foundation, for example, was able to get the state of California to ban single-use plastic bags in November 2016.

Figure 1: Expectations from the Bali meeting

There have also been several lessons learnt in the course of the work against plastic pollution (Figure 2). One member from Balifokus shared research they conducted to highlight the problem of plastic pollution in rivers in Indonesia caused by the disposal of diapers. They estimate that more than a million diapers are disposed in the river, affecting the hormonal balance of the fish, which can cause their populations to fall drastically over time. Another has been able to demonstrate that zero waste models are the way forward for an effective solution to managing waste. It relies on managing organic waste at the local level and repairing, reusing and recycling all other waste so that no trash is sent to landfills or incinerators. This implies that we must redesign products and processes to systematically reduce the amount of resources consumed, eliminate toxicity, and eliminate discharges of waste into the air, land and water.

Beverley Thorpe, from Clean Production Action, Berkeley, California talked about how it was critical to look at the chemical footprint of plastics and working to link oil and natural gas extraction to the feedstock for plastics. Anywhere between 85 and 90 percent of the chemicals that are by-products of oil extraction are benzene and propylene, two of the top human carcinogenic, and these are what are used to make plastics. She stressed that it was important that researchers and activists focused on the chemical composition because there are now corporations that are producing the same polymers using renewable energy – rather than fossil fuel. These are just as hazardous as the polymers made from fossil fuels and corporations marketing these as sustainable only amounts to greenwashing. I would recommend reading about the Chemical Footprint Project to debunk myths like bioplastics!

Figure 2: Highlights and lessons learnt

What was apparent from all these stories was the need to build a narrative that challenges the dominant paradigm that plastic is a necessary evil and is inevitable in “development”. To support this paradigmatic shift, we need to change corporate behaviour and build more zero waste cities, and to work in synergy with other movements that are working to prevent environmental degradation, slow climate change and protect human rights. The BFFP is not just an anti-plastics movement but one that works for environmental and social justice, public health and human rights. Tomorrow we get into key questions that can help us in this work and to begin to build local, regional and international strategies